The “Iroha”

What is special about the following Japanese poem?

いろはにほへと
ちりぬるを
わかよたれそ
つねならむ
うゐのおくやま
けふこえて
あさきゆめみし
ゑひもせす

One thing that jumps out might be that it uses a couple of obsolete characters ゐ and ゑ… Well, that’s a clue to the bigger point!

Here’s another clue: The word いろは (“iroha”) can mean “the basics” in Japanese, similar to how we say “the ABCs”.

And one final clue: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”.

(Or, actually, in the sense I am alluding to, The Iroha is closer to a sentence such as: “Mr. Jock, TV quiz PhD, bags few lynx”.)

Did you figure it out?

The poem contains all the characters in hiragana (the most common of the two/three/four phonetic symbol systems in Japanese) once and only once. As a writing and speaking drill it makes a change from the modern hiragana table. Indeed, the ordering in this poem was the old form of ordering the hiragana, and is still used in some contexts, such as numbering theatre seats.

Actually, there is one hiragana missing: the “-n” sound ん, which was written with the “mu” sound む at the time (about 1000 years ago).

Here is an English translation by Professor Ryuichi Abe:

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.

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