What is the iroha poem?The iroha poem, in Japanese iroha uta – いろは歌 (いろはうた), was created approximately 1000 years ago by using one of each Japanese hiragana character. So, in other words, the iroha poem is a pangram made of hiragana. For English alphabets, “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is famous for a kind of pangram. In Japanese the iroha poem is it.
The Japanese language is suitable for making pangrams. 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 traditional Japanese 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.
As you can see here, I wrote each line three times in different writing systems. First, in alphabet, second, in a kanji and hiragana mixed system, and then in hiragana as shown in parentheses. The mixed system is not only more natural than the others, but also very helpful for us to understand the meaning of this poem clearly.
I’d like to explain the meaning of each line first. And then, I will also explain the idea behind this poem. Before these explanations, let me point out again that this pangram is more than just amazing. It shows clearly how hiragana characters are different from English alphabets.
As I already mentioned, every single hiragana character contains a vowel. So, making a pangram with 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 poemHonestly, it’s very difficult even for Japanese native speakers to understand the iroha poem, almost all of them can recite it though.
Again, but the poem itself was made approximately a thousand years ago. So, all we can do today is assume what is the intention behind each line of it. 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 the meaning of each line of the poem.
The first lineBelow is the first line of the iroha poem.
Its translation would be;
A meaning of its former part, “colors are fragrant”, would be unclear. But if you have a good intuition, you can guess that “colors are fragrant” is a metaphor for flowers in bloom. And, actually, it is. Unless flowers in bloom, they cannot be fragrant. Now we can understand this line as follows.
An author of the poem tried to express the impermanence of lives. Even flowers which make us feel that they could stay beautiful forever end their lives and then scatter.
The second lineBelow is the second line.
In general, “mu む” in classical literature is, today, pronounced “n ん” instead. So the expressions in alphabet and hiragana are not completely the same. Yet, we don’t have to pay special attention to their difference here.
Its translation would be;
I believe that this line is understandable without any additional explanation. Apparently, at the time when Japanese people created this poem, they thought that it would be incredibly difficult for everyone to stay gold forever. Probably, they watched a lot of those who were in power replaced, purged or killed by traitors, pretenders and so forth. The second line helps to stress the meaning of the first line above. “Flowers” are a metaphor for those who are in power. Nobody will stay gold forever like no flower will stay in bloom forever.
The third lineBelow is the third line.
“Kefu けふ” in classical literature is today pronounced “kyou きょう” instead. This is very similar to the rule of the “mu む” pronunciation explained above.
In English, the third line could be;
Most probably, it’s all Greek to you. It’s actually an English sentence, though. First let’s think about the former part of it which is an explanation for the mountain. In Japan, there is no mountain called Uwi. So, what does this part mean? It doesn’t seem to mean to cross the mountain really.
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.
This line can be broken down into three, so asakiyume, mishi and weimosesu. The first one, asakiyume, means a shallow dream or even a paper dream. The second, mishi, which is written as miji in a kanji and hiragana mixed style means, I will not dream. Thus first two parts means, say, I will not have a paper dream.
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.
To be honest, these expressions are way too religious and hard to understand even for Japanese native speakers, but here we can assume that “I” is getting free from something bothering him/her (perhaps he/she is dying) or that “I” is just getting heavily drunk and is somewhere in between the real and unreal world. The former assumption would fit better with the original Japanese meaning, I think.
And the restIn the last paragraphs, I explained the meaning of the iroha poem. In the next paragraphs, I’d like to explain some additional information.
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 that there is a 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 now dying 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. So, honestly, I don’t believe that it has been always a pangram since it was made.
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 that this is just an old literary topic. In reality, however, the iroha poem is still 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) …