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:

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

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

One thought on “いろは (iroha) hiragana basics

What do you think?