Japanese color schemes are fresh and pleasant and play a significant role in Japanese design. Maybe you’re learning Japanese and want to know how to describe standard colors in Japanese. Or perhaps you’re a designer looking for some new inspiration through traditional Japanese colors. Either way, this article will provide you with some helpful information to get you started!
Vocabularies for standard colors
Adjectives: four traditional concepts of colors
In the image above, you can see, there are four color words ending in い: “赤い,” “青い,” “黒い,” and “白い”. In Japanese, words that end in い are usually adjectives. While all other color words are nouns in most cases, “赤い,” “青い,” “黒い,” and “白い” are adjectives because they are the four traditional colors of Japan.
The ancient Japanese people believed that the four traditional colors are the source of all colors. According to this opinion, other colors can be created by adjusting the four colors in terms of shade or mix. It doesn’t sound unreasonable. You probably learned that the three primary colors are red, green, and blue in high school. However, the traditional Japanese colors are only “red” and “blue” without “green.” Why?
Aoi (青い): blue or green?
The word “青い” was used to represent the colors “green” and “blue” until the 20th century. About 100 years ago, the kanji “緑(green)” was first introduced to represent green. Today, however, “青い” can still mean “blue” or “green,” but is only standardly used for “blue” in a handful of cases. For example, the green traffic light that allows pedestrians to cross a road is called the “青信号” in Japan.
In fact, not only “青い” but also “黒い,” “白い,” and “赤い” represent a broad spectrum of colors conceptually. Thus, although there were only four words for colors in ancient Japan, they also referred to a wide range of colors.
Using Japanese color words
After the above explanation, I think you may have a general understanding of Japanese colors. But don’t feel worried if you don’t quite get it yet! Now, I’ll introduce to you how to use these standard Japanese color words. Here are some example sentences that you can use for reference.
In the above five examples (except for “緑” which was added to contrast with “青い”) you can see the four traditional colors mentioned earlier, which also happen to be adjectives. In Japanese, adjectives are placed directly in front of nouns for modification, just like in English.
Additionally, you may have noticed that in the last sentence, “真っ” is added before “黒い.” “真っ” means “pure,” which is used to emphasize the depth of color.
Next, I will introduce you to Japanese color vocabulary in the form of nouns. To modify one noun with another noun in Japanese, you must add “の”, the particle used to connect nouns and indicate possession, between the two nouns. We have an article about Japanese particles if interested to learn more.
The leaves of the trees turn yellow in fall
There was a big gold star on the door
Speech is silver. Silence is golden
She has brown eyes
あの ピンク の服を着た女性はだれですか
Who is the woman dressed in pink
English loanwords of colors
Good news! There is a super-easy way to express colors in Japanese. If you think the above color words written in kanji are too hard to remember, you can try the corresponding loanwords written in Katakana. Just as there are many Japanese loanwords in English, most of these words are originally English, so you can quickly memorize and use them. Nevertheless, these words are thought of as nouns in Japanese, which are different from their original lexical category in English.
レッド - reddo - red
ブルー - buruu - blue
ブラック - burakku - black
ワイト - waito - white
イエロー - yieroo - yellow
オレンジ - orenji - orange
グレー - guree - gray
ゴールド - goorudo - gold
シルバー - shirubaa - silver
パープル - paapuru - purple
ブラウン - buraun - brown
ピンク - pinku - pink
More specific colors in Japanese (e.g., navy blue, violet, scarlet)
Before this color journey ends, here are more colors full of Japanese beauty for you. Without further ado, let’s enjoy this feast for the eyes!
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