Do you ever feel your Japanese is like the first part of that old Claritin ad before the actor takes the antihistamine, the blurriness peels away from the screen and everything is more vivid and colorful?
Or maybe, when you look around, all you can say is, “Wow, look at those blobs. They all look the same. How vibrant and noticeable.”
When you try to bring some life and vigor into your everyday speech, do people glare at you like the sort-of-antagonists in the movie “Pleasantville”?
You, my friend, may be suffering from a severe lack of Japanese color words.
With just one of these small, yellow pills a day, you’ll be better in no time!
You’ll have more bounce in your snazzy gold shoes, the grass will be greener on every side and the sky will be blue, oh so blue.
Why You Should Learn Japanese Color Words
- The most fundamental reason for learning Japanese color words is so that you can describe things.
- You can add these words to your adjective lexicon to beef up your vocabulary and sound more like a native speaker.
- Learning these basic words will create a foundation onto which you can add other, more advanced words. That is, by knowing the primary and secondary colors (red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple), you can easily learn how to describe different hues of each and every color (maroon, cinnabar, sky blue, forest green, etc.).
- Learning the color 漢字 (かんじ — Chinese characters) will drastically improve your reading skills and also your ability to guess unknown words based on known 漢字. For example, knowing the Chinese character for “red,” 赤 (あか), can help you guess how to translate or read “deficit,” 赤字 (あかじ), because red letters in financial records means a business is in debt.
- With both the 漢字 and the readings of Japanese color words, you can start connecting place names to places. E.g., 金閣寺 (きんかくじ) contains “gold” and “temple,” and refers to the Golden Temple, Kinkakuji, while 銀閣寺 (ぎんかくじ) is Ginkakuji, the Silver Temple.
- Some of the color words that are based on objects—such as ネズミ色 (ねずみいろ), which means “gray” (literally “mouse color”), or 桃色 (ももいろ), which is “pink” (“peach color”)—provide insight into the Japanese perspective. That is, Americans probably wouldn’t describe peaches as pink because our peaches are more yellow, but Japanese peaches are very, very pink.
- Japanese culture is all about aesthetic. By internalizing the color words and beautifying your vocabulary, you can join in the movement to appreciate that aesthetic sensibility.
How to Use Japanese Color Words
Japanese color words can be い-adjectives, な-adjectives, の-adjectives (nouns turned into adjectives) or nouns. For example, “red” can either describe an object (“a red apple”) or act on its own as a noun (“red is my favorite color”). Therefore, you can use the colors in the same way you would use any other noun or adjective.
It is a red flower.
The flower is red.
My preferred color is red.
I like red.
70+ Japanese Color Words and Phrases
Before we dive into the deep, teal sea of Japanese adjectives, it’s worth noting that you can often use カタカナ (かたかな- — Japanese characters used for foreign words) and English words for colors, and still be understood. “Pink,” for example, can be either ピンク (ぴんく) or 桃色 (ももいろ). When in doubt, カタカナ it out (sound it out in English using Japanese syllables).
I should also note, before we start painting with colors, that the word for color is 色, and it can either be read “いろ” or “しょく” depending on whether it stands alone (いろ) or in a compound (しょく).
Primary, Secondary and Basic Colors
Red — 赤 (あか)、赤い (あかい)、紅 (べに)
The first word, 赤, is a noun (“the color red”), and the second is the adjective “red.” 赤 is the most common word for “red,” encompassing a wide range of hues and shades, while 紅 is a deep, ruddy red, like the leaves that fall in the autumn and dark pink pickled ginger, or 紅ショウガ (べにしょうが).
紅葉 (こうよう) — autumn leaves, red and brown leaves
紅茶 (こうちゃ) — black tea
赤ちゃん (あかちゃん) — baby
Blue — 青 (あお)、青い (あおい)
Something to be aware of in Japan is the hazy use of “blue” and “green.” First, you’ll learn that “blue” is 青い… and then you’ll learn that 青い is “green,” after which you’ll discover that “green” is actually 緑 (みどり).
Here’s an article explaining the history of these two color words. Basically, 緑 originally referred to a type of plant shoot, not a color. It was only after WWII that educational materials began labeling “green” as 緑 and “blue” as 青い. Before then, 青い was used exclusively to mean anything on the blue-green spectrum. The simplest distinction now is that non-living objects* that are entirely green (green books, green clothes, lime green cars) are 緑, and anything else that is slightly blue, or alive (or organic), is 青い.
E.g., “green apples” are 青りんご (あおりんご) and “green peas” are 青豆 (あおまめ).
*Japanese traffic lights are 青信号 (あおしんごう), not 緑信号 (みどりしんごう).
青年 (せいねん)、青春 (せいしゅん) — youth
青白い (あおじろい) — bluish white, pale
Yellow —黄色 (きいろ)、黄色い (きいろい)、黄色な (きいろな)
黄ばむ (きばむ) — to turn yellow with age (like paper or teeth)
淡黄色 (たんおうしょく) — pale yellow, light yellow
緑黄色 (りょくおうしょく) — greenish yellow
黄緑 (きみどり) — chartreuse, pea green, yellow-green
卵黄 (らんおう)、黄身 (きみ) — egg yolks
Purple — 紫 (むらさき)、パープル (ぱーぷる)
紫外線 (しがいせん) — ultraviolet rays
紫陽花 (あじさい) — hydrangea
紫 式部 (むらさきしきぶ) — Murasaki Shikibu
Green — 緑 (みどり)、青 (あお)、青い (あおい)
緑 is a noun that you can use as an adjective by inserting the particle の (of) after the color. E.g., 緑の本 (みどりの ほん — the green book).
緑茶 (りょくちゃ) — Japanese green tea
Orange — オレンジ色 (おれんじいろ)
White — 白 (しろ)、白い (しろい)
白紙 (はくし) — blank paper, white paper
白板 (はくばん) — white board, dry erase board
白鳥 (はくちょう) — swan
卵白 (らんぱく)、白身 (しろみ) — egg whites
白髪 (しらが) — gray hair
白子 (しらこ) — fish sperm
Black — 黒 (くろ)、黒い (くろい)
真っ黒 (まっくろ) — pitch black, deep black
黒っぽい (くろっぽい) — dark, blackish
黒板 (こくばん) — blackboard, chalkboard
Colors Based On Objects and Foreign Words
Japanese, ever the adaptable melting pot of language, has a plethora of color words that it either took from other languages (English, mostly, in this case) or from nouns that the colors describe. For example, both the color and the fruit “orange” are オレンジ (おれんじ), obviously taken from the English, and パープル (ぱーぷる) also comes from English.
Some words, like 灰色 (はいいろ — gray) and 桃色 (ももいろ — pink) come from the objects they describe: 灰 (はい) means “ash,” so 灰色 is the color of gray ash, and 桃 (もも) is “peach,” and because Japanese peaches are pinkish-white, this color means the pale red pink.
Pink — ピンク、桃色 (ももいろ)、桜色 (さくらいろ)
桜 (さくら) means “cherry blossom,” so this is the type of gentle pink you’d see in the early spring when cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
Gray — 灰色 (はいいろ)、ネズミ色 (ねずみいろ)
Brown — 茶色 (ちゃいろ)、茶色い (ちゃいろい)
茶 (ちゃ) means “tea,” and because most tea in Japan is brownish (even green tea is sometimes brown), “brown” is “tea color,” or 茶色.
These words are used for most things that are brown, with a few other options depending on the hue of brown to which you’re referring, but one exception that may throw you off is with skin color. In Japan, “brown skin” is actually called “black skin,” meaning people with dark skin or tans are often referred to as “black.” If you want to go get a suntan, you would say “I want to make my skin black.” (肌を黒くしたい。/はだをくろくしたい。)
Sky blue — 空色 (そらいろ)
Lavender — ラベンダー (らべんだー)、藤色 (ふじいろ)
藤 (ふじ) means “wisteria,” like the lavender-budded trees that form the wisteria tunnel in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Maroon — マルーン (まるーん)、海老色 (えびいろ)
海老 (えび) means “shrimp” or “prawn,” and this color refers to ruddy, dark prawns, as opposed to bright pink shrimp.
Hues, Shades and Other Useful Colors
Navy blue — 紺 (こん)
Gold — 金 (きん)、金色 (きんいろ)
Silver — 銀 (ぎん)、銀色 (ぎんいろ)
Multicolored — 多色の (たしょくの)、色とりどりの (いろとりどりの)
Colorful — カラフルな (からふるな)
Amber — 琥珀色 (こはくいろ)
Ivory — 象牙色 (ぞうげいろ)
So how about it? Can you see more clearly now?
With all these vibrant new Japanese words at your disposal, can you now paint with all the colors of the wind?
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