Japanese Aesthetics, The World of Colors

Japan: an other way to see and create colors

In our European languages (English, French, German, Spanish …), we rather use the same basic colors (black blue, yellow, orange, ….), and see them rather in the same way. Translation is without particular issue, and communication rather easy.

Though, there are few exceptions.

  • French or German do not see “purple” as Americans or English do.

English commonly use “purple”. Its exact translation in French (pourpre) is very rarely used, is rather a kind of … burgundy; the French common word is “violet”, which is a spectral color (ie in the rainbow when purple is not), and refering to viola flower.  So, if I want to translate “purple” in French, I may use “violet” if I want to mean a kind of purple, or something like “lilac”, or “mauve” in other cases.

  • English, Germans, or French have only one (common) word for blue. Italians and Russians have 2.

For most of us, blue covers a spectrum between very dark / night blue and very light / sky blue. For “blue”, Russian language has 2 words: « siniï » (синий) and « galouboï » (голубой), which is light / sky blue. In other words, the equivalent of “blue” does not exist. In Italian, there is “blue” and “azzurro” (azure), which is rather halfway between blue and sky blue. For French, it’s weird: the jerseys of French sport team is blue, close to Italian one. And for Italians, the color of their own jersey is “azzuro” (ie not “blu”).

Why Japanese are different?

  • There are 2 basic colors: red and blue that they see differently from most of us.

The Japanese word for “blue” is rather « ao / aoi », but it relates to a color which is a kind of green / blue, rather light. Like cyan. It that can be used either to talk about “blue sky” (ao zora) or “green tree” (aoi ki). When, for us, blue and green are very different and don’t belong to same family. But if we look at it differently …. yes, sky can be blue, but sun can be yellow, and blue + yellow = green. So, for Japanese, what is our “blue”? Rather a kind of violet. Which makes sense, since blue and violet are close, and together in the family of cold colors.

Another example: Red. The equivalent of red in Japanese is « akai », which can also be used for “ginger / red hair” as in English or German. So here, the Japanese, German and English are rather close. But in French, we have 2 fully separate colors; rouge (which is literally “red”), and roux (which is between red and orange). So, the French spectrum here is fully different. It’s also funny to mention that English can use “ginger” for “red-hair”, whereas ginger is neither red or orange …. except in gingerbreads, where color comes from …. the spices ;-)

To sum it up, our most basic colors differ from those of Japanese. We don’t see them, don’t group and sort them in the same way.

  • If our main colors are rather abstract notions, most Japanese colors refer to a reality, something either concrete, or natural.

If we forget the “scientific” approaches (eg wave length, Pantone, ….), our basic colors are rather abstract. We could say that green is the color of plants, but between a pine needle, an olive, or an avocado ….. Of course, there are exceptions like coral, orange or salmon, which refer to a reality. But generally, even we could say avocado green or banana yellow, we will use the most basic word, and precise with light or dark if needed, and that’s it.

In Japan, and that’s a big difference, the colors are defined via a reference to a reality, tangible, concrete, often natural: pink is peach color (momo iro), brown is tea color (cha iro), black is ink color (sumi iro), yellow is egg yolk color (tamago iro), etc. And it continues with shades: gray is “nezumi iro” (mouse color) and light gray is “hai iro” (ash color). And this light / dark notion exists as well in Japanese, I will come back on it below.

  • Japanese vocabulary commonly use about 400+ words for colors, when we hardly use 20.

In Occident, we have 12 basic colors: black, gray, white, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, and azure. To which we can add off-white, beige, tan, … plus those relating to metal (gold, silver, bronze, …).

When Japanese have about 500. Commonly used.

Imagine for black: you can say ink color, or blacker than black (yakenonokarasu), the color of a crow wing (karasuba-iro), the color of a wet feather of crow (nureba-ira), ….

Indeed, most often, colors are defined by a reference to a plant: leaf, fruit, flower; or an animal (often birds), minerals, ….

  • If we may precise with dark / light, Japanese can make it in a richer way
    • they can precise with  light, medium or dark. Meaning that “mouse gray” is the sub-family, and “medium mouse gray” will the average tone of the family, between light and dark
    • but also with pastel / vivid, or mate / glossy (re. color of wet crow feather = glossy black).

What do all this change?

  • Japanese -like Chinese- have a broader and richer vision of colors. Solid colors are, for them, a wider universe than our, it’s cultural, educational. And if Japanese (& Chinese) dyers are so famous, that’s certainly because of their ability to create or reproduce colors is a talent that was cultivated for centuries. Print a flower or an animal on a fabric demands talents, because of gradients, color precision, … and they do it for centuries. Indeed, from that perspective, no big surprise that they also excel in photo or video cameras.
  • Japanese see colors which not usual to us, but are though familiar because they come from the observation of nature, and as such, have a kind of compelling obviousness.
  • The Japanese value the art and craft of “assembling”. It goes beyong our “it is matching”. For me, there is a talent in creation / invention, but also in associating / assembling / combining. Ikebana (Japanese floral art) is an art of combining. Same for perfumes, whether it’s about fragrance or incense ( Kôdô is a major art in Japan); Same for gardens. And for me, same for colors. And Japanese excel in that.
  • In their aesthetics, Japanese look after harmony, mutual enrichment, which will be considered as a matter of colors, but include also shapes, texture, light. When we are more “rational”, when we rather associate the shades of a given color, or add a vivid spot of color on a neutral garment, or eventually use the complementary colors
  • Last, as a maker of fashion items, I have to acknowledge that there are colors which are hard to classify in our basics; taupe is a gray or a brown? khaki is green or brown? And same with olive, coral, red-hair / roux, turquoise, all those relating to ochre, etc.

A last concrete example is the picture above. None of the color is easy to name. Their association is handsome, harmonious … seems natural. Though, chance to find such a combination in our stores is close to zero.

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