Welcome to Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Blog where we provide you with the tools you need to lean or dabble in Japanese language and culture.
We recommend that if you haven’t already, you read our articles about Japanese ‘Alphabetical’ Order and if you have no idea what these squiggles are, How do you write in Japanese is the article for you. But, if you’ve already read our explanation on Japanese ‘Alphabetical’ Order, or you’ve just come across our iroha chart page, then you’re in luck! Below, we have our 素敵な computer assistant, QUIZBO™, here with a proper look at the Japanese 伊呂波 , iroha, order.
So, basically, iroha can be thought of in a few different ways, one is the Japanese version of alphabetical order and the other is as a pangramatic poem. Today, we’re focused on the former, but it’s important to know a little bit about the latter.
While we said that this is considered alphabetical order in the sense of Japanese language, this is actually the lesser used but more traditional form. But, we cover more about the benefits of the main alternative, 五十音 , gojyuuon, in our article on Japanese ‘Alphabetical’ Order.
You’ll notice that we wrote, iroha, as 伊呂波 rather than いろは using its kanji which in this case is what’s called 万葉仮名, man’yougana, which we’ll explain in another article more thoroughly, but for now, you can just think of it as traditional Japanese before hiragana and katakana that borrowed random unregulated Chinese characters to sound out words. That’s why if you see 伊呂波 —which would usually be written いろは or イロハ— unlike other characters written with kanji, it’s literally meaningless this way. That’s right, it’s like your English cousin’s kanji tattoo that’s supposed to say their name, but actually says something like That one backbone wave— which is the loose translation of the kanji in iroha. But! That’s not to say that this method doesn’t work fully. We’ll get into this topic more at another time; but, there are many times that assigning kanji to a name by sound works out perfectly well, and that’s when the meaning of each kanji is taken into account as well as what each kanji could mean when combined. So, this isn’t the wild west, err, the ancient east, of writing anymore where man’yougana of random kanji can be used together without a second glance. So, just always stay careful.
But, anyway! In short, 伊呂波, iroha, is basically a Japanese pangramatic poem that uses every Japanese syllable, or for this case, every kana. Pangrams are passages or sentences that use every letter from the alphabet. One you might recognise, especially in downloading English fonts, would be The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. It’s not just a sentence written by someone who really likes foxes who wanted to perpetuate their love of foxes throughout the internet, the sentence serves the purpose of seeing each letter in one discerable passage. This is basically the same as what iroha, does— This was first found in a Heian era collection of passages, thought to perhaps be in honour or eulogy to the founder of Shingon Buddhism due to many factors including the secret hidden message from the last syllable of each line that says とかなくてしす or 咎無くて死すmeaning in an archaic way, to die without sin. Interesting, though, innit? We fancy a cipher or a hidden messages here, so we figured we’d include that neat little trivia.
When someone who’s new to Japanese tries to read iroha, the meaning might not be very apparent because this is written in an archaic form of Japanese that sounds very different to modern Japanese. Reading the literal translation might not be helpful to a beginner, but here’s the modernised writing of iroha which uses modern kanji. We’ve included the original readings and dakuten for voicing which will be covered in another lesson.
Even though this isn’t a philosophy class, culturally, it’s useful to at least get the theme across. While, again, we could translate it verbatim, but there’s so much nuance that would be missed. We think that Professor Ryuichi Abe’s translation fits the feeling of the poem when trying to understand it from an English viewpoint.
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.
Of course, iroha isn’t just a poem, pangram, or form of alphabetical/syllabic order, it’s a useful and very important part of learning and culture, even if—from a linguistic standpoint—it lacks the order that we see in the ubiquitous gojyuuon—which is why it makes learning Japanese quite a bit easier when you use gojyuuon. But, again, there’s many places where iroha is used which we’ll dive into in another article.
We hope this helped you in your Japanese learning journey, or if you at least learned something fun and interesting today to expand your horizons!
Have whatever kind of day you need, friends~