4 Important Colors in Japanese culture

Here is an easy introduction to 4 colors that have a special value and uses in Japanese culture.

2020-07-15   Traditions & History,

1: Purple

Wisteria trellis
Wisteria trellis

Purple is called murasaki (紫) in Japanese.

For a long time in Japan, ordinary people were forbidden to wear purple clothes! The color purple used to be very rarely seen because it was difficult and took time to make. The color of purple used to be very pricey because it needed to be extracted from shigusa (purple gromwell plant), which is very difficult to grow. It also required a lot of effort to dye using the color purple.

During the Nara period, about 1400 years ago, only high-level officials and the Imperial family could wear purple clothes since the year 604, when the twelve levels cap and rank system was enacted in Japan. When Buddhism came to Japan, the monks who had a high-level of virtue were also allowed to wear purple. In Noh performances, purple and white are often used for the costumes of the emperor and Gods. Other characters absolutely do not wear any shade of purple in their costumes.

Coming into the Heian period (794-1185), the color purple was associated with wisteria flowers. During the middle of the Heian period, the Fujiwara officials implemented a regency government. Fuji meaning wisteria flowers in Japanese, the color purple became a synonym for the ruling class again. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the ruling family was Tokugawa. and its emblem was the mallow flower, so purple remained associated with nobility for similar reasons.

The main characters of the Flower of Edo, woodblock print by Kunisada Utagawa

However, purple became fashionable during the Edo period. Common people were forbidden to wear vivid colors, so the outside of their outfit would often be brown, but they would wear bend the rule by using colorful linings! At the time, kabuki actors were fashion leaders. Danjuro Ichikawa, a superstar of the time, wore a purple headband in the best selling play the Flower of Edo, and the color became highly fashionable among Edo citizens.

2: Red

Torii gates at Fushimi-Inari shrine, Kyoto.

Red is called Aka (赤) in Japanese.

The history of red in Japan traces back to ancient times. The country’s oldest earthenware (Jomon), and other woodenware made in the same era are painted with a lacquer called ‘sekishitsu’ (a mixture of cinnabar and lacquer) In the old graveyards for those in power (called kofun), pictures are painted with an Indian red made of iron oxide. This red was meant to protect the body of the man in power from evil.

The red you can see a lot in Japan is the one on the shrine gates (called torii). This particular red is called akani. Each shrine uses a slightly different red, but akani protects against rust because of the cinnabar mercury in it and is meant as protection from evil and disaster. The red also increases the power of the kami (the spirits worshipped in the Shinto religion, see our article: What is Shinto?).

One of the ‘Modern Beauties’ by Keisai Eisen depicts a woman painting her lips in red.

During the Japanese civil wars (1467-1568), red was loved by the samurai and worn as a symbol of strength and power in battle. Red was also used as makeup in Japan long before lipstick became popular. Noble women would use safflowers as a base for their lipsticks. This flower is still picked today to make more traditional lipstick and  is said to protect the beauty of Japanese women. 

3: Black

The ceiling of Kenninji Temple

Black is called kuro (黒) in Japanese.

Surprisingly, the oldest use of the color black in Japanese culture was… tattoos! In ancient times, Japanese people would be tattooed, especially fishermen, who would get tattooed wide birds or fishes to protect themselves from evil. From the Nara period, tattoos would be used to mark criminals as a punishment, and since then tattoos suffer from a bad image, being used mainly by Japanese gangsters. However, in some parts of Japan fishermen still wear tattoos nowadays.

It was also the opposite of the color purple: in the twelve levels traditional rank system, the color black was for the last two bottom ranks. However, the samurai loved the color black on their armors, as long as it was a lacquerware-like black offering beautiful reflects!

Black was also used for makeup since ancient times. It was used to paint eyebrows as in many other countries, but Japan also had a very strange custom called o-haguro: dying your teeth black! Pitch black was considered a beautiful color, and until the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) Japanese women (and some men) would dye their teeth black with dissolved iron and vinegar. The mixture also actually prevented tooth decay. Almost nobody does this today, except some geisha in special occasions and some people in the countryside during funerals.

A modern geisha showing her o-haguro smile!

Black is also an important color in Japanese arts, through calligraphy, of course, but especially through sumi-e, literally ‘ink painting’, in which the painter only uses the different shades of color black with black ink to make beautiful paintings.

4: Japan Blue (Indigo)

Indigo, also called Japan blue, is called Ai (藍) in Japanese.

When foreigners were allowed to enter Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912)  because they were so astonished at the fact that indigo blue was everywhere in Japanese towns that they called it ‘Japan blue‘! Kimono, bedding, hand towels, noren…  Japanese people would heavily use it for everything.

Indigo is a natural dye made of fermented leaves of the indigo plant mixed with water. Contrary to other colors, if at first it was used by aristocrats, in the Edo period (1603-1868), all sorts of people from common folk to samurai have used indigo dyed clothes. It wasn’t only because of fashion, but indigo dyed clothes also have three benefits: the fiber becomes stronger after indigo dying; it has an insect repelling effect;  it has a UV protective effect. The power of nature!

Nowadays this color is still used in a lot of Japanese items, even blue jeans! There are places in Tokyo where you can make your own Japan Blue items. (Read our article: I can’t believe I dyed Japan Blue!)

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Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.