The Iroha (いろは) is a Japanese poem, probably written in the Heian era (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. The first record of its existence dates from 1079. It is famous because it is a perfect pangram, containing each character of the Japanese syllabary exactly once. Because of this, it is also used as an ordering for the syllabary, in the same way as the A, B, C, D... sequence of the Latin alphabet.
The first appearance of the Iroha, in Konkōmyōsaishōōkyō Ongi (金光明最勝王経音義, 'Readings of Golden Light Sutra') 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 ゐ and ゑ 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 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||Yoi mo sezu||43–47||Nor be deluded.|
Note that archaic hiragana uses ゐ and ゑ, 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.
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.
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.
The iroha contains every kana only once, with the exception of ん (-n), which was not distinguished from む mu in writing until the early 20th century (see Japanese script reform). For this reason, the poem was frequently used as an ordering of the kana until the Meiji era reforms in the 19th century. Around 1890, with the publication of the Wakun no Shiori (和訓栞) and Genkai (言海) dictionaries, 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 earliest known copy of the gojūon predated the iroha, gojūon was considered too scholarly and had not been widely used.
Even after widespread use of gojūon in education and dictionaries, the iroha sequence was commonly used as a system of showing order, just like a, b, c... in English.
For example, Imperial Japanese Navy submarines during the Second World War had official designations beginning with I (displacement 1,000 tonnes or more), Ro (500 to 999 tonnes), and Ha (less than 500 tonnes). Also, Japanese tanks had official designations partly using iroha, such as Chi-ha (ha meaning the third model). Other examples include subsection ordering in documents, seat numbering in theaters, and showing go moves in diagrams (kifu).
The iroha sequence is still used today in many areas with long traditions.
Most notably, Japanese laws and regulations officially use iroha for lower-level subsection ordering purposes, for example 第四十九条第二項第一号ロ (Article 49, Section 2, Subsection 1-ro). In official translation to English, i, ro, ha... are replaced by a, b, c... as in 49(2)(i)(b).
|Japanese||イ (i)||ロ (ro)||ハ (ha)||ニ (ni)||ホ (ho)||ヘ (he)||ト (to)|
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).
Some Japanese expressions need knowledge of iroha to understand. The word iroha (イロハ, often in katakana) itself can mean "the basics" in Japanese, comparable to the term "the ABCs" in English. Similarly, iroha no i (イロハのイ) means "the most basic element of all". I no ichiban (いの一番, "number one of i") means "the very first".
Iroha karuta, a traditional card game, is still sold as an educational toy.
Irohazaka (いろは坂), a one-way switchback mountain road at Nikkō, Tochigi, is named for the poem because it has 48 corners. The route was popular with Buddhist pilgrims on their way to Lake Chūzenji, 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.
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.
which translates into
The above in Japanese is read