Blue Traffic Lights and more Traditional Japanese Color differences you need to know!

Published March 22nd, 2016

So why isn't green a color in Japan? Well, today it is. But it wasn't always one of the Japanese colors. The Japanese people could always see the color green (of course), but for a long time they didn’t have a word for it. It was thought of as just another shade of blue. The word for blue, 青 (ao), actually refers to more of a blue/green. When the word for green came into usage during the Heian period (794 – 1185), 緑 (midori) was still thought of as a shade of blue, and not a separate color. In fact there are many green things today that the Japanese still refer to as ao.

Like green vegetables are blue, green traffic lights are blue, and even when someone is young or new at something, they are thought to be the color blue, instead of green. Like this sentence: 彼は、まだ青いな。(Kare wa mada aoi na), “He still is immature.” 緑 (midori) wasn’t taught to young Japanese students as a separate color until after Word War II!

While learning colors in English may be as simple as ROYGBIV, things in Japanese are a little different, of course! Instead of being based on 7 basic colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) the Japanese color system is thought of in different spectrums.

The words orange, blue, and purple were all created more recently to align with Western concepts of color. Though orenji (オレンジ) is used very commonly instead of daidaiiro (橙色), and ao is used more often than buruu (ブルー).

Many colors shown below such as 桜色(Sakura iro), 桃色(momo iro), 薄紅(usubeni), 珊瑚色(sango iro), 小豆色(azuki iro), 玉子色(tamago iro), 橙色(daidai iro), 萌黄(moegi), 空色(sora iro) are well known and can be used in daily conversation. But most of the other traditional colors are known and used only for literature, art, and in making kimonos.

There are over 220 traditional Japanese colors, all with official names and there are nearly 500 official colors when you include more modern colors that have been added. We’ve included 6 traditional colors with names and kanji from each spectrum, but you can see the full spectrum just below.

Obviously, color is a wholly cultural concept, and every culture finds a different way to differentiate between them!

So which is your favorite of the traditional Japanese colors?