What does it mean to have a yellow beak? And what color should you wear to a traditional Japanese wedding?
When you’re learning Japanese, one of the best things you can do to add texture to your conversation – and make sure you can make yourself understood in a pinch – is to learn your Japanese colors.
After all, if your vocabulary fails you, knowing how to tell someone the color of the shirt you want to buy or the train line you need to take can be a good start!
Fortunately, we’re here with a handy chart to help you learn Japanese color names and some extra intel to help you understand the meanings of different colors in Japanese culture. See, while many people ask about lucky Japanese colors, Japan doesn’t necessarily have lucky and unlucky colors – but the colors do have certain cultural associations that we can review.
Lesson number one: the Japanese word for color? Iro (kanji: 色, hiragana: いろ).
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While you’re here, why not go beyond the Japanese words for different colors? Here are some fun facts about the names for colors and their cultural associations in Japan.
Of course, just like in the West, not everyone in modern Japan is worried or knowledgeable about tradition and superstition, but it’s worth knowing, nonetheless – especially if you’re interested in Japanese culture. Understanding cultural color associations can help you pick up on subtle cues in Japanese film and TV about characters and scenes based on how they’re dressed up or drawn. And, interestingly, some modern Japanese fashion designers today design with traditional color uses and meanings in mind.
Let’s take a look.
Aka 赤 あか
Red as a color has a ton of meaning in Japanese culture.
Red is the color of torii – Shinto shrine gates – temples, and traditional daruma dolls. Red is said to scare away evil spirits and represent protection, strength, peace, and power. The sun on the Japanese flag is red, Shinto priests often wear at least some red, and Japanese festivals are often marked by their red decor and red and white curtains.
That said, whereas in some cultures red is considered a lucky color, you might not want to get someone in Japan a red housewarming gift, as it can also be associated with bringing fire!
Worth noting: Often, when you hear people talk about traditional Japanese colors, they’re referring to one of two things: the first is colors that were traditionally available to Japanese painters and artisans to dye clothes, make pottery, or otherwise create items that would have been commonly seen in ancient and medieval Japan.
The other use for the term is to talk about the oldest four colors in Japanese, which have existed in the language since the earliest written history of Japan.
Linguists believe that the meanings of these words have shifted over time from describing general visual experiences to specific colors. Nonetheless, these are the four first colors of Japan and have likely shaped the Japanese approach to art and the color spectrum.
When you see the word “orange” in Japanese, you’ll likely see it written in katakana as orenji – a loanword (a word that was borrowed, that is) from English. But that doesn’t mean the concept of orange was brought to Japan by foreigners!
The native Japanese name for the color was daidaiiro (橙色), but today, using that is much less common than orenji (オレンジ), according to a 2017 study conducted on the modern Japanese color lexicon by a coalition of Japanese and American researchers.
Kiiro 黄色 きいろ
In Japan, yellow is associated with nature and sunshine! It’s not a color with a lot of significance, like white or red, but it’s certainly a sunny, cheerful shade.
That said, for hundreds of years, a golden chrysanthemum was symbolic of the Japanese empire, and it’s said that in the 1300s, warriors wore a yellow chrysanthemum as a symbol of their courage. But that’s more history than modern use. Just a fun little tidbit for you!
Midori 緑 みどり
Green, as in so many cultures, is a color of life and growth. A few fun facts? Originally, ao referred to both green and blue and midori was used exclusively to talk about greenery and vegetation.
Today, however, they are distinct color categories in modern Japanese usage – with a few fun exceptions. For example, Japanese people still say aoshingou (青信号, あおしんごう), meaning “blue traffic light”, to talk about a green light.
Another fun fact? There’s also a distinct shade of green you see when you make matcha that is so recognizable in the Japanese consciousness that it shows up as matcha on Japanese lexicon reviews of colors.
Mizuiro 水色 みずいろ
Mizu (水, みず) in Japanese means water – so mizuiro is literally ‘water-color.’ While more recent as an advent in Japanese culture, they’re joined a group of languages that has a distinct color family for light blue with its own name (while in English we just add “light” to “blue”). On the other hand, there’s no word for “teal” in Japanese.
Did you know colors could be this interesting?
Ao 青 あお
As you can see, blue, in Japanese, has more than one name, but the name for blue in general is ao. As we mentioned above, ao is an old word from the earliest written Japanese that’s believed to have meant “vague” or “hazy.”
You might be surprised to learn that blue was the color of common people in Japan for many, many centuries. That’s because, in Japan, the easiest to use and most common dyes were deep blue and indigo from Indigofera tinctoria and Ísatis tinctória plants. It’s still a common color for yukatas and other garb and has an association with being plain and humble.
Murasaki 紫 むらさき
Purple, on the other hand, was the color of nobility in ancient Japan. Purple dyes were complicated to use and expensive to buy, so only the wealthiest and more powerful people wore purple. And it goes even a step beyond – while today, of course, anyone can wear purple, for a time, common people were actually banned from wearing purple, even if they could get their hands on it.
Pink is another color whose most commonly used name in modern Japan might feel pretty familiar to English speakers – pinku, written in katakana to denote a loanword.
The traditional Japanese name for it is momo or momoiro (桃色, ももいろ), but that’s less commonly used. Whatever you call it, pink is a cute, naive color in Japan, with connotations of love and romance. Kawaii!
This is a fun one. Chairo literally means “tea color.” Tea has a special place in Japanese culture – and, yes, even green tea can look brown.
Kuro 黒 くろ
Black, in Japan, is less associated with death and more with masculinity. Although Western mourning traditions have impacted the perception of black in modern Japan, traditional samurai colors included a lot of black, and men would typically wear black for their wedding, particularly in the form of a black kimono with a family crest. These days, some Japanese men wear black tuxedos instead, but the cultural association remains.
Shiro 白 しろ
In Japanese culture, white is a sacred color. It can be associated with priests and brides, especially in the Shinto tradition where it’s associated with physical and spiritual purity. However, because of Buddhism’s influence in Japan, it was also a traditional color of mourning associated with death, and was the color samurais wore to perform seppuku – a ritual suicide. More recently, Western culture has influenced a shift, but for a long time it was rare to see Japanese people wearing white because of the solemn connotations.
P.S. Did that mention of daruma dolls in the red section catch your eye? People often wonder about their daruma doll color meaning.
Daruma dolls are good luck charms meant to help you in getting a wish or achieving a goal. Because Daruma dolls were originally created as a totem of an ancient monk named Bodhidharma who wore a red monk’s robe, they were traditionally always red. But, today, they come in tons of different colors and designs.
Everyone has their own interpretation for what each color represents, but you can choose one based on these more traditional color meanings, if you’re so inclined! For example, you could think of a black daruma as a protective bodyguard, like a wish samurai, whereas a gold or green daruma might be better for reaching a financial goal.
One last thing: when it comes to actually putting your new knowledge of Japanese colors to work, you may notice that some of these colors commonly have –iro (色) added to the end of them when referring to the color itself.
Just to make it easy, here’s a complete list of the colors with –iro added where it would most commonly appear:
|Bonus: Rainbow Color!||Nijiiro|
There you have it! You’re well on your way to adding a little more color to your Japanese writing and speaking. But why stop here?
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