Guys who received Valentine’s chocolates from female friends or coworkers last Friday are expected to reciprocate with small gifts on ホワイトデー (howaitodē, White Day) on March 14. ホワイトデー is one of many color-related gairaigo (foreign loan-words, mostly English, written in katakana) now firmly established in Japanese. Others include レッドカード (reddokādo, red card), ブラックフォーマル (burakkufōmaru, black formal, i.e., black formal suit), グリーン (guriin, green, i.e., environmentally friendly), グレー (gurē, gray), and カラー (karā, color — as in ボディカラー, bodikarā, automobile-body color).
Happily, gairaigo invaders have not exterminated their color-kanji counterparts: Singletons such as 赤 (aka, red), 青 (ao, blue; green), 白 (shiro, white), 黒 (kuro, black), 緑 (midori, green), and 紫 (murasaki, purple) are alive and well in written Japanese. Many color words are two-kanji compounds with 色 (iro, color) falling in the second position: 茶色 (chairo, tea/color, brown), 黄色 (kiiro, yellow/color, yellow), 水色 (mizuiro, water/color, light blue), 肌色 (hadairo, skin/color, flesh color), and 桜色 (sakurairo, cherry blossom/color, light pink) are a sampling of the sumptuous Japanese palette.
Over 75 shades of red, which symbolizes good fortune, can be identified in Japanese. In “The Land of the Rising Sun,” the sun is considered to be red instead of yellow, which explains why its national flag features a big red dot. Babies are called 赤ちゃん (akachan, red/term of endearment) because of their red appearance at birth. Aside from 赤 , other general-use red kanji include 紅 (beni, crimson, as in 口紅 , kuchibeni, mouth/crimson, lipstick) and 朱 (SHU, vermillion). 朱色 (shuiro) is the impressive color of oft-photographed Shinto shrine archways (鳥居, torii).
The traditional word for pink, seen as a shade of red in Japan, is 桃色 (momoiro, peach/color), but ピンク (pinku) is now more widely used. The image ピンク evokes is a Lolita-esque juxtaposition of Hello Kitty cuteness and the eroticism of a soft-core Japanese pornographic film (ピンク映画 , pinku eiga, pink movie). The gairaigo word オレンジ (orenji, orange), which identifies both the color and the fruit, is fast replacing the original word, 橙色 (daidaiiro, orange/color).
Black (黒) and white (白), in combination, are the colors of mourning, which is why Japanese women often wear white pearls with their ブラックフォーマル (black formal suits) at funerals. Black also symbolizes “evil”; a devious individual is said to be 腹黒い (haraguro-i, stomach/black, black-bellied). 白 has a related connotation of “clarity,” and so 告白 (kokuhaku, announce/clarity) is a “confession.”
灰色 (haiiro, ash/color, gray) and 鼠色 (nezumiiro, mouse/color) are both compound words meaning gray, with 鼠色 being a darker hue than 灰色 . In Japan, instead of sprouting “gray hair,” it’s 白髪 (shiraga, white hair). Since the prevailing practice among Japanese of all ages and both genders is to dye the white offenders brown, black or even purple, the ヘアーカラー (heākarā, hair color) business is always booming.
True green is 緑 (midori/RYOKU), and Japanese green tea, generally referred to in conversation as お茶 (ocha, honorable/tea), is properly classified as 緑茶 (ryokucha, green/tea). 青 (ao), aside from meaning “blue,” can also represent “green,” as in 青信号 (aoshingou, not midori shingou) and 青草 (aokusa, green grass). A clear, daytime sky is 青空 (aozora, blue/sky). Other blue-kanji are 藍 (ai, indigo) and 紺 (kon, navy blue).
色 (iro) conveys another meaning, “sensuality,” as seen in words like 色っぽい (iroppoi, sexy), and as revealed in its etymology: One person (ク) bends over another bended person (巴), a reference to the sex act. Over the centuries in ancient China, 色 evolved from meaning “sexual partner” to “attractive” in a general sense, and then by association to “colorful.” So not only is 色 a colorful kanji . . . it’s an off-color one as well.
QUIZ: Match the following compound words containing color-kanji with their English meanings and Japanese pronunciations. Answers are below.
1. 黒白 (black/white)
2. 赤字 (red/letters)
3. 青年 (immature, “green”/years)
5. 紅葉 (crimson/leaf)
6. 真っ青 (completely/blue)
7. 葉緑素 (leaf/green/element)
8. 色情 (sensuality/feelings)
a. autumn colors (kouyou)
b. ultraviolet rays (shigaisen)
c. youth (seinen)
d. right and wrong (kokubyaku)
e. chlorophyll (youryokuso)
f. deficit (akaji)
g. lust (shikijou)
h. pallid (massao)
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