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Uncovering Japan Through Colours

October 4th, 2019 Design

Arashiyama’s bamboo forest shows a spectrum of green that inspired Japanese traditional colors Wakatake-iro (young bamboo color), Aotake-iro (grown bamboo color) and Oitake-iro (old bamboo color). Photo by Mirko Blicke on Unsplash

Japan’s rich seasonal variation is reflected in many aspects of our lives — cuisine, fashion, pottery, interior decorations and more. These changes have been a powerful source of inspiration in forming Japanese culture. Ancient Japanese people discovered beauty in such seasonal changes and reproduced them as colours.

Today, there are over 450 known traditional colours of Japan. These colours and their names are often inspired by animals, plants or flowers that resemble them. Many of these appear in Japanese culture such as paintings, textiles, poetry and literature. 

Looking at Japan through these traditional colours can help us better understand its culture, art and history. 


Determining hierarchy with colours 


It is said that the traditional colours first appeared in 603, where the social hierarchy was described by certain colours. This cap and rank system, called Kan'i Jūnikai (冠位十二階 - Twelve Level Cap and System) and introduced by Prince Shotoku, allowed for merit-based promotions.

In that era, there were two distinct categories of colour: Kinjiiki (禁色 - forbidden colours) and Yurushi-iro (許し色 - permissible colours). As the names suggest, colours of Yutushiiro were available to the common people, whereas the colors of Kinjiki were worn only by the people with ranks. 

The differentiating factor was the depth of colour. Deeper colours were more expensive as they require more ink. For example, the person with the highest rank wore deep purple clothes, whereas the person with the lowest rank in the system wore light black clothes.

More interestingly, there are two colours that are categorized as Zettaikinjiki (絶対禁色 - absolutely forbidden colours). One of them is a colour called Ko-rozen (黄櫨染) that is believed to be the symbol of the sun during midday. It is produced by using the bark of Japanese wax tree and the core of sappanwood. Ko-rozen is known to be so difficult to produce that even an experienced dyer cannot produce the same colour twice. To this day, this colour is only available to the Emperor of Japan. 

The other Zettai-kinjiki is called Ohni (黄丹) that symbolizes the colour of the rising sun. This unique red-orange colour is available only to the Crown Prince of Japan.


30 Shades of Grey 


The traditional colours of Japan can be so subtle that sometimes it is very hard to distinguish between them. As described in the previous section, the common people in ancient times had limited access to colours. This restriction motivated them to come up with a vast spectrum of Yurushiiro such as brown and grey. This was later called “48 browns and 100 greys” and became popular among the common people. As a result, there are over 30 different shades of grey. 

For example, people saw a slight grey in the colour of plum flowers. This led to a color called a reddish grey called Ume-nezumi (梅鼠 - Japanese plum grey). Another example is Hatoba-nezumi (鳩羽鼠 - pigeon wing grey) that is inspired by the purple-grey colour of pigeons. This colour became a popular colour for kimonos after the Meiji era.


Finding Traditional Colours in Modern Japan



The Torii gates are often painted in a warm organge-red color called shinshu-iro, which symbolizes power, sun and fire. 

Credits: Nicki Eliza Schinow


The traditional colours are omnipresent in modern society. Some colours are easily discovered, while some are used more subtly.

Some are more easily discovered, like the red-painted Torii (鳥居). These entrances to shrines in Japan are usually painted in a warm orange-red colour called shinshu-iro (真朱色). This colour symbolizes authority, sun and fire, and it has been used for stamps on official documents that date as far back as the 1300s. Around the beginning of the 1600s, foreign trade was authorized only to those with red seal permits issued by the government. 

Such application of Shuiro is frequently seen in modern society, as most Japanese citizens possess their own red seal stamp in lieu of signatures on official documents.


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Tokyo’s most important train line “Yamanote-Line” is painted in yellow-green Uguisu-iro (鶯色). It was one of the first lines to introduce a bright colour for better visibility and comfort. 

Credits: Lu Cao


Another example is Tokyo’s most important train line called the Yamanote-Line, known for its circular line that connects Tokyo’s major city centres. Back in the day, most trains were painted in darker colours. In 1964, however, the national railway introduced the now-famous yellow-green coloured model to increase visibility and comfort. 

This colour, called Uguisu-iro (鶯色) was one of the first bright colours to be used on trains in Tokyo. Subsequently, other train lines began to adopt its own unique colours. Today, the passengers can easily distinguish between numerous train lines even on the busiest day in Tokyo. 



Tokyo’s landmark TOKYO SKYTREE is designed in an original colour that is based on “aijiro”, the lightest shade of indigo blue. 

Credits: Hakan Nural


The last and more subtle example of application of traditional colours is the tallest structure in Japan — TOKYO SKYTREE. This television broadcasting tower is painted in an original colour called “SkyTree White.” It is based on aijiro (藍白), the lightest shade of indigo blue often produced through Japan’s traditional dyeing technique called “aizome”. 

The combination of the futuristic architecture and the traditional colour symbolizes the beginning of a new era for Tokyo. As TOKYO SKYTREE’s official website puts it, “the tower and this artisan culture will become the starting point for the creation of a new culture.”

Of course, the above examples are just a few of many. Kimonos, for example, are made of layers of traditional coloured textiles. Wagashi (和菓子 - Japanese sweets) sets portray different seasons through a combination of traditionally coloured sweets. 

Next time you visit Tokyo, perhaps you could pay a little more attention to the colours in the scenery. Each colour has its own story and meaning. They might offer you a new lens to uncover Japan’s hidden stories.




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