The gojūon is a Japanese ordering of kana named for the 5×10 grid in which the characters are displayed. Each kana corresponds to one sound in the Japanese language. Today I learned about いろは (iroha) a different way to learn Hiragana than the gojūon (五十音) ordering I learned in my Japanese class, where the characters are displayed in a grid. It makes sense to teach that way since it is easy to see which share same beginning (consonant) sound or ending (vowel) sound.

However, I knew the characters once and wanted to make my study session more interesting. I had forgotten about half the characters since first studying Japanese four years ago and wanted to review using actual words. If I could learn the characters with the context of real language then I could learn vocabulary at the same time. I wondered if there were a “quick brown fox” (pangram) for Hiragana.

I quickly found いろは (iroha) an ancient Japanese poem:


This poem not just an arcane bit of trivia, but a real ABCs of Japanese, where the ordering from the poem is still used today. I found a wonderful video What is “いろは iroha”? that tells the story of this word which means “basic” or “fundamental” in Japanese. I learned that the first 7 characters are used for musical notes (the way we use A-G, in Japanese they use いろはにほへと. I read elsewhere that theater seats are often ordered this way.

I realized that if I could learn this poem, I would also learn other useful aspects of the Japanese language and a glimpse of the culture as well. I wanted to hear it while I studied, and found answers via my new twitter friend Charelle Collett (@Charcol1900)

Here’s someone singing it in a child-like ABCs — no idea what the words on the right are, but this is the very clear to follow along and practice reading while hearing the characters pronounced:

and here’s Hatsune Miku (Vocal software) singing it:

This second one is really interesting since it also shows the evolution of early Japanese script into modern Hiragana and then shows some more variants — here’s some detail on the first three.

  1. Man’yōgana: an ancient writing system that employs Chinese characters to represent the Japanese language
  2. Chinese Cursive Script from which Hiragana evolved
  3. Modern Hiragana