Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

Did you know that Japanese once only had four colors? A look at the interesting evolution of color vocabulary in the Japanese language.

Colors in Japanese: Not as Black and White as You'd Think

Essay   Posted on January 03, 2019 in colors, language, japanese, history • By Stephanie @ Kotobites • Read Related Articles

In today's post, guest poster Stephanie from the Japanese language learning blog Kotobites offers a fascinating look at the evolution and construction of color in the Japanese language.

For Japanese learners, Learning about colors might not be something you spend a lot of time on, but taking a closer look at the history of colors in Japanese provides a surprisingly deep insight into Japanese culture and history.

The following is a table of common colors which Japanese learners have probably come across:

Japanese Reading in Kana (Romaji) English
赤い あかい (akai) red
黒い くろい (kuroi) black
白い しろい (shiroi) white
むらさき (murasaki) purple
みどり (midori) green
黄色い きいろい (kiiroi) yellow
オレンジ色・橙色 オレンジいろ・だいだいいろ (orenji iro/ daidai iro)
ピンク ピンク (pinku) pink
青い あおい (aoi) blue
茶色い ちゃいろい (chairoi) brown

Nowadays there are plenty of words beyond the ones mentioned above used to describe colors. However, the Japanese language was not always so rich in such vocabulary.

Japan Used to Have Just Four Words for Colors

Traditionally, there were only four words used to describe colors in Japanese. These were red (赤い), black (黒い), white (白い) and blue (青い). You’ll notice that these, along with brown (茶色い) and yellow (黄色い) are the only common colors in Japanese which end in and function as a い-adjective (colors in Japanese otherwise act as a noun, and take the particle when being linked to another noun, such as 紫__の__靴/ むらさきのくつ = purple shoes).

The first three colors 赤い, 黒い and 白い correlate to their English counterparts, however the same is not quite true for 青い.

Does 青い (aoi) mean green or blue?

I gave the English translation of 青い as blue, but actually 青い is often used to describe green colored items too. For example, if you use Google Image Search, searching for 青い will bring up results of things that are mostly blue. However, you will also find that the are pictures of plants and fresh fruit and vegetables, which are definitely green in color. You might also know that 青い is used to describe the "green" traffic light (青信号; ao-shingou).

Looking up 青い in a dictionary often leads to confusing definitions like this, where 青い is described as meaning both green and blue in English.

So you might be wondering why this phenomenon occurs. It isn’t because Japanese people genuinely see green things as blue!

As mentioned earlier, the Japanese language used to have a limited number of words to express colors, and so most green items were described as since there was no separate word for it. The word (みどり/ midori) originally represented the green color of trees and plants, and now its meaning has extended to include green colored objects. This is a very recent development - the use of 緑 to describe green things was only introduced after World War II!

For this reason, there are many instances in which Japanese people still use 青 to describe things that are green:

青汁 (あおじる/aojiru) - a drink made from green leafy vegetables. It is thought to have great health benefits, but doesn’t have a pleasant taste and so is often used as a punishment on game shows in Japan.

青のり (あおのり/aonori) - a type of green seaweed used to flavor dishes such as okonomiyaki and takoyaki.

Similarly, 青 still carries the meaning of "green" as in young or unripe:

青年 (せいねん/ seinen) young man 青春 (せいしゅん/ seishun) youth, adolescence 青りんご (あおりんご/ aoringo) green apple

Prince Shotoku’s Color System

Shotoku Taishi's Cap and Ran Color System
Prince Shotoku's system for rating nobles by colored hats.(Source: Wikipedia)

Born in 574, Shotoku Taishi (聖徳太子), known in English as Prince Shotoku, became a political ruler when his aunt Suiko became the first empress of Japan. He was known for promoting Buddhism and Confucianism, sending a number of envoys to China and building a number of temples including Horyu-ji near Nara. Part of his legacy can also be attributed to the cap-rank system, which brought with it a hierarchy of colors.

In the early 7th century, Prince Shotoku introduced a 12-level ranking system called kan’i juunikai (冠位十二階), which he based on six key Confucian values. Each noble was to wear a hat of a color corresponding to their rank. This system was designed to encourage loyalty to the emperor, since rankings were based on individual merit rather than a family’s status.

Clothes in the colors of the upper ranks were known as 禁色/ kin’iro (forbidden colors), which could only be worn by noblemen. Similarly, 許し色/ yurushiiro (permissible colors) could be worn by common people.

The relative positions of these colors greatly influenced how they are viewed by Japanese people today, and is reflected in the Japanese language through various phrases. Here are a few examples of what some colors signify in Japan.

Red (赤)

Shinto Torii (Gates)
Torii, red gates used to symbolize the separation of the divine realm of a Shinto shrine from the ordinary world.

Symbolizes: celebration, passion

Red is everywhere in Japan, particularly at shrines. This is explained by the fact that red is seen as a color of strength and protection against illness and evil spirits. Red is generally viewed as a color of celebration, commonly seen at weddings and other auspicious events.

The general color for red is 赤 (あか/ aka), but various shades of red have their own special names, including:

 (べに/ beni) is the Japanese name for crimson, a deep red color. The 紅花 (べにばな/ benibana) or safflower plant was used as makeup to dye lips red, which is why the word for lipstick is 口紅 (くちべに/ kuchibeni) in Japanese. This red also appears in 紅葉 (こうよう/ kouyou), the ‘red leaves’ that are typical of autumn in Japan, and 紅茶 (こうちゃ/ koucha), which is the word for black tea.

朱色 (しゅいろ/ shuiro) is known in English as vermillion, which is more of an orangey-red color. This is the shade of red seen at Shinto shrines and torii gates that mark its entrance. It is thought that this particular color is used as the dye mix used to make this paint color is more resistant to decay.

Related Japanese Words/ Phrases

赤の他人 (あかのたにん/ aka no tannin) = complete stranger

赤字 (あかじ/ akaji) = ‘in the red’; in arrears, debt

赤ちゃん (あかちゃん/ akachan) = baby (thought to come from the fact that babies turn red from crying)

赤恥 (あかはじ/ akahaji) = to turn red with embarrassment

赤い糸 (あかいいと/ akai ito) = red thread that connects lovers (in Japan, lovers are thought to be predestined for each other and are connected by a red thread)

This article talks a bit more about the wide ranging importance of red in Japanese culture.

White (白い)

Symbolizes: purity, holiness

The combination of red and white is often used at celebratory occasions such as weddings.

White often appears in words with other colors to show a contrast. For example, the word 紅白 (こうはく/ kouhaku) can be used to indicate two opposing groups, and is in the name of the famous NHK end of year music programme 紅白歌合戦 (こうはくうたがっせん / Kouhaku Uta Gassen), translated as “Red and White Singing Contest” in English.

Related Japanese Words/ Phrases

告白 (こくはく/ kokuhaku) = confession (eg. of feelings, of guilt)

青白い顔 (あおじろいかお/ aoijiroi kao) = pale face

白黒 (しろくろ/ shirokuro) = monochrome, black and white. This word also carries the meaning of right and wrong/ good and evil.

Black (黒い)

Symbolizes: mourning, malice, art

Black was at the bottom of Prince Shotoku’s color system, and so the color was often associated with criminal or malicious activity.

Despite this, black (especially pitch black) was seen as a color of beauty. お歯黒 (おはぐろ/ ohaguro), the practice of dyeing one’s teeth black, was popular among aristocracy and later Japanese women until the government banned it in the late 19th century. Ohaguro was not only a cultural practice but also helped to prevent tooth decay.

Similarly, the character (すみ/ sumi) contains the character for black, and is the black ink color used for calligraphy and sumi-e (Japanese ink painting).

Related Japanese Words/ Phrases

腹黒い (はらぐろい/ haraguroi) = malicious, wicked

黒字 (くろじ/ kuroji) = surplus, being in the black (opposite of 赤字)

ブラック企業 (ブラックきぎょう/ burakku kigyou) = Black companies. Whilst this is a new word that borrows the katakana-ized word for ‘black’, it still carries the same negative connotations as above. Black companies are those that are known for expecting employees to work long hours unpaid and are slow to respond to other issues that affect employees’ welfare, such as harassment.

Purple (紫)

Symbolizes: Nobility

Purple remains a color denoting high status. The kanji for purple appears in many names which reflect this, such as 紫綬褒章 (しじゅほうしょう/ shijuhoushou; Medal of Honour with Purple Ribbon, awarded for academic or artistic achievements), and 紫微垣 (しびえん/ shibien; Purple Forbidden Enclosure, a group of constellations associated with the emperor).

In addition, the phrase 千紫万紅 (せんしばんこう/ senshi bankou; literally a thousand purples, ten thousand reds) is a 4 character saying that means "a multitude of colors".

How Many Colors Should Japanese Learners Know?

Since Shotoku’s system was established, the range of vocabulary used to describe a wider spectrum of colors has rapidly increased. The naming of colors has remained an official process in Japan, with over 500 official colors now existing in Japanese. A lot of these colors take their names from the names of various plants, animals and minerals.

I do not think that knowing hundreds of color names is necessary, but having an awareness of some of the colors introduced in this article isn’t a bad place to start. Although Japanese is abundant in color related vocabulary, there are two aspects which make things a little easier for learners.

Firstly, a number of color names that have been borrowed from English, such as orange (オレンジ), pink (ピンク), green (グリーン) which are often used interchangeably with their Japanese counterparts.

Secondly, there are many commonly used colors named after natural phenomena which have intuitive names:

金色 きんいろ Kin’iro = gold (kin = money, gold)

銀色 ぎんいろ Gin’iro = silver (gin = silver)

水色 みずいろ Mizuiro = light blue (‘water color’)

茶色 ちゃいろ Chairo = brown (‘tea color’)

肌色 はだいろ Hadairo = pink/beige (‘flesh tone’)

灰色 はいいろ Hai’iro = grey (‘ash color’)

桃色 ももいろ Momoiro = pink (‘peach color’)

This means that you can often learn two pieces of vocabulary in one!

Knowing what basic colors symbolize is helpful not only for your vocabulary but also your understanding of Japanese culture - so in the long run, the more you learn, the better!

Stephanie (Steph) is the author of Kotobites, a blog that provides resources for learning the Japanese language.


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