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Basic Japanese : “Iroha-uta”, line by line – Part 1 –

Date Published: Last Update:2015/04/23 Others

“Iroha-uta” as a poem


- "Iroha-uta" -

I’m going to explain the meaning of the poem in two posts.
As I wrote in the previous post, it is thought to be composed in the Heian era (794 – 1185).

In the major theory, the poem is said to express a doctrine from the Nirvana Sutra.
But the poem can be interpreted in various ways, because it is written in Japanese alphabets.
Some say it has nothing to do with Buddhism, but more common theme.
Some even think it’s from Christianity.
It is quite difficult to define the meaning without Kanji characters, as there are many homonyms in Japanese.

Also, it is assumed that pronunciations and characters were different in the old times.
In this “iroha-uta”, there are no characters with two dots or a small circle, and this makes harder to know the exact meaning.
(Its unknown composer had got no intentions to limit readers’ imaginations by making it clear, maybe?)

The following interpretations of the poem are (I suppose) general, but please note that they are just for reference.
So far (probably for ever), it is impossible to get the absolutely precise or correct explanations.

– About a character with dots or a circle –
For instance, the character for the “Ha” mora:
It is pronounced as “Ba” when it has written with two dots on the right top.
“Pa” with a small circle.


Left to right:
Character "Ha"
With two dots
With a small circle

I don’t know whether there were no sounds like “ba” or “pa” in the old Japanese, or we just hadn’t got the way to write it.

“Iroha-uta”, line by line

In this post, I’m writing about the first two lines.

Line 1

This line is an interpretation of a Buddhism thought, “Nothing is permanent”.

[First half]

Iroha 3

Literal translation:
Although there are scents of colours

Although there are scents of blooming blossoms

[Second half]

Iroha 4

(The blooming blossoms) will be gone.

I myself believed that the meaning of this line is “Although there are (still) scents of blooming blossoms, the blooming blossoms HAVE already gone” because “nuru” from the second phrase is a helping verb to express the perfect tense for the verb “chiru” (“fall out” or “disperse” in English).

However, it seems that this was not a major interpretation, judging from a several websites I found.
Almost all of the websites I saw translated this phrase in the future tense.

Line 2

From a Buddhism thought, “It’s a truth that everything (every being) lives and dies”.

[First half]

Iroha 5

In this world, who on earth

The last part of the phrase, “dare zo” (“dare” means “who”), is generally written as “tare zo” even in the current Japanese version.
However, Kanji character for English “who” is almost always pronounced as “dare” now, so I chose it for the image rather than “tare”.

[Second half]

Iroha 6

Could stay the same forever?

The last character is a part of the words “na(ru)” + “ramu”, and “mu” is now pronounced as “n” in this case.
“Na(ru)ramu” indicates its user’s assumption, like “should be” or “probably”.

Next post : The rest of the poem and a hidden message


Related posts:
#Japanese Alphabet (1: “Gojyuu-on” and “iroha-uta”)
(2: Out-of-use characters)

#“I” in Japanese (1) (2) (3)

#Japanese honorific titles (1:Formal) (2:Casual) (3:In text) (4:Business titles)

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A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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