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The Iroha () 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, K?kai, 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, 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 Konk?my?saishky? Ongi (, 'Readings of Golden Light Sutra') was in seven lines: six with seven morae each, and one with five. It was also written in man'y?gana.


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
? Iro ha nihoheto Iro wa nioedo 1-7 Even the blossoming flowers [Colors are fragrant, but they]
Chirinuru wo Chirinuru o 8-12 Will eventually scatter
Wa ka yo tare so Wa ga yo tare zo 13-18 Who in our world
Tsune naramu ? Tsune naran 19-23 Is unchanging?
? Uwi no okuyama Ui no okuyama 24-30 The deep mountains of karma--
Kefu koete Ky? koete 31-35 We cross them today
? Asaki yume mishi Asaki yume miji 36-42 And we shall not have superficial dreams
Wehi mo sesu Yoi mo sezu 43-47 Nor be deluded.

Note that 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.

Komatsu Hideo has revealed that the last syllable of each line of the Man'y?-gana original (?), when put together, reveals a hidden sentence, toka [=toga] nakute shisu (), which means "die without wrong-doing". It is thought that this might be eulogy in praise of K?kai, further supporting the notion that the Iroha was written after K?kai's death.[2]


The iroha contains every kana only once, with the exception of ? (-n), which was not distinguished from ? 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 () and Genkai () dictionaries, the goj?on (, 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 goj?on predated the iroha, goj?on was considered too scholarly and had not been widely used.

Even after widespread use of goj?on 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).

Current uses

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 (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).

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 ? (i) ? (ro) ? (ha) ? (ni) ? (ho) ? (he) ? (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 (, often in katakana) itself can mean "the basics" in Japanese, comparable to the term "the ABCs" in English. Similarly, iroha no i () means "the most basic element of all". I no ichiban (?, "number one of i") means "the very first".

Iroha karuta, a traditional card game, is still sold as an educational toy.

Irohazaka (?), a one-way switchback mountain road at Nikk?, Tochigi, is named for the poem because it has 48 corners. The route was popular with Buddhist pilgrims on their way to Lake Ch?zenji, 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.

Iroha was used to replace certain images in a bonus mini-game inside of the 1994 game Sonic & Knuckles during development. The images can still be found in the game's files in the final release[3]


Authorship is traditionally ascribed to the Heian era Japanese Buddhist priest and scholar K?kai () (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 ? (e) above would have been pronounced ye, making the pangram incomplete.[4]

It is said[by whom?] 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

Shogy? muj?
Zesh? mepp?
Sh?metsu metsui
Jakumetsu iraku

See also

Other languages



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

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Music Scenes