Color in Japan, a concrete and natural concept

Nature and colors: two inseparable notions in Japan

Moonlight white, crow's wing color, wet crow's feather color, young bamboo green, eggshell color ... When we start to be interested in colors in Japan, the vocabulary makes us smile and surprises, our terminology seems very poor compared to this!
There are more than 1000 shades to qualify a color in Japan, mainly based on fauna, flora and nature in general.
In Japan, colors are defined with very concrete benchmarks unlike our more abstract Western culture. It is clear that we do not see the same thing. Color as a “cultural fact” was notably theorized by the color historian Michel Pastoureau “ definitions, conceptions, perceptions of colors vary according to culture. Even if I limit myself to Western Europe, I read the works of others and I know well, for example, that, for a Japanese, red is rather a calming color (the idea of ​​vibrant, exciting red is Western , and not universal); that the Japanese eye distinguishes different shades better than us in the ranges of reds, and especially whites. The Japanese language thus has a richness or subtlety of vocabulary for certain colors that European languages ​​have difficulty translating

Due to its geography (only 20% of Japanese territory is habitable) and the numerous natural risks (tsunami, earthquakes, typhoons, etc.) nature is as much respected as feared by the Japanese. Japan is also distinguished by a wide variety of climates and by a very marked seasonality. Each change of seasons is widely celebrated and popular festivals are essentially based on nature in the broad sense (a variety of flowers blooming, the start of the rainy season, the appearance of white morning dew, etc.). The Japanese celebrate the beauty of their nature as much as its ephemeral nature. The most convincing example is the cherry blossom festival ( Hanami ) in the first days of April: as soon as they bloom, the flowers fly away with the slightest breath of wind.

Colors with strictly codified uses

Successive imperial courts have codified colors and their uses for centuries, even going so far as to prohibit certain shades from the people by reserving them for the highest dignitaries during particular ceremonies. The Murasaki color was, for example, reserved for the highest level of Japanese society. This color was then obtained thanks to the root of the gremil (small shrub with bluish flowers), the pigments of which were very difficult to fix. Each fabric of this color was invaluable. Another color which was then reserved for the empress and her ladies-in-waiting is the Fuji -iro shade, inspired by the flowers of the Japanese wisteria. As a general rule, the colors forbidden to the people were also implicitly prohibited by their cost and the difficulty of obtaining them. This is also the case for the Karakunerai shade made from pigment extracted from a plant, called dyers' safflower (also called dyers' saffron). Safflower is one of the oldest crops of humanity, it was already cultivated in 2000 BC. JC in Egypt.

Purple in JapanPurple in JapanRed in Japan

As you will have understood, Japanese craftsmanship has also developed unique know-how in natural dyeing, managing to transcribe the slightest nuance thanks to the mastery of plant pigments (indigo, safflower, etc.). There are around 1000 nuances, identified and listed, a unique palette in the known world and which explains the rich and precise vocabulary of the Japanese language. Among the dyeing techniques that still exist today, note Shibori (technique of knots and folding of fabrics creating unique patterns) which is done in the traditional way with indigo.
I have chosen to illustrate my article with a colorful seasonal selection from the talented koyomist and illustrator Bénédicte whose universe I invite you to discover. Her blog is an inexhaustible source of inspiration!

Autumn colors in Japan

Winter color in Japan

Spring colors in Japan

Summer colors in Japan

Some links to explore the subject in more depth:
- Colors (2010) Michel Pastoureau
- Podcast France Culture, Tastes and colors, Michel Pastoureau
- Blog by Frenchwoman Bénédicte, living in Japan for 10 years, a true expert in Japanese customs and traditions, her articles are fascinating and her photos are wonderful!
- The Color name site that I found by chance while writing this article. You will find absolutely all the existing colors, their definition, their complementary color, gradients, different patterns based on this same color.
- On Instagram, the account which will give you lots of ideas on original palettes and beautiful color combinations. Essential if you want to re-paint your kitchen :)