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Basic Japanese : Japanese Alphabetical orders – “Gojyuu-on” and “Iroha-uta”

Date Published: Last Update:2015/04/17 Others , , , ,

General Info : Japanese Alphabetical orders

There are two patterns of Japanese Alphabetical orders.

One starts with “A”, “I”, “U”.
This is now used at school to learn Japanese Alphabets, Hiragana and Katakana.
Known as “Gojyuu-on” (lit. “fifty sounds”).

The other starts with “I”, “Ro”, “Ha”.
Probably this was more commonly used before.
Known as “Iroha-uta” (lit. “iroha song”).


It’s a chart of Japanese Alphabet consisting of ten rows with five characters each.
A mora “n” is not included to the number.
Although it is called “fifty sounds”, but actual number of the present one is only 45.
Three of them are redundant (the gray characters in the image above), and two are not used any more (the red ones in the image).

This “gojyuu-on” may be much easier to learn each sound than “iroha-uta”, because it’s a phonetically organised chart.
The first row is a group of vowels, “a”, “i”, “u”, “e”, “o”.
The second is a combination of “k” and each vowel.
Perhaps the reason why “n” is not counted is because it is out of this rule.


As a matter of fact, I felt this “gojyuu-on” was rather new to compare with “iroha-uta”.
However, according to a book entitled “History of Gojyuu-on Chart” published in 1938, its precise origin is not known, there even seems to have been a theory claiming it came from god in the mythical period.

Now it is considered to originate in the middle of the Heian period (794 – 1185).
The oldest existent Japanese fifty-morae chart dates from the 11th century.

[The redundant characters]

The gray ones in the chart are twice-used.
Some tried to use Kanji characters in cursive script for those, but obviously this attempt didn’t succeed, given the fact that they are generally omitted from the chart now.

According to the rule of the combination, they should be pronounced as “yi”, “ye” and “wu” respectively.
However, unlike the red characters, it is supposed that these never had their own pronunciations.
Maybe their sounds were too similar to vowels, “i”, “e” and “u”.


It’s a “waka”, Japanese traditional poem, using every Japanese alphabet only once, again excluding the mora “n”.
(In the image above, “n” is shown as the last character, but it’s not a part of the poem.)

This is thought to be composed around the late 10th century or 11th.
The oldest existent document is the book entitled “Konkou-myou saisyou-ou-kyou ongi” (or “Konko-myo saisho-o-kyo ongi”) in 1079.

The last word of the very long title, “ongi”, means “(a book to explain) the meanings and pronunciations of Kanji characters (in a sutra)”.
The rest of the title, “Konkou…”, literally means “The sutra of the most victorious kings of the golden light”.

It’s a guidebook for a Buddhist sutra, and it contains not only “iroha”* but also “gojyuu-on”, although its row order is different from the present one.

*It’s written in Kanji characters which have the same sound as Hiragana or Katakana.
The Alphabet written in Kanji is called as “Manyou-gana”.
It is used heavily in the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry entitled “Manyou-shuu” (twenty volumes in total, assumedly completed in the end of eighth century).

We don’t use an “iroha” chart to learn Alphabets at school any more, but I guess that it is still very familiar and most of Japanese memorise it.
A Japanese word for “the ABCs (of something)” is “iroha”, never “aiu”.

Also, there is a card game called “iroha-garuta”.
There is a “gojyuu-on” card game, but I believe “iroha” one is much more common and has longer history.

Next Post: Out-of-use characters


Related posts:
#“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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