Color is closely, and often imperceptibly, intertwined with Japanese language and culture – but to see how and why, we have to dig a little deeper into the history of Japan.
The earliest written history of Japan, which was a mix of fact and mythology, mentions the four oldest color terms in the Japanese language: aka (赤) or red, kuro (黒) or black, shiro (白) or white, and ao (青) or blue. However, it has been proposed that these terms originally referred to the contrasting optical sensations of light and dark, clear and vague.
Have you ever wondered why Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, symbolizes itself as such using a red circle? If aka originally meant light, then quite naturally the Japanese would choose red to symbolize the brilliant sun – quite unlike the yellow or orange used by most other cultures (Korea being one notable exception).
With time, these ancient color terms evolved to have the red, black, white and blue meanings in use today (as well as acquiring other symbolic meanings, which we’ll get to later). However, traces of the original four colors persist in modern Japanese. Most proverbs and surnames that mention color, for example, often involve these four colors. Additionally, only these four colors can be prefixed with the “pure” and “genuine” ma (真), to give us makka (真っ赤) or bright red, makkuro (真っ黒) or pitch black, masshiro (真っ白) or pure white, and massao (真っ青) or deep blue.
Similarly, the original ambiguity of ao appears to have stood the test of time. A vague, overlapping, blue-green color band, termed “grue” in anthropological lingo, may be used to describe the bluish-green (or greenish-blue?) of ao – which is notorious for causing the Western confusion between aoshingou (青信号) and “green traffic light,” and aonegi (青ネギ) and “green spring onion.”
Colors as Symbols
As a civilization develops, so does its notion of religion, social classes, job specialization, and the like. Many cultures have attached meaning to colors that relate to these, and Japan is no different.
Red came to be associated with authority and wealth, as attested to by red-sheathed samurai swords and ornamental combs. It also has ties to religion, as demonstrated by the red torii (鳥居) of Shinto shrines, whose shrine maidens are traditionally clad in red hakama (袴). White is godly and pure; sacred places are strung with shimenawa (注連縄) festooned with white shide (紙垂), or strewn with white pebbles or sand. Black exudes dignity and formality, and is used for the robes of Buddhist monks, as well as for montsuki (紋付), the kimono that bears the family crest.
Have you noticed that three of the four original colors have some link to religion? Blue, however, has strictly secular connotations. One theory is that because the Japanese never worshiped an all-powerful god dwelling in heaven above, blue never became associated with lofty, religious sentiments.
This does not mean, however, that blue has been left out in the cold. Blue was a popular choice for ceramics, namely sometsuke (染付け) porcelain, and fine art, namely the aizuri-e (藍摺り絵) woodblock prints. Blue also formed the basis for the indigo dyeing industry that flourished in Shikoku during the Edo period. The dyers, or kouya (紺屋), were so busy that they hardly had time to dye their own clothing, giving rise to the proverb “The dyer wears white” (紺屋の白袴), which is used to describe anyone too busy attending to the needs of others to attend to his own.
The Rest of the Spectrum
Of course, there are more than just four colors in the traditional Japanese color spectrum. Yellowish-brown, orange, and purple, for example, symbolize the rank and authority of the Japanese royalty and aristocracy. Green is all kinds of fresh and youthful, quite in contrast to the negative Western connotations of “green-eyed jealousy” and the like.
Additionally, there are many nuances of the basic colors, with poetic names like akebono-iro (曙色) or “the color of the dawn,” and kogare-kou (焦香) or “the perfume of longing.” Most names are influenced by nature and the four seasons, which is hardly surprising given Japan’s past reliance on agriculture.
Read More: The colors of Japan, by Sadao Hibi