E48 Iroha and Dragonflies


Show Notes for episode 48 of our Podcast – Iroha and Dragonflies.

Story Notes

Iroha Dragonflies

So if I was to ask you what a pangram was, what example could you give? 

If you are an English speaker you may already know of one, even if you didn’t realise such a thing was called a pangram.  

‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,’ would be such a pangram. 

And so a pangram is a sentence in which it manages to use every letter from a given alphabet at least once. Pangram being a Greek word which means ‘every letter.’ 

Now in my research I bought a book on Shūgendo, the folkloristic belief system that has links to the man we have covered called En the Pilgrim.  

Now, this episode does not concern him, or even this faith. But it was in reading this book that I found a Buddhist Monk know as Kūkai. I recognised the name and did a quick search online, and in doing so I saw mention of him composing a poem known as Iroha. Or at least, being attested to having written this poem. 

And that is what I wanted to talk about today, I will leave Kūkai for another day.  

Now not only is Iroha a poem and a pangram, it is more famous as it is a perfect pangram using each syllable only once without repeating, unlike the ‘fox’ sentence mentioned above which re-uses some letters such as ‘e’ and ‘o’. 

The composition of the poem, now that is something of interest, in that it’s original form wasn’t written using hiragana or katakana, nor did it use kanji in the strictest sense. In fact this poem, used something known as man’yōgana. Now in the simplest of explanations, man’yōgana was the use of Chinese kanji, but the difference here was that they stripped them of their meanings and used them instead purely for their sounds. In fact these man’yōgana symbols that were used eventually devolved to become the syllabary/kana system known as katakana and hiragana today. 

So where can we find this pangram first written? Well for that we would need to turn our attention to a document known as the Konkōmyōsaishōōkyō Ongi (金光明最勝王経音義, ‘Readings of Golden Light Sutra’) where it was written in its man’yōgana form (see below) 

Iroha Poem


The poem it appears, was written to look neat and tidy it seems. Each line it written with 7 morae, or sounds, with the final line consisting of 5 for a total of 47 morae.  

However, the poem would not be read in such a way and did follow the general rules of 7-5 syllables when it came to writing Japanese poetry and so would have been read differently to how it appear on paper (see below) 


Now what I want to do is read the poem for Heather now, and see what she hears, not the English, but the sounds themselves. I want to see if she notices any sounds missing, or sounds she doesn’t recognise.  


Iro ha nihoheto 
Chirinuru wo 
Wa ke yo tare 
Tsune naramu 
Uwi no okuyama 
Kefu koete 
Asaki yume mishi 
Wehi me sesu 

If you have been learning Japanese or already know the language then you might have noticed the sounds of ‘we’ and ‘wi’ in there. These characters are now seldom seen except in proper names, and we find now they are not used in the hiragana system, but linger on in katakana through the use of two katakana symbols instead of the original singular symbol. 

And moving onto the sounds that you may have noticed that were missing. There is no ‘n’ character, and from what I found during the research it’s that this symbol did not exist until the early 20th century. Before it was not distinguished from the sound of ‘mu.’ 

Also you might have noticed, there are no g, z, d, b, or p sounds in the poem. Now from what I can tell, the sounds likely did exist back then, and they were used sporadically, however the use of portraying these sounds, I am unsure if they existed and I couldn’t quite figure out the answer, the Iroha poem was written in the 10th century and the 11th century Tale of Genji was written in hiragana so there potentially was already a system in place to show these extra sounds. Now, to get these other sounds you would need to use dashes or circles known as dakuten and handakuten and add them to existing hiragana and katakana symbols to change their sound. K becomes G, S becomes Z, T becomes D and H can become B and P. 

I also found that there is a ‘hidden message’ in the poem, according to Komatsu Hideo who discovered it. Taking the last syllable of each line of the original poem it creates a sentence reading, toka nakute shisu, which means ‘die without wrong-doing. And it is thought this is a form of eulogy to Kukai, which supports the notion he did not in fact write the poem, but it was written after his death. 

Now is there a legacy for this poem? Well there seems to be, Iroha when written in katakana can be used as a way to entitle something as meaning ‘the basics.’  

Trains used to use it, I meant first class, Ro was second, Ha, third. 

Nikko in Tochigo has a road called Irohazaka, named after the poem due to the amount of corners there is on the road. 

And also, music octaves are named I ro ha ni ho he to, following the first seven syllable of the poem.  

Now with all that out of the way, I feel it is time to read the English translation I came across for the poem.  

Even the blossoming flowers 
Will eventually scatter 
Who in our world 
Is unchanging? 
The deep mountains of karma 
We cross them today 
And we shall not have superficial dreams 
Nor be deluded.  

Song Notes

Today’s song is called Aka Tonbo.  

I encountered this song while doing research into Doyo, or children’s songs. I didn’t look deeply into the song at the time, just thought it was lovely and wanted to return to it someday. I remembered it when chatting with Thomas about the podcast and how we had to adjust our plans. The idea I had quickly changed and I recalled this song, tucked away for a different day.  

We often think of children’s songs as light, or with simple meaning. I must confess that is what I assumed, as I had just listened to the song a couple of times, but without the English translation (my current struggle is to understand songs – still so much I don’t know about Japanese, but I’m getting closer everyday!)  

Rofu Miki
Rofu Miki

As I went to look up the song I found – there’s a story.  

In 1989, NHK did a survey to find the most popular “Hometown song” or Furu Sato. This song, Aka tonbo, was rated as the most popular.  

Now, I did ask the professor and he recalled a comedic song about red dragonflies, which I can assure you are not the same thing. (He’s a bit of a jokester, that one. 🙂 

Okay, let’s talk about the people behind the song.  

Rofu Miki was a Japanese poet. Born in 1889 and died in 1964, we are touching again into modern Japanese history. Rofu san wrote for the Red Bird magazine, or Akai Tori, amongst others. He wrote this poem as a reminiscence about his childhood. 

The melody was written by Yosaku Yomada, a classical Japanese composer, born in 1886 and died in 1965. He published his own collection of songs -  100 children’s songs by Yosaku Yomada. Aka tonbo uses a scale called yonanuki chō-onkai  a form of pentatonic scale.  

Yosaku Yomada

We are going to come back to these men, as they really need their own podcast.  

I’m going to sing the first two lines of the song, and I’ll include the link to a soprano on youtube for you to listen to this song by a professional artist. It’s such a lovely song, and it has musical accompaniment.  


The translation from the professor is:
Red dragonfly at sunset 
I am remembering the red dragonfly that I saw while I was being carried on her back.  

The red dragon basically helped him to remember the day he saw a dragonfly while being carried in childhood.

The concept of this song is called “Tsuioku” 追憶 – remembering childhood with abstract emotion, not happy, not sad, not positive not negative. A feeling similar to reminiscence. 

And for those of you wishing to see more of the japanese lyrics, we have them here for you.






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Heavenly Spear