Saturday 22 April 2017

What colour is it? Green and blue in Japan

A picture of bright yellow yamabuki or Japanese yellow rose
Kerria Japonica (yamabuki) or Japanese yellow rose
One of the fun things about learning a foreign language is that you realise that many words and concepts you took for granted are in fact arbitrary. A prime example is colour (iro in Japanese=色) and colour labels can differ in interesting ways between cultures. For example, Japanese has many colour labels named after things in nature such as kuchiba (fallen leaves)-iro and uguisu (Japanese nightingale)-iro. Fruit labels are particularly common and include daidai (tangerine)-iro, anzu (apricot)-iro, and momo (peach)-iro. Interestingly, the colour beni-iro although named after the yellow-orange flower beni-bana (safflower) is translated as crimson in English while yamabuki-iro (a colour named after the bright "yellow" spring flower Kerria Japonica pictured above right which was introduced in an earlier post) is closer to orange on the colour spectrum in Japan - and Japanese insist the flower has an "orange" tint!

A green "walk" sign which Japanese call "blue"
A green (blue?) crossing sign
Even more interesting are the colours "blue" and "green" in Japanese. While ao(i)-iro or simply aoi (青い) is translated as "blue" in the dictionary this doesn't capture how it is actually used in practice. Aoi in Japanese, especially in the past, typically covered a broader spectrum than the English "blue", and is probably best described as green/blue (grue?). Today, there remain many reminders of this "grue" perception such as the fact that the "green" traffic signal and walk symbol (pictured left),  "green" apples, and "green" leaves are referred to as "blue" (aoi) in Japanese. In the case of the first two, one explanation is that Japanese see red and blue, being primary colours, as opposites and using aoi in these cases makes the contrast with red clearer.

A final example of using aoi (blue) where we would use green in English are the words used to describe young people who in English would be "green behind the ears" or "greenhorns." In Japanese young people are seinen (青年), adolescence is seinenki (青年期), and puberty is seishunki (青春期), all using the kanji for "blue." But just to add to the confusion, in the past infants up to three years-old were called midori (green) ko/go with the nuance of a young bud or leaf. New-born babies, however, have always been called aka-chan or "little red one" using the character for red (赤)!