Colors in Japanese: How to Use Japanese Color Words

Last Updated on 03.06.2022 by Coto Japanese Language School

Primary colors in Japanese seem easy and straightforward, but you’d be surprised by how much culture and history go behind them. Granted, a lot of Japanese vocabulary is borrowed from English, which makes it easy for us to memorize them — but in Japanese culture, colors take an important part if representing feelings, rituals and ceremonies.  

In Japanese, the words for specific colors are used differently depending on their parts of speech. Having two sets – one set is the Japanese – the other being a katakana loan word version of their There are two ways: one set is the Japanese one, and the other is a katakana loan word version of their English counterparts. Most colors in Japanese end with 色 except for a few exceptions and words borrowed from English. 

For example, the color “blue” can be both 青い (aoi) and ブルー (buruu).

Another example is the color orange. Even Japanese people will often opt for the loanword, オレンジ, instead of using the traditional Japanese word: 橙色 (daidaiiro). 

This can be very confusing for beginners in Japanese as to what context is appropriate to use which version. In this article, we will explain to you how to describe objects with colors in Japanese.

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Japanese color
Japanese color

Nouns for Basic Colors in Japanese

EnglishJapaneseFuriganaRomajiKatakanaRomaji
RedあかAkaレッドReddo
Orange橙色だいだいいろDaidaiiroオレンジOrenji
Yellow黄色きいろKiiroイエローIeroo
GreenみどりMidoriグリーンGuriin
BlueあおAoブルーBuruu
PurpleむらさきMurasakiパープルPaapuru
Pink桃色ももいろMomoiroピンクPinku
Brown茶色ちゃいろChairoブラウンBuraun
Grey灰色はいいろHaiiroグレイGurei
BlackくろKuroブラックPurakku
WhiteしろShiroホワイトHowaito

These words above are nouns that refer to different colors.  As a result, the particle “の(no)” is used when describing the color of something.  If you are not familiar with particles in Japanese, we recommend you to take a look at our basic Japanese grammar guide.

The basic sentence pattern for describing colors is color + の + subject.

For example:

みどりの窓口(まどぐち)
Midori no madoguchi
Green window (usually referring to the ticket office at a train station in Japan)

紫(むらさき)の靴下(くつした)
Murasaki no kutsushita
Purple socks.

Why do we use instead of な? For the answer, head to our article on the dilemma of な-adjectives and の-adjectives.

Japanese Colors as Adjectives

Color can also be used as adjectives. Surprisingly, there are only 4 colors that will become an adjective when “い” is added directly to the back.

EnglishJapaneseFuriganaRomaji
Red赤いあかいAkai
Blue青いあおいAoi
Black黒いくろいKuroi
White白いしろいShiroi

To use Japanese colors as adjectives, you can use them directly in front of a subject. For example:

あおい海(うみ)
Aoi umi
Blue sea

海(うみ)はあおいです。
Umi wa aoi desu
The sea is blue.

Check out: Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Adjectives: な and い Adjectives

A Brief Guide on Japanese Colors

So why only four, and why are these colors special? It is because only four colors existed as the basic forms of color in the ancient Japanese language — or, at least, acknowledged: 白 shiro (white), 黒 kuro (black), 赤 aka (red) and 青 ao (blue).

The same can be seen in other basic color wheels. Kuro (くろ) and shiro (しろ) are used to describe things that are dark and light — cool and warm. The word あか covers a spectrum of dark red, orange and yellow, with lighter yellow colors grouped to しろ. Ki (黄) paints in shades of yellow, gold and lighter brown. Murasaki (むらさき) was once a name of a plant but eventually became a color name for purple, too.

Rather than actual colors, these words are used to group particular hues and shades. For example, different shades of blue in the past are now purple, gray and green. 

Confusions Around Colors in Japanese

We’re not trying to make things complicated, but if you dig deeper into the Japanese language, you’ll find that colors in Japanese aren’t as “innocent” as they seem. Take a look at some of the few language conundrums. 

“黄色い” and “茶色い”

There are two more colors that can become Japanese adjectives: 黄色 (kiiro) and 茶色 (chairo). You might think: they are formatted exactly the same way as other (native Japanese) colors, so why didn’t we not put them together with the four main colors above? This is because although meaning yellow and brown color, “黄” and “茶” cannot be on themselves when used as colors.

In fact, the Japanese word for 茶 (cha) means tea.They have to be put together with the word “色 (iro colors) to become nouns for yellow and brown. As a result, when they become adjectives, they are “黄色い” and “茶色い” instead “黄い” or “茶い”

Blue and Green: 青い

In the past, Japanese people considered blue and green as one color called 青い. Because there was no seperation between the two until recently, even in modern times, the word “aoi” is still used to describe objects that are green, like green apples (青りんご) or green traffic lights (青信号).  

The Japanese language only got its unique word for green, みどり (緑) during the Heian period, which was between 794 and 1185. However, the term was not widely adopted until after World War II, and its late adoption was partly why we still see あおい used to describe things that are green.

To learn more about the differences and fun historical facts, check out our exploration on the difference between aoi and midori! 

japanese national flag

Meanings of Colors in Japanese Culture 

A lot of countries (and cultures) place importance on colors. While each tradition may not have the same ideals, specific colors generally represent positive or negative symbols. Depending on the meaning it represents, people might steer clear of wearing that color at a certain event — or, on the opposite, feel inclined to wear them. 

Symbolism in Japanese colors is heavily rooted in China and its traditional philosophies, which include Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. In the past, these philosophies affected the association of color with each social class of Japanese society. 

In other words, colors represent the values of life, particularly white, red, black and blue — the four primary colors in Japanese culture. This is why you’ll see that most Japanese clothing, architecture and events incorporate them. 

Meaning of White Color in Japanese Culture

White (白い)zztakes the majority of the Japanese flag — and for an important reason. As the color of the gods, it represents purity, both spiritual and physical, and reverence for divinity. In Buddhism, white was worn at funerals as it also means death, and funerals were often marked with white and black stripes. 

However, it was the focus of Shinto traditions (check out Japanese religion vocabulary here). You’ll notice white sand, pebbles and decorations at shrines to honor the gods’ wisdom and knowledge. Emperors in Japan would be dressed in white for Shinto rituals, and brides would be covered in white dress and head covering for their wedding. 

Meaning of Red Color in Japanese Culture

The focal point of the Japanese national flag, red (赤い) symbolizes authority, strength and prosperity. This is why it is especially symbolic when paired with white. 

In fact, red plays a dominant part in Japanese architecture. You’ll notice shrines and temples are painted in red, as it is also believed the color can ward away evil spirits while strengthening the link between humans and gods in Shinto shrines. At festivals, people would cover the tables and floor with red cloth and carpets. 

Meaning of Black Color in Japanese Culture

Before Western influence, black (黒い) wasn’t always the color for mourning, but it did have a somewhat negative association. While purple represented the highest rank in the Japanese social class (royalty), black marked the lowest of them. The dark shade was tied to evil, bad luck, fear and misfortune. 

Meaning of Blue Color in Japanese Culture

Blue dye, made from the indigo plant, was the most accessible (and affordable) color Japanese people could use to make clothing and textiles. As such, blue (青い)is the color of common people, worn on kimonos, formal attire and common wear. 

How to Say Other Colors In Japanese

If you feel that the basic colors are too general, here are some Japanese words for more specific colors.

EnglishJapaneseFuriganaRomajiWesternizedRomaji
SilverぎんGinシルバーShirubaa
GoldきんKinゴールドGoorudo
Rainbow clour虹色にじいろNijiiro
Light Blue水色みずいろMizuiro
Navy Blue紺色こんいろKoniroネービーNeiibi
PurpleむらさきMurasakiパープルPaapuru
Yellowish Green黄緑きみどりKimidori
BeigeベージュBeeju

Want to learn more than just colors? Check out our Japanese courses!

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