Colors in Japanese | All You Need to Know

Colors in Japanese

Introduction

Colors are important in the sense that they help us communicate certain ideas, beliefs, and instructions. In fact, literature relies heavily on the concept of color theory as it is also used to express specific emotions and can even help portray a character’s personality.

Moreover, in Japanese, there are many ways of explaining colors, and a little bit difficult to understand. This can be very confusing for beginners in Japanese as to what context is appropriate to use in which version. Are you wondering how to properly describe the physical look of an object by using “Iro” [色 /Colors] or colors in the Japanese language? In this article, you can learn and master Colors and meanings in Japanese. So, if you are up for that, then let the learning begin!

Source: O-DAN

1. The Basic Colors in Japanese

Unlike in other countries, the color words in the Japanese language take on two major forms: “Noun form” and “I-adjective” form. Unfortunately, these two forms differ only based on their role in the sentence, and this is one of the reasons why many language learners also fail to understand the Japanese language right away. Fortunately, understanding the Japanese adjectives for basic colors is easy as you simply must remember to put an additional “I” on the last letter for the noun form. Also, there are only six colors.

EnglishNoun formRomajiAdjective form     Romaji
Red  あかAkaあかいAkai
BlueあおAoあおいAoi
Yellow    きいろ KiiroきいろいKiiroi
BlackくろKuroiくろいKuroi
BrownちゃいろChairoちゃいろいChairoi
WhiteしろShiroしろいShiroi

Please remember, always use “I-adjective forms” with the particle “No” [の] when you are using the color word to modify a noun in the same way you use it in English. For instance, you should say green vase “緑のかびん” (midor no kabin) instead of “緑かびん” (midori kabin).

2. Nouns for Basic Colors in Japanese

The following information guides you on how to change the color into a noun in Japanese.

EnglishJapaneseRomaji
Red あかAka
YellowきいろKiiro
GreenみどりMidori
BlueあおAo
PurpleむらさきMurasaki
Pinkももいろ/ピンクMomoiro/Pink
BrownちゃいろChairo
GreyはいいろHaiiro
BlackくろKuro
WhiteしろShiro

These words above are nouns that refer to different colors.  As a result, the particle “No [の]” is used when describing the color of something.

Color + の + subject

  • Midori no madoguchi みどりの窓口(まどぐち)
    Green Window (usually referring to the ticket office at a train station in Japan)
  • Murasaki no kutsushita むらさきのくつした
    Purple socks.

3. The History of Japanese Colors

Color can also be described using adjectives. Surprisingly, there are only 4 colors that will become an adjective when “い” is added directly to the back.

ColorJapaneseKanaRomaji
Red赤いあかいAkai
Blue青いあおいAoi
Black黒いくろいKuroi
White白いしろいShiroi

It is said that the basic form of color in ancient Japanese was only four colors. There are four colors, “Red” [赤], “Blue” [青], “Black” [黒], and “White” [白]. And one of the reasons is that there are only four-color names that can be used as a single-color name and as an adjective. An adjective is a word that has the form “~ i” and expresses the nature and state of things.

[Example]

  • “Ookii” [big], “Chiisai” [small], and “Kirei” [beautiful].

And these four colors “Red” “Blue” “Black” “White” are called “Akai” “Aoi” “Kuroi” “Shiroi”. Other colors do not say “~ i”. Research has also shown that people before using letters did not have the word to indicate color by themselves, and they used to distinguish colors only by “Brightness” and “Darkness”.

There are four things: “Bright”, “Dark”, “Clear”, and “Pale and Vague”.

Bright [Akarui] is derived from Red [red], Dark [Kurai] is derived from Black [black], and Clear [written by Shiroshi] is derived from White [white], Blue [blue] is derived from Awai [pale].

[Example]

  • あおい海(うみ)             Aoiumi       Blue sea
  • 海(うみ)はあおいです。   Umiwa aoidesu Sea is blue.

Yellow and Brown: “Kiiroi” [黄色い] and “Chairoi” [茶色い]

There are 2 more colors that can become adjectives “Kiiro” [黄色] and “Chairo” [茶色]. Why did I not put them together with the 4 colors above? This is because although meaning yellow and brown color, “黄” and “茶” cannot be on themselves when used as colors. They have to be put together with the word “色” (iro colors) to become nouns for yellow and brown. As a result, when they become adjectives, they are “Kiiroi” [黄色い] and “Chairoi” [茶色い].

Blue and Green: “Aoi” [青い]

In the past, Japanese people considered blue and green as one color called “Aoi” [青い]. Because there was no separation between the two until recently, even in modern times, the word “Aoi” is still used to describe objects that are green, like green apples (青りんご) or green traffic lights (青信号). 

4. Other Japanese Colors

Now that we know the basics about the other forms of colors let us now draw our attention to the other colors that you might want to learn. Please do note that we will also add here the katakana for the loan English loan words for the colors. The reason for this is that many of the younger generations also use the loanword version when speaking.

EnglishJapaneseRomaji
GreenみどりMidori
Purple  むらさきMurasaki
GreyはいいろHaiiro
Orangeだいだいいろ/オレンジDaidai-iro/Orengi
Pinkももいろ/ピンクPinku/Momo-iro
Silverぎん/シルバーGin/Siruba-
Goldきん/ゴールドKin/Gorudo
RainbowにじいろNij-iro
Navyこんいろ/ネイビーKon-iro/Neibi-
Light Blue みずいろMizuiro
Yellowish GreenきみどりKimidori
BeigeベージュBeijyu

5. Meaning of Colors in Japanese

① Red [Aka]

Red is associated strongly with authority, strength, sacrifice, joy, and happiness in Japanese culture. It is a powerful color, and you can find proof in the Japanese flag, which consists of the colors red and white. And in the flag, itself, you can see in the center the red circle, which symbolizes the sun. It is regarded as an auspicious color in Japan, especially when paired with white (also used on the national flag).

Red is used in decorations at important events such as weddings and birthdays, and it is also commonly worn at gatherings such as these. Red is used heavily in Japanese architecture, especially at Shinto shrines. The specific red color, aka, is believed to offer protection from evil or disaster.

② White [Shiro]

In Japanese culture, and like many others, white represents purity and cleanliness. It is a blessed and sacred color. White is a popular color in Japanese culture because it is symbolic of purity. It is used as the background on Japan’s flag to represent the nation’s purity and reverence for the gods in the light of the rising sun. White is especially symbolic when paired with red.

White is also known as a color that symbolizes divinity, truth, simplicity, humility, and mourning. Initially, white was only worn at funerals. It was rarely worn in everyday life. Over time and through Western influence, the color of mourning has shifted from white to black. Modernly, white is worn in the commonplace, and black is generally reserved for sorrowful events such as funerals.

③ Black [Kuro]

Black is commonly associated with formality, elegance, and mourning. It may also represent unhappiness, fear, evil, bad luck, or misfortune. Black has been synonymous with death, evil, and destruction in almost every culture, so the color of mourning is black in most countries, including Japan. From ancient times to this day, black has been the color used for makeup. Back then, the Japanese had a custom where they would paint their teeth black. This unusual custom called o-haguro, which involves dying one’s teeth black with dissolved iron and vinegar, prevents tooth decay. It is still practiced during funerals by locals in the countryside and some geishas on special occasions.

④ Blue [Ao]

In Japan, a nation surrounded by blue water, the color blue symbolizes purity, cleanliness, passivity, and fidelity. It is considered a lucky color and is a popular color in Japanese clothing, such as kimonos. Indigo got its name ‘Japan Blue’ when foreigners visited Japan during the Meiji period. It is used extensively in clothing and textiles, common wear, and formal attire.

⑤ Purple [Murasaki]

Purple is most notably the color of royalty, but it can also reflect nobility, spirituality, wisdom, and luxury. And as such, this color was only affordable to the wealthy people in Japan in the past. In fact, ordinary people were not allowed to wear purple-colored clothes then.

⑥ Green [Midori]

Green, another color considered lucky in Japan, symbolizes fertility, growth, youth, eternity, vitality, and energy. The Japanese are nature-loving people, and on the 29th of April every year, which is the birthday of Emperor Shōwa, who loved nature, they celebrate Greenery Day.

⑦ Orange [Orenji]

For the Japanese, the color orange represents happiness, love, and the sun. It also indicates knowledge and civilization. It is among one of the most popular colors used in clothing.

⑧ Pink [Pinku]

Pink symbolizes femininity, spring, youth, and good health, and it is among the popular colors in Japanese clothing in Japan. When it comes to character, this color represents a child-like personality.

⑨ Yellow [Kiiro]

In Japan, yellow symbolizes nature and sunshine and is considered a sacred color in the Far East. Yellow is used in many Japanese terms. For instance, when one has a ‘yellow beak,’ it means that they are inexperienced and ‘yellow voice’ refers to the high-pitched voices of kids and women.

⑩ Brown [Chairo]

This wooden color represents strength, endurance, comfort, simplicity, as well as Earth itself.

⑪ Gold [Kin]

For the Japanese, gold represents wealth, royalty, prestige, and the color of the heavens. This color is used to decorate temples and the statues of Lord Buddha.

⑫ Silver [Gin]

Silver symbolizes security, reliability, intelligence, staid, modesty, and maturity and is commonly used in tools and weapons in Japan.

Each of these colors represents essential values and ideals of Japanese society. They are among the most used colors in traditional and celebratory clothing, including on kimonos, a traditional Japanese robe.

How was it? Colors in Japanese are a little bit complicated, but if you understand some tips and meanings, it is easier to master them. Now that you have learned so many colors and ways to use them, Life is colorful, so do not forget to enjoy learning Japanese!

Summarize

To sum up, this article, let’s review one more time the above information in the following points. Please kindly drop your comment in the column section below!

  • The color words in the Japanese language take on two major forms: “Noun form” and “I-adjective” form, and for basic colors is to put an additional “I” on the last letter for the noun form.
  • The basic sentence pattern for describing colors is Color “Noun form” + の + Subject.
  • It is said that the basic form of color in ancient Japanese was only four colors “Red” [赤], “Blue” [青], “Black” [黒], and “White” [白].
  • Each color represents essential values, special meanings, and ideals of Japanese society.
  • Colors in Japanese are a little bit complicated, but if you understand some tips and meanings, it is easier to master them.

For further understanding about learning Japanese, please click the following link to get the other insightful article!

About Yuri Sensei 25 Articles
I am Yuri. I have worked for several companies, involved in assisting foreigners and teaching Japanese. I have also worked in Vietnam, teaching Japanese. I would like to help students abroad and teach Japanese culture. My hobbies are traveling abroad and sports, like tennis. Following excitement and discovering new things inspires me a lot. My joy in life is to help people overseas so that I can pass on the charm of Japanese culture.