sci.lang.japan FAQ / 1. Writing / 1.1. and

1.1.6. How does the i-ro-ha ordering go?

A mouse mat with an "iroha" pattern

The iroha (いろは) ordering is a kana ordering based around a Buddhist poem which contains each of the Japanese syllables exactly once. This ordering is still used today, and it is not unusual to see items numbered i, ro, ha where English would use A, B, C, etc. However, in dictionaries and other lists of words, it is much less common nowadays than the more regular gojūon ordering. (See 1.1.5. What is the origin of the kana ordering?)

There are several different versions of the ordering corresponding to different versions of the poem. The most common one is
i ro ha ni ho he to
chi ri nu ru (w)o
wa ka yo ta re so
tsu ne na ra mu
u (w)i no o ku ya ma
ke fu ko e te
a sa ki yu me mi shi
(w)e hi mo se su (n)

Andrew Nelson gives the following explanation of the poem underlying this ordering:[1]

Colors are fragrant, but they fade away. In this world of ours none lasts forever. Today cross the high mountain of life's illusions [i.e., rise above this physical world], and there will be no more shallow dreaming, no more drunkenness.
To get that meaning, however, you need to read it as
Iro wa nioedo
Chirinuru o
Waga yo tare zo
Tsune naran
Ui no okuyama
Kyō koete
Asaki yume miji
Ei mo sezu.

References

  1. Nelson, Andrew (1974). Japanese-English Character Dictionary. Page 1014

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