From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For other uses, see Iroha (disambiguation).

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.


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.


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 o 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 tare 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 karma--
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 have superficial dreams
ゑひもせす Wehi mo sesu 酔ひもせず Ei mo sezu. 43 - 47 Nor be deluded.


  1. Archaic hiragana uses and , which are now only used in proper names and 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[2] 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.[2]


The iroha contains every kana only once, with the exception of ん [-n], which was not distinguished from む "mu" in writing. 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[3] 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 the conventional train cars of Japanese National Railways (now known as JR). I is first class (no longer used), Ro is second class (now "Green car") and Ha is third class (standard carriages).

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.

Irohazaka, a 1-way switchback mountain road (there are 2 separate roads; up and down), located at Nikko, Tochigi is named after the poem due to the road consisting of 48 corners. This road plays a significant role in Japanese history: The route was popular with Buddhist pilgrims on their way to Lake Chuzenji, which is at the top of the forested hill that this road climbs. While the narrow road has been modernized over the years, care has been taken to keep the number of curves constant.

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


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.[4]

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


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]


  1. ^ Abe (1999), pp. 392, 398
  2. ^ a b Abe (1999), p. 398
  3. ^ 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.)
  4. ^ Abe (1999), p. 392


  • Abe, Ryuichi (1999). The Weaving of Mantra: Kûkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11286-6.