Aoi (青い) vs Midori (緑): Is It Blue or Green?

Last Updated on 06.01.2022 by Coto Japanese Language School

When you’ve just started to learn Japanese, you might notice this: the Japanese adjective for blue and green is the same: あおい (or 青い). Even in modern times, the word “aoi” is used to describe objects that are, well, green. For example, the word green light or green apple uses the kanji 青: 青信号 (aoshingou) and 青りんご (aoringo).

This is where the confusion starts. Just recently (as recent as about 100 years ago, of course), the Japanese language was introduced to use another word for “green”, which is midori (みどり・緑). While every country has its own take of how they want colors to be described, colors in Japanese are used differently depending on their parts of speech.

So what’s the explanation and history behind aoi (青い)? When should you use midori and aoi? Are they the same thing?

Keep in mind that あお (青) is a noun, while あおい (青い) is an adjective as we will be referring to them both.

Is Aoi (青い) Both Blue And Green?

In ancient Japan, only four colors existed — or, at least, acknowledged: 白 shiro (white), 黒 kuro (black), 赤 aka (red) and 青 ao (blue). However, 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. As such, 青 has been widely used to describe green and blue; they’re essentially considered the same — not visually, but conceptually.

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.

The character 青 is mostly associated with words related to vegetation. Hence, words older than have remained unchanged. For example, words for “green apples” and “green vegetables” are still あおりんご (青林檎) and あおやさい (青野菜).

Not only does vegetation use the word for blue instead of green, but green traffic lights have been called as 青信号 (あおしんごう) in Japanese. This can be translated to blue traffic light in English. This is because when traffic lights were first introduced in the 1930s, newspapers back then used あお or 青  to describe its color since the word for green had yet to be adopted. The word stayed and much like anything else in society, it refuses to change.

What About Other Colors?

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 — no pun intended — on 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.

みどり, like other newer words like ちゃいろ (茶色), which means brown and きいろ (黄色), which means yellow, is a modern addition to the Japanese language.

Differences Between Aoi (青い) and Midori (緑)

The character 青 has been constantly evolving in both Chinese and Japanese Language. Pronounced as ‘qing’ in Chinese and ‘ao’ in Japanese, 青 can refer to relatively similar terms from both languages.

In Chinese, 青 is used to describe things that are (naturally) green such as 青草 (green grass), 青山 (green mountain), 青島 (Qingdao). You should never use 青 to describe things that are not naturally green. For example, you would not call a green light as 青燈 but rather it should be called as 綠燈 , (綠 can be used to refer to anything that is green).

In Japanese, 青 is used to describe things that are blue such as 青い空 (blue sky)、青い海 (blue ocean).

Aoi (青い) can also be translated to “fresh” or “newly grown”. Now, while あおい isn’t loosely interchangeable with みどり, it is typically when you want to describe something that’s “fresh” or vegetations that tend to be light blue-ish green in color. It can also be referred to as an adjective to describe someone that is “inexperienced” or “fresh to the Industry”.

Common words that use “Ao” 青 but are actually blue

The character (青) ao , represents light colors and is used in many different Japanese words. Here are some words in which you will use 青 :  

  • 青空 Aozora – Blue Skies
  • 青信号 Aoshingou  – Green Traffic Lights
  • 青りんご Aoringo – Green apple
  • 青春 Seishun – Youth
  • 青森 Aomori – Aomori (city/prefecture)
  • 青山 Aoyama – Green Mountain

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