Japanese colors and their symbolism are different than the West’s since perceptions of colors are a cultural construct. They reflect the country’s history and beliefs. Read on to discover the Japanese culture’s different colors and why.
In Japanese, the Green and Blue Used to Be the Same
Today, the word ao (青) means blue, but it was used to describe both the blue and green colors for a very long time. Japanese people made no difference between the two hues. Later, the word midori (緑) appeared and was more widely used to say green.
Still, the use of ao to describe the green color still remains in some Japanese vocabulary. For example, aoba (green leaves) or aoume (green plums). This is also why in Japanese green traffic lights are called ao shingo (literally, “blue signal”).
Like in most cultures, green is usually associated with nature and a sense of peace and calm.
One of the most traditional hues of green in the Japanese tradition is called matcha iro, literally the color of matcha green tea. Since the 13th century, the Japanese nobility would enjoy tea parties, and in the 15Th century, the tea ceremony was born and became highly popular among the samurai. The tea ceremony led to the birth of its own aesthetics and potteries, which would be designed to admire the color of matcha green tea even more.
Purple Used to Be for the Ruling Class Only
In Japan, ordinary people were forbidden to wear purple clothes for a long time. The color purple, murasaki (紫) in Japanese, used to be very rarely seen because it was difficult and time-consuming to make. The color purple used to be very pricey because it needed to be extracted from shigusa (purple gromwell plant), which takes a lot of effort to grow. To dye using the color purple was also hard work.
In 604, the twelve levels cap and rank system was enacted in Japan. After that, only high-level officials and the Imperial Family could wear purple. When Buddhism came to Japan, monks with a high level of virtue were also allowed to wear purple. That is why in Noh theater performances, purple and white are often used for the costumes of the emperor and gods. Other characters do not wear any shade of purple in their costumes.
Coming into the Heian period (794-1185), the color purple was associated with wisteria flowers. During the middle of that period, the Fujiwara officials implemented a regency government. With Fuji meaning wisteria flowers in Japanese, the color purple became a synonym for the ruling class. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the ruling family was Tokugawa. and its emblem was the mallow flower, so purple remained associated with nobility for similar reasons.
However, purple became fashionable during the Edo period. Common people were forbidden to wear vivid colors, so the outside of their outfits would often be brown, but they would bend the rule by using colorful linings. At the time, kabuki actors were fashion leaders. Danjuro Ichikawa, a superstar of the time, wore a purple headband in the best-selling play the Flower of Edo, and the color became highly fashionable among Edo citizens.
In Japan, Red is for Protection and Power
The history of red, aka (赤) in Japanese, traces back to ancient times. The country’s oldest earthenware and other woodenware made in the same era are painted with a lacquer called sekishitsu (a mixture of cinnabar and lacquer). In the old graveyards for those in power (called kofun), pictures are painted with an Indian red made of iron oxide. This red was meant to protect the body of the man in power from evil.
The red common in Japan is the one on the Shinto shrine gates (called torii). This particular red is called akani. Each shrine uses a slightly different red, but akani protects against rust because of the cinnabar mercury in it and is meant to protect from evil and disaster. The red is also believed to increase the power of the kami (the spirits worshipped in the Shinto religion).
During the Japanese civil wars (1467-1568), red was loved by the samurai and worn as a symbol of strength and power in battle. Red was also used as makeup in Japan long before lipstick became popular. Noble women would use safflowers as a base for their lipsticks. This flower is still picked today to make more traditional lipstick and is said to protect the beauty of Japanese women.
White Was Originally a Mourning Color
Since ancient times, as in many cultures, the color white, shiro (白) in Japanese, has been a symbol of purity in Japanese culture. It was closely linked to the spiritual world. Even today, Shinto priests and their female helpers called miko wear mostly white garments.
White used to be the color worn during funerals and mourning. The samurai would wear ritual white clothes when committing seppuku ( better known in the West under the name hara kiri). White clothes were generally not worn on other occasions. It was only after the country’s opening during the Meiji period (1868-1912) that, under Western influence, the Japanese started wearing white clothes in everyday life, and the mourning color switched to black.
Japanese Women Used to Dye Their Teeth Black
The oldest use of the color black, kuro (黒) in Japanese, was in tattoos. In ancient times, Japanese people would be tattooed, especially fishermen, who would get wide birds or fish tattooed to protect themselves from evil. From the Nara period, tattoos would be used to mark criminals as a punishment, and since then, tattoos have suffered from a bad image and have mainly been used by Japanese gangsters. However, in some parts of Japan, fishermen still wear tattoos nowadays.
Black was also the opposite of the color purple: in the twelve level traditional rank system, the color black was for the last two bottom ranks. However, the samurai loved the color black on their armor, as long as it was a lacquerware-like black offering beautiful reflections!
Black was also used for makeup since ancient times. It was used to paint eyebrows as in many other countries, but Japan also had an unusual custom called o-haguro: dying your teeth black. Pitch black was considered a beautiful color, and until the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) Japanese women (and some men) would dye their teeth black with dissolved iron and vinegar. The mixture also actually prevented tooth decay. Almost nobody does this today, except some geisha for special occasions and some people in the countryside during funerals.
Black is also an important color in Japanese arts, through calligraphy, of course, but especially through sumi-e, literally “ink painting,” in which the painter only uses the different shades of color black with black ink to make beautiful paintings.
“Japan Blue” Is a Color
Indigo, also called Japan blue, is called Ai (藍) in Japanese.
When foreigners were allowed to enter Japan during the Meiji period (1868－1912), they were so astonished at the fact that indigo blue was everywhere in Japanese towns that they called it “Japan blue” Kimono, bedding, hand towels, noren–Japanese people would use it for everything.
Indigo is a natural dye made of fermented leaves of the indigo plant mixed with water. At first, aristocrats used it, but in the Edo period (1603－1868), all sorts of people, from the common folk to samurai, wore dyed clothes. Indigo-dyed clothes were not only fashionable but also had three additional benefits: the fiber becomes stronger after indigo dying, it has an insect repelling effect, and it has a UV protective effect. Nowadays, this color is still used in a lot of Japanese items, even blue jeans.
As you can see, colors and their cultural meanings are far from fixed but may vary depending on the culture and time period. Even if it’s not always conscious, these old meanings of colors still shape Japanese aesthetics nowadays. Keeping them in mind can help us appreciate Japanese design and architecture even more!
Sumihisa AotaFebruary 10, 2022 at 10:24 AM
The blue vs green in the first part of your post, is personal experience for me. My surname, Aota, 青田 is both Bluefield (or Blue paddy) and Greenfield (Green paddy)
Amélie GeeraertFebruary 14, 2022 at 10:59 AM
Dear Sumihisa, Thanks for sharing your personal experience with us!