Symbolic colors in Japanese culture

Japan is a country with ancient traditions that have shaped culture for millennia and created a universe of habits and customs that are unique in the world.
Despite Western influences, Japanese society has managed to keep its roots in art, rituals and even in the use of colors almost unchanged.
Even today some color shades are considered lucky and auspicious and therefore recommended for sacred celebrations, while others are kept on the sidelines as negative and bad omen symbols.

And in fact, since the dawn of its history, Japan has reserved particular importance to colors, a meaning that went far beyond the mere decorative function, linking them to an ethical and moral concept.
As the famous designer Tanaka Ikkō said:

“In Japan, colors, whether intense or delicate, are identified not on the basis of reflected light or shadow, but in terms of the meaning and feeling associated with them.”

The role of color in Japanese culture is therefore above all cultural and spiritual and its use, even today, helps to internally codify society, cults and disciplines such as martial arts.

Let’s take a look at the meanings of the main colors of the Japanese tradition:

Red (aka)

Red in Japan is a sacred and ritual color, which protects and purifies by moving away evil spirits. We find it adorning the Shinto temples and torii, the access doors to the sacred.

It is a vivid, strong and passionate color, a representation of the sun, prosperity and vital forces channeled into the blood.
In Japanese culture, the color red is so popular that there is the proverb

と な り の は な は あ か い / tonari no hana wa akai /the neighbor’s flowers are red

Our equivalent of ‘the neighbour’s grass is always greener!’ and therefore indicates the leading role of this color compared to all the others.

But in the land of the rising sun it is above all the pair of White and Red to represent the perfect color combination, a symbol of good luck and balance, and for this reason it is often used during ceremonies and celebrations through the presence of drapes of the two colors. During important occasions such as weddings and birthdays, red and white are worn as a symbol of celebration, joy and happiness.

White (shiro)

Even isolated white is a very popular color in Japan. It has a complex and varied symbolism, which leads it to assume two seemingly opposing meanings: on the one hand death and burial and on the other virtue, innocence and truth.
White is therefore the color of both spiritual and physical purification that corresponds to a new phase in man’s life.
Since ancient times, the Emperor of Japan used to wear traditional white clothes for most of the Shinto rituals.

Black (kuro)

The meanings of Black in traditional Japanese culture are extremely ancient.
Black is mystery, night, anger.
Contrasted to white it often takes on the meaning of mourning and passage into the afterlife. Funerals are usually celebrated with large decorative black and white striped drapes and the same contrast is found in the cords that tie the gifts of condolence to the relatives of the deceased.

It is also a masculine color, which identified the samurai class and which today dresses the bride and groom on their wedding day and children during the Kodomo no hi (こ ど も の 日), a dedicated day to childhood to wish, in particular, good health to male children.

Over time, black has also taken on the meaning of elegance, seriousness and experience. In fact, it identifies the belts of martial arts masters, a symbol of mastery and experience, as opposed to the white ones of the students.

Blue (ao)

In the positive sense of the Japanese tradition, Blue represents freshness, youth and confidence, but it can also be a symbol of passivity, incompleteness and immaturity.

In ancient times it was the color of ordinary people, who by law could not flaunt bright colors, the prerogative of the Emperor and the higher strata of society.
People used to wear kimonos in gray or blue, since indigo was the most available and low-cost natural dye. The dyeing techniques using the Indigofera tinctoria plant passed, for generations, from mother to daughter and even today, in some Japanese artisan workshops, it is possible to witness live the traditional dyeing processes.

Today blue is considered a color suitable for every day, discreet and neutral and therefore very popular in the wardrobe of students and professionals of all kinds.

Green (midori)

Green in Japan is a color with multiple symbolic references, which refer to freshness, peace and rest. The reference to Green Tea and Matcha Tea, so present and rooted in traditional culture, can only underline the leading role of this color.

But Green is above all the color of the vegetation.
On May 4th, the Japanese celebrate the ‘Green Day’ Midori no hi (み ど り の 日), a traditional festival dedicated to respect for nature and its benevolent relationship with man.

Green therefore takes on all the symbolic meanings of the natural and uncontaminated environment: energy, vitality and eternity.

Deepening the role of colors in a specific culture always allows us to draw a line that runs through its history and its evolution over time, but in the case of Japan it is much more.

Here Color is at the same time History, Symbol and Emotion and reveals the hidden and unprecedented meanings of a millenary and infinitely fascinating culture.