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japanese colors, traditional japanese colors

Japanese Colors: Five Amazing Hues You Should Know!

Thalia Harris

Thalia Harris

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A woman in a blue kimono, holidng a red parasol, next to a tree of pink cherry blossoms. They are popular Japanese colors.

The traditional Japanese colors are more than just a visual feast for the eyes – they carry a profound cultural and historical significance that reflects the country’s rich heritage and traditions. Let’s look at these hues and their relationship with Japanese history and culture. 

Uguisucha (Japanese bush warbler brown)

Uguisucha is a traditional color in Japan that is often used in various traditional arts and crafts. It is a greenish-brown hue associated with the Japanese bush warbler, called “uguisu” in Japanese. The bird is a small, plain brown warbler with a distinct voice. It inhabits forest understory, dense shrubland, bamboo thickets, and forest edges.

An uguisu or Japanese bush warbler. It's a bird that has one of many Japanese colors named after it.
The Japanese bush warbler is a greenish-brown color. Image via Shutterstock

The male bird’s distinctive song begins with a long tone followed by a rapid warble, “uuuuuu-guisu”. This unique and delightful song is a hallmark of the arrival of spring in Japan. Additionally, a neighborhood in Tokyo–Uguisudani (literally “warbler valley”) –also draws inspiration from the same bird.

Rikyushiracha (faded Sen no Rikyu’s tea brown)

A cup of faded brown tea, also knows as Rikyushiracha.
This color is a soft shade of brown, similar to tea. Image via Shutterstock

Rikyushiracha is a traditional Japanese color that references the tea master Sen no Rikyu. This brewed mustard-brown hue is significant in Japanese art, literature, and textiles, such as kimono. Specifically, Sen no Rikyu is an essential figure in Japanese history and is famous for formalizing the elements and practices of the Japanese tea ceremony in the 16th century. He established tea schools, including some founded by his descendants and students, to pass down the tradition. All in all, Sen no Rikyu’s influence on the tea ceremony and aesthetics has impacted Japanese culture.

Azuki-iro  (Azuki bean red)

A bowl of red azuki beans.
Azuki beans are a deep shade of red. Image via Shutterstock

Azuki-iro is a traditional Japanese color that is associated with the azuki bean. This deep, reddish-brown hue is specifically named after the small, reddish-brown legume commonly used in Japanese cuisine. Moreover, the azuki bean is known for its sweet flavor and is used in various dishes, including traditional sweets, soups, and rice cakes. In Japan, the azuki bean especially holds cultural significance and is often associated with good luck and prosperity.

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Kenpozome (legal dye brown)

Kenpozome references the Edo-era swordsman Yoshioka Kenpo. This dark brown color is in traditional Japanese clothing called “Kenpo Zome no Kaidori”. Kenpo Yoshio, a prominent swordsman of Kyoto, invented this attire. People saw it as suitable formal attire and sometimes worn with hakama (trousers) over it. Additionally, people usually wore it with “aigi” (garment worn over an undergarment) of a dark color, and those over 40 years old were to wear white habutae, a thin, soft, durable Japanese silk.

A swordsman wearing kenpozome hakama and a blue top.
Kenpozome was considered a designer color in the Edo period. Image via Shutterstock

Yoshioka Kenpo was a renowned swordsman of the Edo period in Japan and the head of the Yoshioka-ryu, a famous school of swordsmanship in Kyoto. People noted his exceptional swordsmanship skills and role in the Yoshioka school’s rivalry with the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.

This rivalry culminated in a duel between the Musashi and Yoshioka schools, in which Musashi emerged victorious. As a result, Yoshioka Kenpo and his school’s story are present in various works of literature and art, making him a prominent figure in Japanese martial history.

Chitosemidori (1000 year old green)

Chitosemidori is a traditional Japanese color that resembles the dark green color of Japanese pine needles. The name “Chitosemidori” comes from the Japanese pine, symbolizing longevity due to its evergreen nature. This color is significant because it represents enduring beauty. According to legend, it remains unchanged even after 1,000 years, reflecting the timeless nature of the Japanese pine.

A forest full of Chitosemidori colored trees.
Pine trees are a symbol of good luck in Japan. Image via Shutterstock

Japanese culture undoubtedly values pine trees for their evergreen nature, symbolizing longevity, steadfastness, and youth. In Japan, the pine tree symbolizes good luck and longevity. As a result, its imagery is common in various art forms, such as painting, poetry, and traditional crafts. 

Pine motifs in architecture, interior design, and landscaping are also prevalent, especially about the New Year, as the pine is one of the “Three Friends of Winter,” along with bamboo and plum, symbolizing perseverance and renewal.All in all, the enduring presence of the pine in Japanese culture reflects its deep-rooted importance and symbolism.

Why are these traditional Japanese colors so important?

Generally, traditional Japanese colors have deep cultural and historical significance in art, clothing, and rituals and carry symbolic meanings. Moreover, some of these colors date back to the Asuka period (538 to 710) and have social hierarchy associations, with specific colors reserved for high-ranking officials. 

A bunch of backlit Japanese parasols.
Which traditional Japanese colors do you think are beautiful? Image via Shutterstock

Understanding these colors provides insights into Japanese culture, history, and life and brings Japanese art and literature to life. These colors are undoubtedly still in rotation, reflecting their enduring importance in Japanese society. Which traditional Japanese color interests you the most? Are there any that we missed? Let us know in the comments below!

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