Shimadzu Iroha-no-uta - Part 1

Kagoshima wisdom passed down among the samurai of Satsuma for over 300 years

shimazu shimadzu crest

The Shimadzu Iroha-no-uta is a collection of short poems written by Shimadzu Tadayoshi in the mid-1500s.

Also known as the Jisshin-ko Iroha-no-uta, these 47 precepts each beginning with a letter of the traditional Japanese alphabet were used to educate the samurai of Satsuma province in basic morals for over 300 years.

The Iroha-no-uta is still widely taught here in Kagoshima today and at some kindergartens children as young as five still learn to repeat the whole canon.

mossy stone steps leading away from garden

 いにしへの道を聞きても唱へても わが行に せずばかひなし

Listening to or repeating the wisdom of old is useless without action.

It is interesting that the first precept in this collection cautions against the meaningless memorization and repetition of ancient knowledge. Tadayoshi clearly intended for his teachings to be implemented instead of merely being pondered for self-satisfaction. This should be kept in mind when studying the remaining 46 precepts.

 楼の上もはにふの小屋も住む人の 心にこそは 高きいやしき

Both the man who lives in a grand mansion, and he who lives in a squalid shack may own a palace in their hearts.

Outward appearances, class and wealth are unimportant compared to a correct heart and mind.

Shimadzu crest and books

 はかなくも明日の命を頼むかな 今日も今日と 学びをばせで

Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can achieve today. Make learning an everyday pursuit.

Don’t put off tasks until later that can be completed today. We should not forget that learning is something that we should focus on every day.

 似たるこそ友としよけれ交らば 我にます人 おとなしきひと

Those who resemble you in character make good friends but associate with superior men to better yourself.

While people who are like us in character might make good friends and entertaining conversation, we should strive to aim higher and socialize with refined and intelligent people to better ourselves.

Oniwa Shrine

 仏神他にましまさず人よりも 心に恥ぢよ 天地よく知る

Gods and Buddhas reside in the heart, nowhere else. Feel shame for your wrongdoings for heaven sees all.

Even if we think no one is watching heaven will see all of our wrongdoings. Since the Gods and Buddhas actually exist in our hearts, we should know that our actions are wrong and feel shame even without being told.

 下手ぞとて我とゆるすな稽古だに つもらばちりも やまとことのは

Do not let your lack of skill diminish your will to practice. Even dust when piled up becomes a mountain.

We should never become lax in our practice of the arts just because we feel unskilled or that we are not progressing. Even the tiniest improvements will give spectacular results over time.

jigen ryu sword

 とがありて人を斬るとも軽くすな 活かす刀も ただ一つなり

Do not think lightly of cutting a man down, even a guilty criminal. There is only one chance to wield the sword that gives life.

While appropriate punishment for wrongdoing is important it is vital to think deeply before taking a life. Leniency should be considered, as there is only one chance to take or spare a life.

Part two of the Iroha-no-uta can be found here.

Alex Bradshaw

Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.

He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.