Japanese could be a better language to make a pangram. Every single hiragana character contains a vowel, so we don’t have to worry about a row of consonants. On the other hand, in English, we always have to think how to use vowel sounds effectively. Or perhaps, I should say, we have to think how to save vowels as many as possible.
Anyway, in this blog post, I will focus on this Japanese traditional poem and its meaning. Let’s take a closer look at the poem itself.
- Overview of the iroha poem
- Meaning of the iroha poem
- And the rest
- Appendix: when to use
Overview of the iroha poemBelow is the iroha poem itself.
I’d like to explain a meaning of each line and then introduce a piece of the idea behind this poem to you. But, before doing that, again I have to point out that this pangram is more than just amazing. This poem shows us how hiragana characters are different from English alphabets.
As I already mentioned, every single hiragana character contains a vowel. Therefore, making a pangram with Japanese hiragana is much easier than doing the same thing with English alphabets. However, we need to be aware that the number of hiragana is almost double that of alphabets. If the number of alphabets were doubled, making a pangram with them would not be possible. We would be short of vowels. So, in a way, hiragana can make the impossible possible thanks to the trait.
Meaning of the iroha poemTo be honest, it’s very difficult even for Japanese native speakers to understand the iroha poem, almost all of them can recite it though.
The poem itself was made approximately a thousand years ago. All we can do today is assuming what is the intention behind each line of the poem. It could be something religious, and it would be very different from what Japanese people think today. Anyhow I will give it a try. In the next paragraphs, I will focus on meanings of four lines of the poem.
The first lineBelow is the first line of the iroha poem.
The second lineBelow is the second line.
Its translation would be;
The third lineBelow is the third line.
In English, the third line could be;
The word, “uwi 有為 (うゐ)”, originally comes from Buddhism and means, say, karma of human beings. Here, “the deep mountain” is a metaphor for the accumulated karma.
Then, let’s move to the latter part, “I will cross it today”. Here, “it” seems to be the accumulated karma which I mentioned above. Therefore, to cross it can be understood as to reach to the place which is free from karma of human beings.
Then both parts come together and mean today I will reach to the place which is free from the accumulated karma of human beings. This is the third line.
The last lineBelow is the last line.
The last, weimosesu, or its kanji and hiragana mixed expression, weimosezu, means unless I’m drunk or while I’m not drunk.
From these translations above, the last line could mean I will not have a paper dream unless I’m drunk.
The iroha poem in EnglishThen all comes together.
And the restIn the last paragraphs, I explained the meaning of the iroha poem. In this paragraph, I’d like to add some additional information of the poem.
Again, the iroha poem is a pangram. This is clear as shown above. Nevertheless, there is a room for further discussion whether the poem has been always a pangram since it was created approximately a thousand years ago. I mean, possibility that the number of hiragana characters has been changing as time goes by. I cannot say how many hiragana characters existed when the poem was created. However, I can make an assumption from the experience.
Today, Japanese native speakers usually use only 44 out of 47 characters in principal. So, in a way, 3 hiragana characters are dying now slowly but gradually. From this fact, I can assume that there would be a trend where a hiragana writing system has been simplified as time goes by. In addition to this, I can assume that at the point of time the poem was created, the number of characters was bigger than 47.
This is all I can say here about the iroha poem. I hope it’s understandable and helpful to feel a piece of Japanese thought behind.
Appendix: when to useAs I explained, the poem itself is very old. So most probably some of you think this is just an old literary topic. In reality, however, the iroha poem is still widely in use today. It’s amazing, isn’t it? Then a question arises naturally. When do Japanese people use such an old poem?
To tell the truth, the iroha poem is inseparable from itemizations in Japanese. Characters used in the poem are utilized for them in exactly the same way as English alphabets are. For this kind of itemization, hiragana or katakana characters are used in the order of the iroha poem. Japanese people usually call this order “iroha jun いろは順(いろはじゅん)”. As you may guess, this order is significantly familiar to Japanese people, so it is often used without any notice. This would be very surprising and confusing to Japanese learners. Most probably they cannot understand why an itemization starts with the second hiragana character, “i い”, instead of the first one, “a あ”. Sorry for the inconvenience, but the impressive pangram works behind. Now everything is clear.
By the way, please take a look at an example of an itemization in the iroha order.
- い) りんご blah blah
- ろ) バナナ blah
- は) さくらんぼ blah blah
- に) …
Japanese Particles Master
Masaki Mori is a Japanese particles master. Through teaching Japanese language, he is trying to spread the culture of Japan. His goal is to preserve it as much as possible.