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2008 July 2

I found a book in the central campus library titled Encyclopedia of Color Names (or “Iro no Namae Jiten”, as this post is titled). The book I purchased at the art museum has a similar title but talks more about the use of colors in Japanese art; this book is written with less flowery language (therefore MUCH easier to read) and is more academic, looking at cultural use of color in Japan versus European countries/languages. I think I’ll track down a personal copy of this one. In the meantime, I’ve been copying down the chapter blurbs on each major color category, and I spent this evening translating what I’ve got so far with the assistance of WWWJDIC. It’s very interesting, so I’d like to share what I’ve got so far. My translation is a little rough and not always exact, but I went for the most readable interpretation, and I’m pretty confident I got the jist of it. I even found myself predicting what a kanji compound was as I was putting it into my dictionary, just based on what other descriptive words were being used in the same sentence.

This is a lot of text, so I am putting it under a cut just in case. Grandma, click on the purple sentence below this one, okay?


“Pink” has a meaning of China pink or Dianthus, but since around the 16th century it has served as a standard color word in the English language, coming to stand for a system of bright and light red hues. In many European languages other than English, “rose-color” serves as the basic color term for pink hues. As with rose (French), rosa (German, Italian, Spanish), for example. In Japanese, a lot of individual names exist for colors in the pink range, but because there is no term representing the basic color, there is no way to express bright or light reds other than the English “pink”. Mixing red with white changes one’s impression of the color dramatically. Red’s intense stimulation heat, and (生々しさ?) weaken; showy brilliance becomes a subdued and elegant feminine color. It is definitely better to have a category for pink.



Red is the color of the longest wavelength of light that we can see. It is one of the three primary colors for mixing and also one of the foundations of the human being’s sense of color. It is one of the dye and pigment colors we have known since the beginning of mankind,and it is experienced more vividly than any of the other colors. Starting with Japanese, there are a lot of words regarding one of the oldest color names. The root of the Japanese “aka” is thought to possibly be from “明し(akashi?)” but it is also often said that it derives from another language’s word for blood. Starting with fire, blood, heat – it has meanings like passion, love, lust, vitality, courage, war, revolution, sin – and in the five elements theory of ancient times, it symbolized the south (the Vermillion Bird, god of the Southern Heavens) and summer (朱夏?).  It is a warm color, a representation of excitement. Because it can be seen well even from far away, it is also the most conspicuous color and is therefore used on the national flag, on traffic lights, and on signs as the starting symbol color ornament.



There is no basic color word in the Japanese language to represent the hue experienced between red and yellow, so it has been decided to borrow the English “orange” for this system of color.  The word orange is widely used as a basic term for this range throughout the non-English languages of Europe. “Orange” was originally defined as the intrinsic color of a fruit’s rind, but English has used it as a descriptive color term since 1512, so it has been established completely as a basic color word. In Japan, the Chinese word for orange-colored has been borrowed for this color, and color names have been taken from saffron and mandarin as with other citrus fruit names, so that the association of this color system is similar everywhere. Other than that are carrots, persimmons, and lilies, so the target chosen for the name of this color system is well-suited.



Just as red and pink have different impressions, when orange gets dark the color gets muddy, as if it has changed into a completely different color. It would definitely be good to have a name for this distinct category. The Japanese brown (lit. “tea-colored”) is a recent word, so although it is not a basic color term, it is now being applied and used as one. The English “brown” has been used as one of the basic color terms since at least the year 1000, and languages like French, German, Italian, and Spanish also formerly established brown established as a basic color word. Colors like people’s hair, eye color, and skin color, animals’ fur, body hair, plant bark, stones, rocks, dirt, and sand are some of the great deal of hues in the brown family. There are also a lot of brown things in the categories of foodstuffs, cuisine, luxury groceries (e.g. alcohol and tobacco), and daily necessities. Brown is, as it were, the most natural color and is also an unsurprising, commonplace, and ordinary color.



Yellow ingredients are one of the three primary colors of paints and dyes. It is also a principal color of color perception. Because it is a bright and shining color, it is symbol of light and the sun in the West, and in China it is displayed in the center of heaven and earth and has become a symbol of the emperor. This color of metal is gold, which in religion shows sacred splendor; and in worldly terms, it is an ornament of kings adorned with riches, influence and power. But, since it (yellow) was also the color of the clothing of Judas, betrayer of Christ, it also has meanings like traitorousness, infidelity, indecision, jealousy, and cowardice. Also, it is the color of sick people and the dead, so of course it is not just suited to good senses. When yellow becomes muddy and turns dark, the impression is also dramatically changed into a color that’s easy to hate.



The root of “mido” in “midori” (green) is thought to possibly be related to the “mizu” in “mizumizushi” (youth and vivaciousness, freshness, juiciness). It is also said that the kingfisher’s ancient name, “sonidori”, became “midori”, but this would probably be written as (another kanji pronounced “midori”). With the English word “green”, the root of its “gr” is grass or grow, and is thought to have similar connections to vegetation sprouts as “midori”. With “midori”, the word itself contains a meaning of freshness or youth and feelings of life’s growth and rebirth. But there are probably no special emotions of this sort for green in a land of endless summer. Certain green trees are a symbol of immortality by way of respect, and after the desolation of winter the return of spring appears to have a special quality for the inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere. Other than the meaning of nature’s glory given to green, images like poison and the deceased, mold, and decay also exist, but in general they are not spoken of.




Blue, together with green, is a primary basis for our sense of color. It is also one of the three primary colors used in color mixing. It also seems to be the most preferred color of mankind. The sky’s blue, the sea’s blue, raise feelings of mystery and longing. Indigo blue, as the the oldest plant dye color, is extremely routine to many nations, so that it is becoming a common color of the uniforms of navies and sailors. Oppositely, because blue minerals are extremely rare, blue gems and blue paints symbolized things of holiness and nobility. Still, because blue flowers and blue birds are also rare, these also symbolize yearning and happiness. While it is a familiar, ordinary color, it is also the object of mystery and longing. Blue is carrying a two-sided nature. Its personality as a cold color and a tranquil color is the opposite of red, and it also is a color of spacially feeling far away.

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