The origin of the colors in Japanese

In the entry about The origin of the word yaoya, I commented that the traffic lights in Japan were blue instead of green. To understand this, it is necessary to talk about the origin of colors in Japanese and, based on this article, I will explain the reason.

The original colors

A long time ago (and not in a galaxy far, far away) in Japan, there were only four names to name the colors which were 赤 (aka), 黒 (kuro), 白 (shiro) and 青 (ao) (red, black, white and blue respectively). This shows the difficulty in transmitting more complex chromatic information.

However, what happened is that those colors were used with a much broader meaning and, even if a certain color did not have a name, just by using words like 明るさ (akarusa) (clarity) or 濃さ (kosa) (density) one could see the difference.

More specifically, we have the following:

  • 明るい (akarui) (clear or luminous) ・・・赤 (aka) (red) comes from 明るい (akarui);
  • 暗い (kurai) (dark) ・ ・・・黒 (kuro) (black) comes from 暗い (kuroi);
  • 濃い (koi) (dense, thick, dark) ・ ・ ・ ・ 白 (shiro) (white) comes from 著し (shiroshi) (meaning that something is clear or evident);
  • 薄い (usui) (light) ・ ・・・青 (ao) (blue) comes from 淡い (awai) (faint or light).

    That is, if someone thought of 明るい (light or bright) everything was 赤い (red) and if they thought of 暗い (dark) everything was 黒い (black). The same happened with 白 (white) and with 青 (blue). It is evident that this way of perceiving colors was completely different from the current one.

First appearances of colors

It is believed that from the Kofun era (250-538) to the Asuka era (538-710) the origin of the names of the colors in Japanese arises. Later, in the Heian era (794-1185), their proliferation continued to increase.

In fact, in that same era, the diary written by the lady 清少納言 (Sei Shounagon) called 枕草子 (Makura no soushi) (in English, The Pillow Book), already names colors such as white and red.

With four colors the world was gradually getting richer

At that time, the four colors 赤 (red), 黒 (black), 白 (white) and 青 (blue) became the basis of Japanese and their meaning diversified over time.

For example, there is an expression that says 真っ赤な太陽 (makka na taiyou) (literally, completely red sun). However, no matter how you look at it, the sun doesn’t have that color; in fact, one can see it as white. Anyway, if you think that 赤 (red) comes from 明るい (clear or luminous), it’s not so strange that the sun had that color description.

We also have 腹黒い (haraguroi) (literally, black belly to refer to someone evil). It is a good metaphor to designate that, in the depths of his soul, that person is dark, as designated by the origin of the word 暗い (dark).

It is the same with the word 白ける (shirakeru) (killjoy). Although its initial meaning 白 (white) pointed to something obvious or to someone telling the truth, the word evolved to 素になってしまう (su ni natte shimau): to be as one is; or 本来の感情のない自分が出てきてしまう (honrai no kanjou no nai jibun ga dete kite shimau): to appear the true self without feelings.

As for the color 青 (blue) we will leave it for the next entry.