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color usage in Japan

Roses are red, violets are blue, I know all my colors, or at least I thought that was true.

How many colors are there in the world? The human eye has the ability to identify nearly 7 million unique colors, but the color spectrum is limitless beyond the naked eye. With so many colors surrounding us on the canvas of life, it isn't surprising that the perception of color varies from culture to culture. Every culture has its own sense of color, and Japan is no exception. From prehistoric times to the present day, the Japanese have developed their own collection of traditional colors, known as dentouiro 伝統色でんとういろ , which are still recognized and used today.

Variations in color perception across cultures are present for a number of reasons, but they mainly concern the influences of geography, internal cultural affairs, and external cultural interactions.

Some traditional Japanese colors have been used since the Asuka period (538 to 710), while others are more recent. Due to the long history of the Japanese color system, some inconsistencies in color and name do exist, but the basic outline of the color system still remains intact, listing nearly 500 individual colors.

First, let's look at the core four!


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 赤あか or red, kuro 黒くろ or black, shiro 白しろ or white, and ao 青あお or blue. However, it has been proposed that these terms originally referred to the contrasting optical sensations of light and dark, clear and vague.

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 真ま, to give us makka 真っ赤まっか or bright red, makkuro 真っ黒まっくろ or pitch black, masshiro 真っ白まっしろ or pure white, massao 真っ青まっさお 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 青信号あおしんごう and "green traffic light." Or aonegi 青ネギあおねぎ and "green spring onion."

Some people think of geography as a somewhat useless, easy-A class in college, but the truth is that geography is one of the most important factors in how we interact with and perceive the world around us. In the case of color sense, a group of people living in the desert would undoubtedly perceive the color green very differently from a group living in lush forest lands, as the Japanese do.

Geography also has to do with color in that it dictates the resources available to people. In Japan, this is especially clear as the names of traditional colors are often related to native plants and animals, especially those used to make pigments and dyes. An example of this would be the Japanese color name, akaneiro 茜色あかねいろ, which was produced by creating a dye from the root of a plant called akane grass. Another perhaps more familiar example is azukiiro 小豆色あずきいろ, or the color of azuki beans (aka the most delicious thing ever, often the filling of daifuku mochi).

As for colors named after animals, the most popular choice seems to be the mouse, or nezumi, which is used to express grey tones. For starters, you've got budou nezumi ぶどうネズミ, or grape mouse (purple grey). But, the list goes on and on with names like fuji nezumi 藤ネズミふじねずみ, or Fuji mouse (light purple grey), yanagi nezumi 柳鼠やなぎねずみ, or willow mouse (light green grey), and cha nezumi 茶鼠ちゃねずみ, or tea .

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