Iroha

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The Iroha (いろは?) is a Japanese poem, probably written in the Heian era (AD 794–1179). Originally the poem was attributed to the founder of the Shingon Esoteric sect of Buddhism in Japan, Kūkai, but more modern research has found the date of composition to be later in the Heian Period.[1] The first record of its existence dates from 1079. It is famous because it is a perfect pangram (and in the same time an isogram), containing each character of the Japanese syllabary exactly once. Because of this, it is also used as an ordering for the syllabary, in much the same way that the A, B, C, D... sequence traces its origin back to the Phoenician alphabet and its Semitic predecessors.

Text[edit]

The first appearance of the Iroha, in Konkōmyōsaishōōkyō Ongi (金光明最勝王経音義?), was in seven lines: six with seven morae each, and one with five. It was also written in man'yōgana.

以呂波耳本部止

千利奴流乎和加
餘多連曽津祢那
良牟有為能於久
耶万計不己衣天
阿佐伎喩女美之
恵比毛勢須

Structurally, however, the poem follows the standard 7-5 pattern of Japanese poetry (with one hypometric line), and in modern times it is generally written that way, in contexts where line breaks are used. The text of the poem in hiragana (with archaic and but without voiced consonant marks) is:

Archaic Modern Ordering (see usage) Translation
hiragana transliteration kanji and hiragana pronunciation numbers
いろはにほへと Iro ha nihoheto 色は匂へど Iro wa nioedo 1 - 7 Even the blossoming flowers [Colors are fragrant, but they]
ちりぬるを Chirinuru wo 散りぬるを Chirinuru o 8 - 12 Will eventually scatter
わかよたれそ Wa ka yo tare so 我が世誰ぞ Wa ga yo dare zo 13 - 18 Who in our world
つねならむ Tsune naramu 常ならん Tsune naran 19 - 23 Is unchanging?
うゐのおくやま Uwi no okuyama 有為の奥山 Ui no okuyama 24 - 30 The deep mountains of vanity--
けふこえて Kefu koete 今日越えて Kyō koete 31 - 35 We cross them today
あさきゆめみし Asaki yume mishi 浅き夢見じ Asaki yume miji 36 - 42 And we shall not see superficial dreams
ゑひもせす Wehi mo sesu 酔ひもせず Ei mo sezu. 43 - 47 Nor be deluded.

Notes:

  1. Archaic hiragana uses ゐ and ゑ, which are now only used in certain Okinawan orthographies. Modern writing uses voiced consonant marks (with dakuten.) This is used as an indicator of sound changes in the spoken Japanese language in the Heian era.

An English translation by Professor Ryuichi Abe[1] reads as:

Although its scent still lingers on
the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.


Research by Komatsu Hideo has revealed that the last syllable of each line of the Man'yō-gana original (止加那久天之須), when put together, reveals a hidden sentence, toka [=toga] nakute shisu (咎無くて死す), which means "die without wrong-doing". It is thought that this might be eulogy in praise of Kūkai, further supporting the notion that the Iroha was written after Kūkai's death.[1]

Usage[edit]

The iroha contains every kana once, with the exception of ん [-n], which was written む "mu" at the time. For this reason, the poem was frequently used as an ordering of the kana until the Meiji era reforms in the 19th century. Thereafter the gojūon (五十音, literally "fifty sounds") ordering system, which is based on Sanskrit, became more common. It begins with "a, i, u, e, o" then "ka, ki, ku..." and so on for each kana used in Japanese. Although the iroha is often considered "old fashioned" the earliest known copy of the gojūon predates the iroha.

The iroha is still occasionally encountered in modern Japan. For example, it is used for seat numbering in theaters, and (from right to left) across the top of Go game diagrams (kifu), as in Yasunari Kawabata's novel The Master of Go (Meijin). Western go game diagrams use either letters or letters and numbers. In music, the notes of an octave are named i ro ha ni ho he to, written in katakana.

Musical Notes
English A B C D E F G
Japanese イ (i) ロ (ro) ハ (ha) ニ (ni) ホ (ho) ヘ (he) ト (to)

The word いろは (iroha) can also be used to mean "the basics" in Japanese, comparable to the term "the ABCs".

Although the Japanese employ the heavenly stems for rank order besides both the Chinese and Arabic numerals as well as the Latin alphabet, the iroha sequence was used to note the rank of submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Second World War. All long-range submarines had designations beginning with "I" (e.g., the largest submarine had "I400" painted on its conning tower), coastal submarines began with "Ro", and training or marginally usable submarines had "Ha".

Japanese weapons made before 1945 were numbered in series with the original poem—refer to Military Rifles of Japan, 1897–1945 by Honeycutt and Anthony[2] for examples of this practice. It is not known today if this was done out of respect for custom, or for reasons of military security or secrecy. Beginning with the second production of the Type 38 rifle, i.e.: after they produced the first 1,000,000 rifles, the Japanese Koishikawa Arsenal began with series "I" and continued until the Type 38 was replaced by the improved Type 99 (in 1939). The rifles were made in blocks of 100,000 each, before changing the kana symbol to the next in order of the poem.

This practice apparently started after the great Tokyo earthquake of 1923, when the Tokyo Arsenal was almost totally destroyed and production was moved to the Kokura and Nagoya Arsenals.

The weapons affected by this, among others, were the Type 38 rifle, the Type 38 carbine, the Type 44 carbine, and certain machine guns, all in 6.5×50mm Arisaka caliber. After 1939, when the caliber was increased to 7.7 mm, the weapons numbered with this system included the Type 99 long and short rifles, and the Type 0 and Type 2 paratrooper rifles. Handguns were made under a different system, involving subcontractors and private purchases by Japanese officers.

Iroha is also used in numbering the classes of train car for Japanese National Railways (now known as JR). I is first class, Ro is second class and Ha is third class.

The original arcade release of Guwange allowed high scorers to enter their names in hiragana by selecting them from the onscreen poem, in keeping with the game's Muromachi period setting.

In the anime movie Initial D Third Stage, there is a series of downhill races held at the first Irohazaka, the home course of Team Emperor, located in Nikko, Tochigi. In one of the races, Kai Kogashiwa, driving a second generation Toyota MR2 G-Limited, overtook Takumi Fujiwara, driving an AE86 Toyota Sprinter Trueno GT-Apex, by taking a shortcut at the ko hairpin; only to be overtaken by Takumi at the a, sa, ki, and yu hairpin shortcuts.

Finally, iroha is frequently used as a design motif, as in the stencil-dyed works of the late Serizawa Keisuke.

Origin[edit]

Authorship is traditionally ascribed to the Heian era Japanese Buddhist priest and scholar Kūkai (空海) (774–835). However, this is unlikely as it is believed that in his time there were separate e sounds in the a and ya columns of the kana table. The え (e) above would have been pronounced ye, making the pangram incomplete.[1]

It is said[who?] that the iroha is a transformation of these verses in the Nirvana Sutra:

諸行無常
是生滅法
生滅滅已
寂滅為楽

which translates into

All acts are impermanent
That's the law of creation and destruction.
When all creation and destruction are extinguished
That ultimate stillness (nirvana) is true bliss.

The above in Japanese is read

Shogyō mujō
Zeshō meppō
Shōmetsu metsui
Jakumetsu iraku .

See also[edit]

Other languages[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kûkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. pp. 392, 398. ISBN 0-231-11286-6. 
  2. ^ Honeycutt, Fred L., and F. Patt Anthony. Military Rifles of Japan, 1897–1945. [Lake Park, Fla.]: Honeycutt, 1977. (Fifth edition: Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.: Julin Books, 1996. ISBN 978-0-9623208-7-3.)

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