Colors in Japanese – iro : The mixing and matching of colors (iro) is particular to the Japanese sensibility, particularly in regard to seasons. Spring, summer, fall, and winter all have their own color schemes, and adherence to these schemes is what gives Japan its characteristic beauty in regard to art and fashion. Today, we’re going to look at the different colors of Japan and how Japanese people view color differently than the rest of the world.

Colors in Japanese

When you think of a traffic light, what colors come to mind?

Most people think of red 赤 (aka), yellow 黄色 (ki-iro), and green 緑 (midori).

However, did you know that the Japanese call a green light a blue light? That’s right, it’s not a midori no shingō (緑の信号), it’s an ao-shingō (青信号)! The same goes for plants. Green and fresh vegetables are “ao-yasai” (blue vegetables), green apples are “ao-ringo” (blue apples), and there is even a prefecture called Aomori (literally “Blue Forest”).

This goes to show that the Japanese have a unique sense of color, and they are particularly lauded for their color aesthetic in regard to the seasons. Let’s take a look at each season below and explore their distinctive color palettes.

Spring (Haru):

The Japanese believe that spring signifies a new beginning each year. It is a time where all of the ice and snow has melted and the long-awaited sun rays beam down once again to warm up the land. It is a time where many of Japan’s most revered flowers begin to blossom; such as the cherry blossoms and ume plum flowers.

Since the Japanese are so attuned to nature, the color palette for the spring season (used in everything from art to advertisements to clothing) adheres to the colors of the plants and flowers that sprout during this time. Here are six examples. (Follow this link for more information on seasonal colors.)

  • -Cherry blossoms (sakura)
  • -Ume plum flowers (kōbai)
  • -Pussy willows (nekoyanagi)
  • -Rapeseed flowers (nanohana)
  • -The fresh green leaves of spring (wakaba)
  • -Blue lilacs (ao-fuji)

Although these plants and flowers have colors of their own, we can whittle the color scheme of spring down to this.

  • -Light pink 淡いピンク (awai pinku)
  • -Pink ピンク (pinku)
  • -Light green 薄緑 (usu-midori)
  • -Yellow 黄色 (ki-iro)
  • -Green 緑 (midori)
  • -Light blue 薄青 (usu-ao)

Here are the official colors from above, which have their own distinctive names in Japanese:

  • -Sakura-iro 桜色
  • -Kōbai-iro 紅梅色
  • -Nekoyanagi-iro ねこやなぎ色
  • -Nanohana-iro 菜の花色
  • -Wakaba-iro 若葉色
  • -Ao-fuji 青藤

Summer (Natsu):

Summer colors reflect nature’s turn from blooming and blossoming to the damp days of the rainy season and the hot summer sun beating down on the landscape. It also represents the roaming animals and the flora and fauna that thrive during these humid months.

  • -Chives (asagi)
  • -Young bamboo (wakatake)
  • -Day-lilies (kanzō)
  • -Spiderwort (tsuyu-kusa)
  • -Ducklings (ko-gamo)
  • -Japanese irises (kakitsubata)

These flowers, plants, and animals make up this summer color scheme.

  • -Light blue 薄青 (usu-ao)
  • -Light green 薄緑 (usu-midori)
  • -Dark yellow 暗黄色 (an-ki-iro)
  • -Dark blue 暗青 (an-ao)
  • -Bluish green/teal 緑の青っぽい (midori no ao-ppoi)
  • -Purple 紫 (murasaki)

Here are the official names of the colors above:

  • -Usu-asagi 薄浅葱
  • -Wakatake-iro 若竹色
  • -Kazō-iro 萱草色
  • -Tsuyukusa-iro 露草色
  • -Kogamo-iro 小鴨色
  • -Kakitsubata-iro 杜若色

Fall (Aki):

The color palette of fall depicts the cooling of the days, where the deep blue of the sky serves as a backdrop for the red, yellow, and brown foliage. The rice harvest is also represented in this scheme along with mountain flowers and prominent fruits of the season; such as, persimmons, red grapes, chestnuts, and pears.

  • -Madder herb (akane)
  • -Cape jasmine (kuchinashi)
  • -Japanese gentian (rindō)
  • -Persimmons (kaki)
  • -Chestnuts (kuri)
  • -The navy blue sky (gunjō-iro no sora)

Therefore, the color scheme of fall tends to look like this:

  • -Red 赤 (aka)
  • -Yellow 黄色 (ki-iro)
  • -Light purple 薄紫 (usu-murasaki)
  • -Orange オレンジ色 (orenji-iro)
  • -Brown 茶色 (cha-iro)
  • -Navy blue 群青色 (gunjō-iro)

Here are the official names of the colors:

  • -Akane-iro 茜色
  • -Kokikuchinashi 深支子
  • -Rindō-iro 竜胆色
  • -Kaki-iro 柿色
  • -Kurikawa-iro 栗皮色
  • -Gunjō-iro 群青色

Winter (Fuyu):

Finally, rounding out the seasons, we come to the frozen and blustery months of winter. The colors represent a dry and rough wilderness of snow and frost that is almost monochromatic in its desolation. However, there is a hint of holiday spirit just over the horizon as represented in the bold and cheerful Christmas and New Year’s colors.

  • -Silver (gin-nezu)
  • -Cinders (keshi-zumi)
  • -Light cloves (usu-kō)
  • -Pine trees (matsu)
  • -Vermilion red (shu-iro)
  • -Straw (wara)

This brings us to our winter color scheme which mixes the silent and frozen with the glee and decor of the holiday season.

  • -Silver 銀白色 (gin-haku-shoku)
  • -Charcoal gray チャコールグレー色 (chakōru-guree-iro)
  • -Cream 退黄色 (taikō-shoku)
  • -Dark green 暗緑 (an-midori)
  • -Yellowish red 赤の黄色っぽい (aka no ki-iro-ppoi)
  • -Straw-color 藁色 (wara-iro)

Here are the official names of the colors:

  • Ginnezu 銀鼠
  • Keshizumi-iro 消炭色
  • Usu-kō-iro 薄香色
  • Senzai-midori 千歳緑
  • Shu-iro 朱色
  • Wara-iro 藁色

As you can see, the Japanese do have a very unique sense of color when it comes to the seasons, and it shows in regard to their fashion and art. The next time you’re out shopping for traditional Japanese goods, see if you can pick out some of the colors discussed above and what season the product is intended for.

Good luck with your Japanese study, and get out there and enjoy the colors of the luscious Japanese countryside!

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