31 Aug 2022

Aesthetics of Japanese Traditional Colors

As an island nation with a temperate climate, Japan offers a full range of natural landscapes, from mountains and deep forests to rivers and oceans, where a variety of plants, flowers, and creatures live from diverse vegetation.

Because these rich natural features change from season to season, the Japanese eye has sensed every color with great delicacy since ancient times, and has given each a name. Thus, names are also derived from natural phenomena and plants and flowers. This is how the concept of "traditional colors" was born in Japan.

Many of Japan's traditional colors are deeply related to the history of Japanese dyeing and weaving, in other words, the aesthetic sense that Japanese people feel toward nature has been handed down to the present day. Japanese tableware is no exception.

In this issue, we would like to introduce some of Japan's traditional colors, along with the flowers and other natural phenomena that inspired them.

You may also like the 8 Traditional Japanese Patterns and Their Origins, please visit our blog from here.


  • Red Colors
  • Blue Colors
  • Yellow Colors
  • Green Colors
  • Purple Colors

Red Colors

It is the color of fiery passion, a symbol of life, and also the color of the setting sun. Vivid red was one of the most precious colors in Japan before the introduction of chemical dyes in the 19th century, as it was extremely difficult to produce the color by dyeing with natural materials.

Flowers such as safflower and "Akane" are mainly used for dyeing, each with a different tone of red. The red pigment used for shrine "Torii" gates was also derived from minerals and was also very valuable.

"Beni Iro"

ファイル番号:  44827072

"Beni" is the name of the deepest and most precious of the Japanese plant-based rouge colors, and is also the term used to refer to the lipsticks worn by Geisha.

Traditional Japanese lipsticks are made entirely from pigments extracted from safflower petals. Only 1% of safflower petals contain safflower pigment, and only a manageable amount can be extracted from as many as 2-300 safflower flowers.

The extracted Beni pigment was applied to the inside of small shells or porcelain vials for market, and when used, it was applied to the lips with fingers or a brush. Arita porcelain was sometimes used for the containers of the safflower, and the cosmetics were truly a highly valuable craftwork.

"Akane iro"

ファイル番号:  451479846

Japanese plant-derived red can be obtained not only from safflower, but also from the roots of Akane. The color dyed with the root of the akane is called Akane-iro, and compared to Beni iro, which is almost a bright rose red, Akane-iro is a slightly deeper red.

Akane-iro is also a symbolic color of autumn, and has been likened to the color of cloudless dusk, the color of autumn leaves, and the color of red dragonflies, all of which are unique to this season.

"Shu Iro"

"Shu", crushed cinnabar, has been used since B.C. and is considered a sacred color used for torii (gateways) of shrines.

Cinnabar is an ore called "Philosopher's Stone" in the West, and has antiseptic and mothproof properties when used as a pigment. Its bright orange-red color was used in vermilion lacquerware in ancient times. In today's vermilion lacquerware, iron oxide is mostly used as a pigment to produce the red color.

Although cinnabar is sometimes considered dangerous, natural cinnabar is not toxic for use in crafts, and even when cinnabar red is used in vermilion lacquerware, it is only used after proper safety checks.

Recommended Items of Red Color

Fukunishi Sobe Plum-Shaped Aizu Lacquer Tray

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Akae Kutani Round Plate Set

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Blue Colors

Reminiscent of the color of ocean waves, the bright sky, and deep night, blue is a color that symbolizes clarity and serenity. It has a long history of being favored as the color of kimonos, and clear, vivid blue has long been seen in dyed fabrics derived from plants.

In an old Japanese language, blue was also sometimes used to describe the depth of green. Even today, older people sometimes describe the vigor of lush grass and leaves as "blue".

"Aye Iro"

“Aye" is a deep, greenish-blue color, similar to indigo, produced by dyeing with a plant called "Tadé Aye". It was especially popular in Japan around the Edo period (1603-1867), and was used everywhere, including on kimonos and ”Noren" (store curtains).

This color was also a favorite of the Ukiyoe artist Katsushika Hokusai, who used blue paint similar to this color imported from Berlin, called Bero Aye (meaning "Berlin's Aye"), in his ukiyoe paintings.

”Gosu Iro"

“Gosu" refers to the blue underglaze color used in blue-and-white porcelain called Sometsuke, as seen in Arita Ware, Tobe Ware, and Seto Ware. The basic color is a clear, bright blue, but the color may vary slightly depending on the region where the porcelain is produced, and sometimes iron is mixed in to make it blackish.

The Gosu color, made from cobalt, is called cobalt blue in the West, and was the color of painted porcelain loved by Western aristocrats who imported Imari Ware from Japan.

Recommended Items of Blue Color

Arita Porcelain Lab Japan Blue Wave and Dragon Sake Cooler

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Baizan Kiln TOKUSA Arabesque Tobe Round Plate

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Kokuzou Kiln Turkish Blue Kutani Grande Mug 16.9oz

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Yellow Colors

In Japan about 1,000 years ago, yellow and orange were considered the colors symbolizing sunshine and gold. In Japan, where the country's name means "Land of the Rising Sun," yellow, representing light, was also the color symbolizing the emperor. Therefore, yellow-green was allowed for the common people, while yellow, which is close to orange, was considered a "forbidden" color in the past. Because of the complexity of the dyeing process, only dyers serving the Court were allowed to know the recipes for the forbidden colors.


Among the forbidden colors, those that only the emperor was allowed to wear were called ”absolute forbidden colors”. A typical example is the color called “Kourozen”, expresses the dazzling sunlight of midsummer.

When viewed by the color itself, it is just a tarnished brown, but when dyed on fine silk, the color changes depending on the angle and becomes an extremely beautiful golden color, as if it were luminous. This color is made by blending several kinds of plant dyes, and even today it is the color chosen for the costumes worn only by emperors on ceremonial occasions.

"Yamabuki Iro"

The warm, bright yellow color called "Yamabuki" is the yellow color of the flower of the same name. Also known as "Kogane Iro (golden yellow)," it was a color that symbolized flamboyance and luxury.

It was also favored as a color for kimonos in the past, especially when worn inside a kimono, making the yellow inner kimono peek out from the outer kimono.

"Ukon Iro"

"Ukon" is the Japanese name for the Chinese herb Turmeric. Cloth dyed with Turmeric has a bright yellow color and is effective against insects. In Japan, turmeric-dyed cloth or Furoshiki called "Ukon-Fu" are used to wrap and store kimonos and artifacts.

In Sri Lanka and Thailand, turmeric-dyed cloth is also used for robes worn by Buddhist monks.

Recommended Items of Yellow Color

MERU Flamenco Modern Mino Ware Plate 11in

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Green Colors

Green is a color that is representative of the natural world. Japan is no exception. In fact, in dyeing, bright green is a color that cannot be produced only with green dyes.

In Japan, green is also known not only as the color of grass, but also as the color of bird feathers and jewels.

"Oribe Iro"

Oribe Green Mino Ware Japanese Teacup

The name "Oribe" comes from the name of the 16 - 17th century tea master Furuta Oribe. Oribe focused on making pottery in order to create suitable tea utensils for his own way of tea, and later established a style known as “Oribe-Gonomi" (Oribe taste).

In this style, a glossy, deep, bright green glaze called Oribe glaze is used, and Oribe green is the color used to describe the green of the glaze. 

"Uguisu Iro"

It is called "Uguisu," which refers to the color of the feathers of a small bird found throughout Japan, and is a dusky green like Matcha green tea.

The Uguisu bird is known for its distinctive song in the spring as it searches for couples. When we hear the song of the Uguisu bird in the quiet, warm spring sunlight, we feel as if spring has sprouted inside our hearts.

Incidentally, the Uguisu is known in the West as the warbler. The melody of its song varies by country.

"Hisui Iro"

ファイル番号:  72804572

"Hisui" is the name of gem-quality jade. Compared to emerald green, Hisui Iro is a bright green with bluish tints.

In Japan, jade has long been prized as a representative gemstone, and jewelry made of jade has been excavated from ancient burial mounds dating from the Jomon period, which dates from BC. 

The jewelry worn in ancient Japan had a special shape called a "magatama," and it is not difficult to imagine how long it would have taken to process the hard jade with primitive tools such as bamboo and stone. That is how noble a treasure jade was.

Recommended Items Green Color

MERU Jade Mino Ware Deep Plate 10.1in

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Ginsai Camellia Kutani Sake Set

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Purple Colors

In Japan, purple has been known since ancient times as the most precious and noble of all colors. Until the discovery of a herb dye called “Shikon (purple root)" around the 12th century, the only available purple dye was "shellfish purple," extracted from the entrails of shellfish.

The color of shell purple was so vivid and beautiful that it was used as a symbol of power by emperors and powerful families in ancient Japan, as it required a large amount of shells and was very precious.

In other countries, ancient Egypt used the same technique to dye with shell purple, which was called imperial purple or Cleopatra's purple.

"Edo Murasaki"

The Japanese name for purple is "Murasaki," and it was a color worn only by the highest of the nobility. However, as dyeing techniques improved over time, the color became accessible to the general public.

By the Edo period (1603-1867), the vivid purple color attracted people in the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo).

The dazzling bluish purple, called "Edo Murasaki," was first used as the color for headbands worn by Kabuki actors, and it became popular among those who loved extravagance throughout Edo, and came to be favored as the color of "Iki," symbolizing a stylish, attractive, and majestic way of life.

"Kyo Murasaki"

"Kyo Murasaki" is a color meaning purple dyed in Kyoto, with a strong reddish hue, as opposed to Edo Murasaki, which has a bluish hue. It is also called "ancient purple" because of its ancient origins, while Edo Murasaki is also called "modern purple".

Kyoto was the capital of Japan before the capital was moved to Edo, and is a place where Japan's ancient and best techniques, heritage, and treasures have been gathered. So the court dyers were also in Kyoto too, and the traditional dyeing technique using a Shikon purple herb was passed down over generations.

The Kyoto people, who prefer elegance and conservative, basically not liking the sense of rough and tumble Edo people, and there are still documents that claim that "Kyo purple is the real purple" in contrast to the innovative Edo’s modern purple.

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Sazara Pattern Purple Furoshiki Wrapping Cloth - 17in/30in

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Bizan Kiln Green Elephant Kutani Teacup

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Color of The Magic in Japan

In Japan, there is a philosophy called the Yin-Yang Five Elements philosophy, which was introduced from China more than 1,000 years ago and has remained in Japan until the present day with its connection to Shintoism.

In this philosophy, the five hues of red, green (blue), yellow, white, and black (purple) corresponded to the five attributes of fire, wood, earth, metal, and water, respectively, and were used for fortune telling, amulets, and to understand the balance of various natural phenomena.

It is said that living surrounded by a variety of colors is necessary to lead a happy lifestyle. The traditional Japanese colors introduced here are just a few examples, and it is no exaggeration to say that Japan has as many colors as it has nature. We hope you will try to incorporate those colors into your daily life and use them in your Japanese table coordination and interior design.