Column #95 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, February 18, 2009
"A rainbow of kanji brighten Japan's color palette"

Guys who received Valentine's chocolates from female friends or co-workers last Friday are expected to reciprocate with small gifts on ƒzƒƒCƒgƒf[(howaitodee, White Day) which will roll around on March 14. ƒzƒƒCƒgƒf[is one of many color-related gairaigo (foreign loanwords, mostly English, written in katakana) now firmly established in Japanese. Others include ƒŒƒbƒhƒJ[ƒh (reddokaado, red card), ƒuƒ‰ƒbƒNƒtƒH[ƒ}ƒ‹ (burakkufoomaru, black formal, i.e., black formal suit), ƒOƒŠ[ƒ“ (guriin, green, i.e., environmentally friendly), ƒOƒŒ[ (guree, gray), and ƒJƒ‰[ (karaa, color, as in ƒ{ƒfƒBƒJƒ‰[, bodikaraa, automobile body color).

Happily, gairaigo invaders have not exterminated their color-kanji counterparts: Singletons such as Ô (aka, red), Â (ao, blue; green), ”’ (shiro, white), • (kuro, black), —Î (midori, green), and Ž‡ (murasaki, purple) are alive and well in written Japanese. Many color words are two-kanji compounds with F (iro, color) falling in the second position: ’ƒF (chairo, tea/color, brown), ‰©F (kiiro, yellow/color, yellow), …F (mizuiro, water/color, light blue), ”§F(hadairo, skin/color, flesh color), and ÷F (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 gThe Land of the Rising Sun,h the sun is considered to be red instead of yellow, which explains why its national flag features a big red dot. Babies are called Ô‚¿‚á‚ñ (akachan, red/term of endearment) because of their red appearance at birth. Aside from Ô, other general-use red kanji include g (beni, crimson, as in Œûg, kuchibeni, mouth/crimson, lipstick) and Žé (SHU, vermillion). ŽéF (shuiro) is the impressive color of oft-photographed Shinto shrine archways (torii).

The traditional word for pink, considered a shade of red in Japan, is “F (momoiro, peach/color), but ƒsƒ“ƒN (pinku) is now more widely used. The image ƒsƒ“ƒNconjures up is a Lolita-esque juxtaposition of Hello Kitty cuteness and the eroticism of a soft-core Japanese pornographic film (ƒsƒ“ƒN‰f‰æ, pinku eiga, pink movie). Gairaigo ƒIƒŒƒ“ƒW (orenji, orange), which identifies both the color and the fruit, is fast replacing the original word, žòF (daidaiiro, orange/color).

Black (•) and white (”’), in combination, are the colors of mourning, which is why Japanese women often wear white pearls with their ƒuƒ‰ƒbƒNƒtƒH[ƒ}ƒ‹ (black formal suits) at funerals. Black also symbolizes gevilh; a devious individual is said to be • •‚¢ (harakuro-i, stomach/black, black-bellied). ”’ has a related connotation of gclarity,h and so ”’ (kokuhaku, announce/clarity) is a gconfession.h

ŠDF(haiiro, ash/color, gray) and ‘lF (nezumiiro, mouse/color) are both compound words meaning gray, with ‘lF being a darker hue than ŠDF. In Japan, instead of sprouting ggray hair,h itfs ”’”¯ (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 ƒwƒA[ƒJƒ‰[ (heaakaraa, hair color) business is always booming.

True green is —Î (midori/RYOKU), and Japanese green tea, generally referred to in conversation as ‚¨’ƒ (ocha, honorable/tea), is properly classified as —Î’ƒ (ryokucha, green/tea). Â (ao) aside from meaning gblue,h can also represent ggreen,h as in ÂM† (aoshingou, not "midori shingou," green traffic light) and Â‘ (aokusa, green/grass). A clear, daytime sky is Â‹ó (aozora, blue/sky). Other blue-kanji are —• (ai, indigo) and ® (kon, navy blue).

F (iro) conveys another meaning, gsensuality,h as seen in words like F‚Á‚Û‚¢ (iro-ppoi, sexy), and as revealed in its etymology: One person (ƒN) bends over another bended person (”b), a reference to the sex act. Over the centuries in ancient China, F evolved from meaning gsexual partnerh to gattractiveh in a general sense, and then by association to gcolorful.h So not only is F a colorful kanji c itfs an off-color one as well.

To view the full range of the Japanese color palette, in English and Japanese, visit FŒ©–{‚ÌŠÙ.


Match the following compound words containing color-kanji with their English meanings and Japanese pronunciations. Answers are below.

1. •”’ (black/white)
2. ÔŽš(red/letters)
3. Â”N (immature,ggreenh/years)
4. Ž‡ŠOü(purple/outside/lines)
5. g—t (crimson/leaf)
6. ^‚ÁÂ (completely/blue)
7. —t—Αf (leaf/green/element))
8. Fî (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)

1.d 2.f 3.c 4.b 5.a 6.h 7.e 8.g

New to Start reading archived columns here. (Column #1, "Don't despair--you can put an end to kanji chaos")

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