Colors I 色の表現、その一

第178課: Colors I 色の表現に関する基礎知識

Speakers of English and Japanese are accustomed to a plethora of color names at their disposal, but there are plenty of instances in which Japanese use color phrases differently. When describing the color of things in Japanese, there are three factor to keep in mind. 

  • Factor 1 is grammatical implication. Japanese color words have nominal, adjectival, and adverbial forms. These forms are all derived no differently than other words, but some colors will notably have alternative adjectival forms. 
  • Factor 2 is cultural perception. The sky is “blue” to English and Japanese speakers, but what about the sun? If you tell English-speaking elementary students to paint a picture of the sun, the majority will color it orange. Adult English speakers might akin the color to “white,” but “red” is not typically what comes to mind. However, to Japanese speakers, 赤 (red) is the color attributed to the sun. The reason for this will be described later in this lesson, but it just goes to show that people don’t view the world with the same cultural lenses.  
  • Factor 3 is specific hue reference. English and Japanese have their distinct cultural spins on how the colors of things are described, but they are also major world languages which have developed their own repertoires of hue names. Generally speaking, any specific hue name in English has a Japanese equivalent, and there are also historical/culturally unique names. For instance, “sky blue” is described in Japanese as 空色. 

First, we’ll learn about what the basic color words are to English and Japanese speakers respectively while simultaneously also going over any grammar which needs to be reviewed upon using the Japanese words. 

The Basic Color Words in English 英語圏での基本色名

English has 11 basic colors: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, pink, grey, brown, orange, and purple. Japanese has words for all these colors, but you will notice some of them containing the word 色(いろ), which incidentally means “color.” The reason for why it’s in those words is a grammar question we’ll get to later, so for now just familiarize with what’s in the chart below. 

 Color (ENG)基本色名(英語) Nominal Form名詞形 Adjectival Form形容詞形 Adverbial Form副詞形
Black 黒(色) 黒い 黒く
 White 白(色) 白い 白く
 Red 赤(色) 赤い 赤く
 Green 緑(色) 緑色の 緑色に
 Yellow 黄(色) 黄色い・黄(色)の 黄色く・黄色に
 Blue 青 青い 青く
 Pink ピンク(色) ピンク色の ピンク色に
 Grey 灰色 灰色の 灰色に
 Brown 茶色 茶色い・茶色の 茶色く・茶色に
 Orange オレンジ(色) オレンジ色の オレンジ色に
 Purple 紫(色) 紫(色)の 紫色に

Grammar Note: When ~色 attaches to color words but is not required in all instances, it serves the same role as “color” would in English when saying “the color red.” 

漢字 Note: 色名 is either read as いろめい or しきめい. 色 has the ON readings ショク・シキ and the KUN reading いろ. 

1. 雲はなぜ白いんですか。
Why are clouds white?

2. 道端で紫(色)の石を見つけた。
I found a purple stone on the side of the road.

3. 黒い煙には有毒ガスが含まれている。
There are poisonous gases contained in the black smoke.

4. 胸に茶色い痣のようなものができた。
A brown bruise-like thing has formed on my chest.

5. オレンジ(色)の空を見上げた。

I looked up at the orange sky.

6. ピンク(色)のドレスを着た女の子がいます。
There is a girl wearing a pink(-colored) dress.

7a. どうして雨雲は黒(い)色をしているんですか。
Why are rain clouds black?
Literally: Why do rain clouds bear black color(s)? 
7b. どうして雨雲は黒いんですか。
Why are rain clouds black?

Grammar Note: 色をする means “to bear color.” In the case of Ex. 7, it is perfectly grammatical to still just use the basic adjectival form of “black,” but the use of  色をする in 7a. emphasizes the color as a characteristic. Either the nominal or adjectival form of adjectives works for this grammar, but it must also be noted that する is always conjugated to ~している when at the end of the sentence but as ~した when used before a noun (Ex. 9). 

8. 鯛はなぜ海の中で目立ちそうな赤色をしているのか
Why is that sea breams are a red that stands out in the ocean?

9. 巨大な蚊を内包した、透き通るような黄色をした琥珀を買いました。
I bought a transparent yellow-colored piece of amber with a large mosquito encased inside. 

10. 灰色のスーツを着ている男があそこの白いベンチに座っている。
A man wearing a grey suit is sitting on that white bench over there.

11. 舌が白くなっている
My tongue has gotten white.

Grammar Note: Using ~なる and ~する with color words works no differently than with other words. Ex. 11 shows how the 形容詞-derived adverbial form using ~く is chosen to indicate a natural change in color. If colors are being referred by their entities and that is what changes, you would expect to see ~になる.

12. 秋になると、葉の色が決まって「赤」「黄色」に変わるのはなぜですか。
Why is that when it turns autumn that the color of leaves changes to “red” and “yellow” without fail?

13. ジュースを毎日のように飲むと、皮膚が黄色くなってしまう。
If you drink juice every day, your skin will turn yellow.

If the change is purposeful, we would expect ~する or some equivalent transitive verb instead of ~なる. 

14. 30歳を前に、髪を赤く染めた。
I dyed my hair red right as I was turning 30.

~にする as opposed to ~くする is not necessarily a change as much as it is a decision. 

15. 神様が海王星の色を青にした理由は一体何だったのだろう?
I really wonder what the reason God had for making the color of Neptune blue? 

16. 濃い黄色のペンキを選んだ。
I chose a dark-yellow paint. 

Grammar Note: In Ex. 16, we see another adjective qualifying the color word when in its nominal form, which was also seen in Ex. 9. 

16. 「一番好きな色は何色ですか」「青色です」
“What is your favorite color?” “It’s blue.”

17. そのバラは鮮烈なであった。
The roses were a vibrant red. 

The Basic Color Words in Japanese 日本語圏での基本色名

Though somewhat repetitive, it’s just as important to know what the basic color words are to Modern Japanese speakers. In Japanese, the basic color words are separated into 10 chromatic (有彩色) and 3 achromatic (無彩色) colors for a total of 13 colors. Notice how unlike English, transition colors are considered basic whereas colors like pink and orange are not represented. 

The Basic Chromatic Colors基本の有彩色Adjectival Forms
English Translation 
 赤 赤い・赤の  Red
 黄赤 黄赤の  Yellowish red
 黄(色) 黄の・黄色の・黄色い  Yellow
 黄緑 黄緑の  Yellow-green
 緑(色) 緑(色)の  Green
 青緑 青緑の  Blue-green
 青 青の・青い  Blue
 青紫 青紫の  Bluish purple
 紫(色) 紫(色)の  Purple
 赤紫 赤紫の  Purplish red
The Basic Achromatic Colors
Adjectival Forms 
 白い・白の  White
灰(色) 灰色の  Grey
 黒い・黒の  Black

■[白・黒・赤・青] + の + N vs [白・黒・赤・青] + い + N 

Colors that are created by adding 色 are used as adjectives by means of the particle の out of necessity, but for colors who are made adjectives by adding い–of which there are only four*: 白, 黒, 赤, and 青–they too may be seen used as adjectives with の but with restrictions.

For alternative の-adjective forms, the object being described must be representative of that color. In other words, the color isn’t being described ambiguously. In fact, the color is being distinguished from any other potential norm or expectation.   

18. プリントへの記入は、必ず赤のボールペンで行うようにしてください。
When filling out the handout, please be sure to always do so with a red ballpoint pen.

Proofreading work often requires color-coding. This sentence emphasizes that a red ballpoint pen must be used as opposed to a black or blue pen. 

Grammatically, these forms behave as の-adjectives which at times function no differently than nouns. Since the basic color words are nouns, one would expect contexts where they can still modify a word but retain that noun status. An example of this is the use of 赤と青の in Ex. 19 as opposed to 赤で青の. The latter would be ungrammatical because the speaker is not trying to modify the same 水仙 with both colors. “の水仙” is simply left out after 赤, allowing for the use of the particle と to function as “and” between the two given color nouns.

19. 赤と青の水仙の花が咲けばいい。
It’ll be nice if the red and the blue daffodils bloom.

This also applies to other color words whose adjectival forms happen to be の-adjective out of necessity. 

20. 黄色や緑色の鼻水が出ることもある。
Sometimes yellow or green snot comes out.

The concept of being representative of said color is also the semantic basis behind color compound expressions. So, in addition to 赤のペン, one could also say 赤ペン with no change in meaning. Examples of this, though, are not endless. Rather, they are limited to ubiquitous entities, in other words, things that can be interpreted as being commonplace in said color. 

21. オフィス用のペンをオンラインで買いました。

I bought red pens for the office online.

※Though the basic color words of Modern Japanese have expanded to a nice circle of hues, it is actually based on the four key color words mentioned just now. Over the course of Japanese evolution, two more color words gained 形容詞 forms: 茶色 (brown) → 茶色い and 黄色 (yellow) → 黄色い. These colors are said to have been the next two color expressions added to the pre-existing four, which is what led them to receive these forms. Generally speaking, these forms are interchangeable with their の-adjective forms, which is a difference between the basic four color words.

22a. 黄色い車を買った。
22b. 黄色の車を買った。
I bought a yellow car.

However, there are situations in which only the の-adjective form can be used, and those situations mirror the ones in which those forms are used for the basic four colors. Imagine a show in which a contestant must choose between five boxes. Each box is the same color minus the ribbon on top. The color of the ribbons are all unique without repetitions. In this situation, the の-adjective form must be used across the board. Using a 形容詞 form would make it sound like you’re describing the state of the box. 

It also must be noted that the colors 赤, 白, and 黒 have additional meanings in which their use as no-adjectives is highly prolific. 赤の can be used to mean “clear/obvious” in highly used phrases such as 赤の他人 (complete stranger) and 赤の嘘 (absolute lie). 

23. 通りがかりの赤の他人に話しかけてみた。
I tried talking to a complete stranger I was passing by.

24. シロの容疑者
An innocent suspect 

Spelling Note: These idiomatic meanings are often spelled in カタカナ. 

25. 黒の組織
Black Organization

Culture Note: This is the name of a crime syndicate in the popular anime series “Case Closed,” but it’s important to note that the official translation fails to capture the actual meaning behind the name. The use of 黒の is meant to mean “guilt” in relation to crime. 

The same restrictions governing the use of these no-adjectives can still be said to function for these additional meanings. The lie is “flat-out obvious,” the criminal is “guilty without a doubt,” etc. 

26. その絵はなんと、小学生4年生の男子に描かれたもので、表には赤(色)の恒星が2個、裏には巨大な青(色)の恒星 で構成された恒星体系が美しく映っていた。

The picture, believe it or not, was made by a 4th grader. On the front, there were 2 red stars, and on the back, there was a solar system beautifully captured that was composed of a large blue star.

The 4 Primary ‘Colors’ 古代からのいわゆる四原色

Originally, Japanese was void of concrete color names, perhaps a reflection of the overall tendency to describe colors by referring to objects that have said color. Once 4 ‘primary’ colors were coined, they did not initially refer to specific colors, which has influenced their use to this day. These four words are none other than 赤, 黒, 白, and 青. Let’s take a look at their history and see how their ancient origins tell us a lot about how these words are used to this day.

1. The word [aka] comes from the verb [aku] meaning “to dawn” (Mod. 明ける). Although it often referred to the color “red” even in ancient times, its primary meaning was “bright.” It is because of this that the “Sun” is often described as 赤い even though other colors may more accurately describe how the naked eye perceives it. Eventually, the meaning of “bright” was taken over by the adjective 明るい, which comes from the verb form 明かる, further demonstrating the original meaning of [aka]. 

2. The word [kuro] shares the same origin as the word 暗い. At the early onset, they would have been different renditions of the same word, and over time [kuro] specifically referred to “black” whereas [kurai] retaining its meaning of “dark.” Looking further back in time, it is apparent that both adjectives originate from the verb [kuru] meaning “to get dark” (Mod. 暮れる). 

3. The word [shiro] comes from the verb しるす. Putting aside the various Kanji used to write the verb, its general meaning is “to make clear.” Even in ancient times, [shiro] was used to mean “white,” but it also retained the literal meaning of “clear/deep” colors. Eventually, this meaning was lost and now [shiro] just means “white.” 

4. The word [ao] may be related to the adjective 淡い meaning “light (hue),” but it may also be related to the word 間 (between) to be the intermediary word between 白 and 黒 in the minds of the ancient Japanese. This would explain why it still often means “grey” such as in the expression 蒼い月 (Kanji difference to be explained later) as well as “pale” when in reference to someone’s face. Until the word became fixated to mean “blue,” it also became associated with freshness/immaturity, which led to its meaning of “green” in many expressions related to green goods such as 青りんご (green apples) and most famously 青信号 (green light).   


27. 太陽は赤く燃えている。
The Sun burns red.

28. その部屋は青い月に照らされていた。
The room was being lit up by the pale moon.

29. 城内では草木が青く茂っている。
The vegetation at the castle is growing nice and green.

30. 写真には光の加減で黒く写っている部分がある。

Some parts of the picture appear black due to the lighting. 

31. 信号だが、右折は矢印信号優先だよ。

Although the light is green, right turns have priority when they have an arrow.

The Five ‘Colors’ 五色(ごしき)

Based in Wuxing (Five Phases) philosophy (陰陽五行説), which is a five-fold scheme used in traditional Chinese fields to explain many phenomena in the world, there are five colors that have held major cultural significance in Japanese as a result. The five colors of this philosophy are 青 (associated with the element 木 = wood)・赤 (associated with the element 火 = fire)・黄 (associated with the element 土 = earth)・白 (associated with the element 金 = metal)・黒 (associated with the element 水 = water) in that order. 

The Seven ‘Colors’ of the Rainbow 虹の七色

The concept of there being seven colors in the rainbow is a direct borrowing from the West, but these seven colors of the rainbow have been borrowed verbatim with no alteration: 赤 (red)・橙 (orange)・黄 (yellow)・緑 (green)・青 (blue)・藍 (indigo)・紫 (purple).

Color Words by Category 色系統別の色名一覧

From a physics standpoint, there are three primary colors (原色 げんしょく)of light: 赤 (red), 緑 (green), and 青 (blue). Although some languages reflect this fact, Japanese is not one of them. Modern Japanese possesses just as many color words as English does, heavily utilizing clothing, plant, and dye terminology to expand its repertoire. 

Unless you are an artist who has reason to memorize all hues recognized in Japanese, the most that you would wish to master to become a proficient speaker/reader would follow under these three categories:

1. Colors with unique Kanji. 

2. Hues with significant cultural significance.

3. Compound words composed of color Kanji: 赤信号 (red light),黄海 (the Yellow Sea), etc.

Your main goal for now will be to familiarize yourself with the unique color Kanji and compound words made with them as individual hues essentially require to know what the physical word behind the color is too. For instance, 柳色 is simply put “the color of a willow,” but without knowing what 柳 is, knowing that color would be rather meaningless. 

“Red” Color Kanji 赤系統の漢字

 赤色(あかいろ) is the basic word for the color “red”.  However, the basic hue of “red” defined by it is darker than the English red. 
Compound Words:赤道(せきどう) = “equator”
赤外線(せきがいせん) = “infrared radiation”
赤銅(しゃくどう)= “gold-copper alloy”
赤裸々(せきらら) = “naked/candid”
赤字(あかじ) = “deficit/in the red/red letters/corrections”
※The ON reading セキショク of 赤色 is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.
※The ON readings of 赤 are セキ and シャク with the former being more prevalent.
 紅色(くれないいろ・べにいろ)is the color “crimson.” Though the words くれない and べに have different etymologies, they refer to the same color. べに may also refer to lipstick. Compound Words:
紅葉 (コウヨウ・もみじ) = “red leaves”
紅海 (コウカイ) = “Red Sea”深紅・真紅 (シンク) = “deep crimson”
※The ON reading コウショク of  紅色 is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.  
※The ON readings of 紅 are コウ and ク with the former being more prevalent.  
朱色(しゅいろ) is the color “vermilion,” a slightly yellowish red. Naturally occurring vermillion is more orange in nature. Compound Words:
朱肉(しゅにく)= “red ink (for signature seals)”
朱印(しゅいん)= “red seal”
朱雀(すざく)= “Vermilion Bird”
※The ON reading シュショク of 朱色 is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.
※The ON reading ス of 朱 is exceptionally rare. 
※The KUN reading あけ is rare, referring to a shade of red closer to that of fire. 
丹色(にいろ)generally refers to a yellowish red like cinnabar, but it may refer to other hues like vermilion. The ON reading タン and the KUN reading に are both rather uncommon and understanding how “red” it is tends to be on a case by case basis.Compound Words:丹頂(たんちょう)= “red-crowned crane”
丹砂(たんしゃ・たんさ)= “cinnabar”
丹塗(にぬ)り = “vermilion lacquering”
 緋色(ヒいろ) is a “brilliant red/scarlet.” あけいろ is rare and somewhat archaic alternative reading.
Compound Words
緋鯉(ひごい)= “red carp”緋縅(ひおど)し = “scarlet-threaded armor”
赭色(しゃしょく) refers to a reddish brown which is now expressed by the word 赤褐色(せっかっしょく). Both the ON reading シャ and the KUN reading そほ are rare. 
Compound Words:
赭土(しゃど)= “red ocher” 
赭土(しゃがん) = “ruddy face”
 茜色(あかねいろ)is the color “madder” named after the root of the plant madder which the dye derived. The hue can be described as a somewhat darker red. 

※With exception to 茜, any of these Kanji for red also have the alternative KUN reading of あか(い). 

“Blue” Color Kanji 青系統の漢字

青色(あおいろ)is the basic word for “blue.” 
Compound Words:
青空(あおぞら)= “blue sky”
青銅(せいどう)= “bronze”
群青(ぐんじょう)= “ultramarine”
青写真(あおじゃしん) = “blueprint”
※The ON reading of セイショク is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.
※ The ON readings of 青 are セイ and ショウ with the former being more prevalent.
蒼色( ソウショク・ソウジョク) refers to a “dark blue,” tending to be used in figurative contexts.Compound Words:
蒼海(そうかい)= “the blue sea”蒼白(そうはく)= “pale”
※The KUN reading あお(い)of 蒼 is fairly common in literature and song lyrics.
碧色(ヘキショク) refers to a vibrant blue-green although the color itself is colloquially called 青緑色(あおみどりいろ). It may translate to “azure” or even “emerald.”Compound Words:
碧眼(へきがん)= “azure eyes”
碧空(へきくう)= “azure sky”
※The KUN reading あお(い)of 碧 is fairly common in literature and song lyrics.
※The KUN reading みどり is employed when used to mean “emerald.”
 藍色(あいいろ)is the color “indigo.” 
Compound Words:
藍摺(あいず)り = “ukiyoe print with indigo”
藍藻(らんそう)= “cyanobacteria”
※The ON reading ランショク of 藍色  is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉. 
 紺色(こんいろ)is the color “navy blue.” Compound Words:
紺青(こんじょう)= “Prussian blue”
紺屋(こうや・こんや)= “dyer”
 縹色(はなだいろ) is the color “light indigo.” The ON reading ヒョウシキ is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉. 

“Green” Color Kanji 緑系統の漢字

The overlap between [ao] and [midori] for “green” is not intentional in the sense that speakers knew which hue the word [ao] was referring despite its range of colors being quite broad given individual expressions. As the word narrowed to cold colors (寒色 かんしょく), which would be anything from light blue to purple, the word [midori] became more prominent, but [ao] still remained in words such as 青山 (Aoyama [green mountain]), 青葉 (fresh [green] foliage), etc. With this being said, there are three Kanji which related to “green.”

緑色(みどりいろ) is the green of mature foliage. Compound Words:
緑茶(りょくちゃ)= “green tea”
緑青(ろくしょう)= “green rust”
緑化(りょっか)= “afforestation”
緑虫(みどりむし)= “green protozoan” ※The ON reading リョクショク of 緑色 is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.
※The ON readings of 緑 リョク and ロク with the former being more prevalent. 
翠色(スイショク)is the lustrous color of the kingfisher’s wings when hit by light just right, often translated as “emerald.” The KUN reading みどりいろ is also prevalent.  
Compound Words:
翠玉(すいぎょく)= “jade”

Non-Primary Color Kanji

Before delving into hues of non-primary colors, it’s important that we recap the Kanji used for specific standard non-primary colors so that you’re familiarized with their possible pronunciations. 

 黒色(くろいろ) is the color “black”. 
Compound Words:
黒板(こくばん)= “blackboard”
黒海(こっかい)= “the Black Sea”
黒幕(くろまく)= “black curtain”
黒髪(くろかみ)= “black hair”
薄黒(うすぐろ)い = “blackish”
漆黒(しっこく)= “jet black”
※The ON reading コクショク of 黒色 is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.
※The ON reading of 黒 is コク and is commonly used.
 白色(しろいろ) is the color “white.”Compound Words:
白衣(はくい・びゃくえ)= “white clothes/robe/gown”
白内障(はくないしょう)= “cataract”
白黒(しろくろ)= “black and white/monochrome”
白身(しろみ)= “white flesh (fish)/egg white”
白夜(びゃくや)= “midnight sun”
白髪(しらが)= “grey hair”
白雲(しらくも)= “white clouds”
※The ON reading ハクショク of 白色 is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.
※The ON readings of 白 are ハク and ビャク with the former being more prevalent.
※The KUN reading しら- is used as a prefix in native words.
 灰色(はいいろ) is the color “grey” or more literary of “ash,” the primary meaning of the word 灰.Compound Words:
灰色熊(はいいろぐま)= “grizzly bear”
灰白質(かいはくしつ)= “grey matter”※The ON reading カイショク of 灰色 is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.
※The ON reading of 灰 is カイ. 
茶色(ちゃいろ) is the color “brown.”
Compound Words:
茶褐色(ちゃかっしょく)= “dark reddish-brown”
茶髪(ちゃぱつ)= “brown hair”
茶封筒(ちゃぶうとう)= “manila envelope”
※Although 茶 does possess the ON reading サ, it is never used to mean “brown.” 
紫色(むらさきいろ)is the color “purple.” Its ON reading シショク is rare and only used in literary settings. The ON reading , シ, though is commonly used in compound words.
Compound Words:
紫外線(しがいせん)= “ultraviolet ray”
紫紺(しこん)= “bluish purple”
紫電(しでん)= “purple lightning/swordflash”
※The ON reading シショク of 紫色 is unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.
※The ON reading of 紫 is シ. シショク
金色(きんいろ・こんじき)is the color “gold” with both readings being common. Compound Words:
黄金(おうごん・こがね)= “gold”金髪(きんぱつ)= “blond(e) hair”※かないろ is a KUN reading with the meaning of “metalic color(s)” in general.
銀色(ぎんいろ) is the color “silver.”
Compound Words:
銀貨(ぎんか)= “silver coin”
銀髪(ぎんぱつ)= “silver hair”
※The KUN reading しろがねいろ of 銀色 is rare.
黄色(きいろ)is the color “yellow.”Compound Words:
黄身(きみ)= “egg yolk”
黄海(こうかい)= “the Yellow Sea”
黄疸(おうだん)= “jaundice”
黄緑(きみどり)= “yellow-green”
※The ON readings オウショク and コウショク of 黄色 are unused in 話し言葉 and rare in 書き言葉.
 褐 褐色(かっしょく)is the color “dark brown.” The same Kanji has the KUN reading of かち, but かちいろ is an outdated word which referred to “dark indigo.” 
Compound Words:
灰褐色(はいかっしょく)= “grey-brown”
褐色矮星(かっしょくわいせい)= “brown dwarf”

Use of English Color Words  英語の色名の使用

The influence English has on the color expression inventory of Japanese does not end at オレンジ and ピンク. All of the basic color words of English are generally understood, but they are not used as simple replacements for their true Japanese counterparts. Instead, they are mostly used in set phrases which amplify the emphatic tone they naturally provide as loanwords from English. Because of the emphatic flare they provide, the one instance where they do happen to be used most literally is in marketing. If you go to any Japanese department store, you will see these words used everywhere.

Nevertheless, understanding the alternative usages that these color words have obtained since entering the Japanese language is vitally important in understanding the unique phrases they are used in properly. Sometimes, these figurative meanings come straight from English whereas others are derived meanings.

English カタカナ英語 Figurative Usages
Black ブラック1. “Black” as in “black coffee.” 
2. Seen in phrases such as ブラックマネー (black money) in which it means “unknown/illegitimate.” 
3. Used in the way “dark” would otherwise be used in the equivalent English phrase. Ex. “dark humor” = ブラックユーモア.
White ホワイト1. “White’ as in “white-out.”
2. The opposite of Meaning 3. of ブラック, representing sincerity and morally outstanding circumstances.
  Red レッド1. “Red” in reference to communism.
2. “Red” as in “red card” in sports.
 Green グリーン1. Green as in “foliage.”
2. “Green” as in “green” in golf.
3. “Green” as in environment friendly.
  Blue ブルー1. “Blue” as “in the dumps.” In this meaning, it may be used as a 形容動詞.
  Grey グレー1. “Grey” as in “grey hair.”
2. “Grey” as in “grey area.” In this meaning, it may be used as a 形容動詞.
  Purple パープルn/a
  Orange オレンジ1. “Orange” as in the fruit.
  Pink ピンク1. “Erotic.”
  Yellow イエロー1. “Yellow” as in “yellow card.”
 Brown ブラウン n/a

32.  ホワイトホースの瓶が半ばまで減っている。
The White Horse bottle is half empty. 

Word Note: White Horse is a brand of scotch whisky. 

33. ブラック企業で働いた経験のある人に質問です。
This is a question for anyone who has experience working at a toxic corporation※.

Word Note: ブラック企業 literally translates to “black company,” but it does not referred to businesses owned by people of that skin color. Rather, the word “black” is being used in the sense of “evil/rogue/toxic.” Businesses in Japan are frequently called then when their ethical treatment of employees is horrible, often guilty of long hours (労働時間が長いこと), not paying for overtime (残業代を払わないこと), etc. 

34. 日本政府は2日午前、韓国を「ホワイト国」のリストから除外する政令改正を閣議決定した。
The Japanese government made a cabinet decision in the a.m. hours of the 2nd approving a government ordinance revision which removes South Korea from being white-listed.

Word Note: Countries that are white-listed are preferred trading partners by said country. The phrase ホワイト国 can be viewed as a means of shortening “white-listed country” into a more typical Japanese idiom.

35. イギリスは、電力のグリーン化に4億ポンド超の基金を立ち上げ英国全体でグリーンエネルギーを推進すると発表した。
England has announced that it will launch a foundation worth more than 400 million pounds towards making electricity green, which in turn will promote green energy across all of Great Britain. 

Word Note: The process of going eco-friendly or “going green” is known as エコ化 or グリーン化, both terms utilizing the respective English word followed by the suffix ~化 which means “-ication.” 

36. 今日ちょっとブルー入っているから無理ぃ!
I’m sort of in the blues today, so there’s no way I can do that!

37. ピンク街に行ったことあるの?
Have you ever gone to a night-life street? 

Word Note: A ピンク街 is an area known for having lots of establishments in the sex industry. These areas are also known as 風俗街.

38. ちょっとグレーな話ですが・・・
This is somewhat of a grey topic, but…

39. 単にドジでコケたとしても、主審によってはイエローを出す人もいます。
Depending on the referee, some might issue a yellow (card) even if you were to simply trip out of clumsiness. 

40. 日本放送禁止のアメリカアニメからのブラックジョークを纏めてみました。
I’ve compiled dark jokes from American cartoons that have been banned from being broadcast in Japan.

41.  確かに、イランの最近の挑発はレッドラインを越えてはいない。
Iran’s recent provocations definitely aren’t crossing the red line. 

The Word ‘Color’ 「色」の語源

The word [iro] began as a noun indicating family in archaic Japanese appearing. Of these, contexts involving female members was more common, which later caused the word to be repurposed to refer to the beauty of courtship then to beauty in general before ultimately referring to color. To this day, 色 can be still seen used with these meanings as well as other nuances such as “facial expression,” “sensuality,” etc. For instance, although the word 色気 may mean “shade of color,”  it is usually used with the meaning of “sex appeal,” its meaning of “hue” being taken over by other expressions such as 色合い or 色の具合.

42. 色男は何をやっても男だ。
Lady-killers are sexy no matter what they do.

43. かわいいのに色気を感じない。
(She) has no sex appeal even though she is cute.

44. この布は色気がよい。
The hue of this cloth is good.

45. 色合いを調整して撮影する。
To adjust the hue then photograph/film.

As has been demonstrated with many examples throughout this lesson, ~色(いろ) may attach itself to many objects to describe the color represented by it. For instance, コーラ色 is the color of coke. Only in specific Sino-Japanese originated color names does 色 ever get read as しょく. A general rule of thumb is that if the color word utilizes a generic native word or loanword, it is read as いろ.

46. 顔色ばかり気にしちゃだめだよ。

You shouldn’t just worry about your complexion. 

47. 表面がきつね色になるまで焼きます。
Bake until the surface turns golden brown.

Word Note: Literally “fox color,” きつね色 refers to “golden brown.”

48. 男の子のランドセルでは青や紺が人気ですが、水色はあまり選ばれていない。
Blue and navy blue are popular for boys’ backpacks, but light blue is not often chosen. 

Word Note: 水色 is a blue color inspired by the color of rivers and lakes.  

Eye Color 目の色

Traditionally, the Japanese have viewed their typical eye color as being 黒い. When describing the eyes, it’s important to remind ourselves that the color being referenced is found in the iris (虹彩) and that the pupil (瞳・瞳孔) is black (黒目) for all humans. 黒目 can both refer to the iris as well as a dark-colored iris. In the English-speaking world, this color would be referred to as “dark brown” as opposed to “black.” This is because “black eye” refers to bruising that occurs around the eye, but this is referred to as 目の周りにできる青痣 in Japanese, which utilizes the color 青 instead.

In reality, many Japanese are away that eye color may vary between “brown” and “dark brown,” and there is no problem with describing eye color with 茶色 (brown) or 焦げ茶色 (olive brown) if the iris isn’t close to “black.” You may also hear the color 鳶色 used to describe the eyes (and hair), which refers to a “reddish brown/burnt sienna.”

Even within the Japanese native population, there are individuals with unique eye colors. One such color is “hazel” which can be literally translated as 淡褐色(たんかっしょく) (light brown) or 榛色(はしばみいろ). In literature, 榛色の瞳 is treated as a more exact, standard means of translating “hazel eyes,” but in casual conversation as well as advertisement for colored contacts (カラコン), ヘーゼルアイ can be seen.  Furthermore, ブランアイ (brown eyes) and other similar English loanwords are heavily seen in the context of colored contacts. 

“Blue eyes” and “green eyes” seldom do occur naturally in the Japanese population. “Blue eyes” can be referred to as 青い目, 青の目, 青目, ブルーアイ, etc. “Green eyes” can be referred to as 緑色の目 or グリーンアイ. The use of English loanwords as opposed to the native wordings is, again, heavily related to fashion. It’s also important to note that speakers interchange 目 and 瞳 when referring to the eyes, especially in the context of color. 

Another eye color that occasionally gets mentioned is “amber,” which may be referred to as 琥珀色(こはくいろ)or アンバーアイ. They may even be referred to as 狼の目 as it is the predominant eye color among wolves. 

Colored contact lenses (カラーコンタクトレンズ=カラコン) are especially common in Japanese fashion, and the color choices are not limited to naturally occurring colors. 


To summarize this information, let’s look at several sentences which show how speakers use the various wordings. This will also act as review for when to use the noun or adjective form of an adjective.

49. 青い目の外国人と黒い目茶色の目)の日本人の間に生まれた子供は、何色の目になりますか?

What color would a child, whose parents are a blue-eyed foreigner and a ‘black’-eyed (brown-eyed) Japanese person, have? 

Word Note: Notice how the speaker is acutely aware that the description 黒い目 needs clarification given that the discussion is directed towards the exact color of a newborn child. 

50. 目の色かは遺伝子で決まる。
Whether eye color is blue or brown is determined by one’s genes.

Word Note: In this sentence, 茶色 is contracted to 茶 to maintain parallelism, but it would not be incorrect to use 茶色 instead. 

51. 青目のホモと茶色のホモとの間の子供は、青目/茶色のヘテロで、茶色い目となる。

A child born to a blue-eye homogenous (parent) and a brown-eye (homogenous) parent will be blue-eye/brown-eye heterogenous and turn out with brown eyes.

52. 青目のホモの場合、青い目になる可能性もあるが、他の色の遺伝子が発現し、他の色(ヘーゼル等)になる可能性もある。
When (someone) is blue-eye homogenous, there is the chance they will have blue eyes, but there is also the possibility that another color gene is expressed making them have another color (like green, hazel, etc.). 

53. 私のってアンバーヘーゼルブラウンの分類に入りますか?

Would my eyes fall under amber/hazel/brown?

Hair Color 髪の色 

Hair color can be quite varied depending on one’s race and age. Generally speaking, hair color (髪の色 or 髪色) terminology in Japanese matches English quite well. Let’s take a look at the most important phrases!

English Japanese Explanation
Black Hair 黒髪 Many English speakers have been taught to believe that at the genetic level, all “black hair” is actually “brown hair.” Because of this, English speakers often group “black” and “brown” hair together as “brunette,” but in Japanese, this is not the case. 黒髪 can be read as くろかみ or こくはつ with the latter reading being rare and literary.
Brown Hair
 栗毛・茶髪 Naturally occurring “brown hair” is usually described as 栗毛, which literally refers to the color of chestnuts. The word 茶髪, on the other hand, was first coined in the early 1990s and strongly refers to artificial “brown hair,” especially naturally occuring “black hair” that has been bleached to look lighter. 茶髪 is generally read as ちゃぱつ so it sounds like many of the other hair words to follow, but the reading ちゃはつ is also acceptable.
 Blond(e) 金髪 Sometimes referred to as ブロンド in fashion, 金髪(きんぱつ) hardly ever occurs naturally within the Japanese populace, but it is far more common among Caucasians. 
 Silver Hair 銀髪 Read as ぎんぱつ, “silver hair,” unless artifically dyed to be that color, is usually seen among older generations as pigmentation in the hair becomes damaged over time. In fashion, it is also known as シルバーヘア.
 Grey/White Hair 白髪 Generally thought to be synonymous with “silver hair,” grey hair is known as 白髪(しらが), which literally translates to “white hair.” However, as “white hair” is also used in English, the Japanese phrase should not seem strange. Furthermore, this word is quite ancient and was formed during a time when [shiro] referred to light colors in general (see previous discussion above). It appears as [shira] due to a specific sound change rule in native word compound creation and [ka], voiced in this example due to it being in a compound, is thought to be the ancient pronunciation of 毛 (hair).
 Red Hair 赤毛 Read as あかげ, red hair is most often found among Caucasians. “Red hair” may also be referred to as 赤髪(あかがみ)or even レッドヘア in fashion.

54. 金髪は人間には、比較的に稀にしか見られない髪色だ。
Blond hair is a hair color that is relatively rarely seen among people. 

55. 赤毛の色は鮮やかなイチゴ色からワイン色にまで及びます。
The color of “red hair” ranges from a vibrant strawberry color to the color of wine.  

56. ストロベリーブロンドとは金髪赤毛の混じった珍しい髪の色である。
Strawberry blond is a rare hair color that is the mixture of blond hair and red hair.

57. 白髪は年をとってから生えるものと思っているかもしれませんが、最近は若い人でも目立つことが多くなってきました。
You may be thinking that grey hair is something that comes about once you’re older, but it has recently become more noticeable among young people.

58. 銀髪に染めるというのは素人にはとても難しいことだそうだ。
Dying hair silver is apparently very difficult to amateurs. 

Word Note: The word 素人 actually comes from an idiomatic use of [shiro] and 人 put together. The opposite is 玄人(くろうと)which comes from [kuro] and 人 put together in an idiomatic sense. 

60. 黒髪が似合う人の特徴って何?
What are the characteristics that people who match well with black hair have?

Skin Color 肌の色

While it is important to know how to express skin color (肌の色), one cannot ignore the deep tie between skin color and race. 

In Japanese society, 肌色, without the の, has been used to refer to the typical skin color of the Japanese people. This has been translated into English as “pale orange” and then back into Japanese as 薄橙色(うすだいだいいろ), but the actual color is hardly different from the skin tone of most Europeans or Northeast Asians. Because this term doesn’t even really reflect the diversity of skin tones present in Japan, its use has been abandoned in official contexts, but the word lives on in casual conversation. 

Naturally, when conversations regarding skin tone do arise, you’ll often hear 色白(いろじろ)and 色黒(いろぐろ)for “light-skinned/complexioned” and “dark-skinned/complexioned” respectively.
Both words are 形容動詞 which can take either な or の when used in the attributive form (連体形). 

61. もう一人も色黒だった。
The other person was also dark-skinned. 

62. 美肌に欠かせない特徴というと、やはり、多くの人は「色白」と考えるのではないでしょうか。
Speaking of what characteristics are required for “beautiful skin,” there’s no doubt that many people think of “light complexion,” wouldn’t you say?

Another word you may hear is 地黒(じぐろ), which refers to skin that has always naturally been blackish. This word is also a 形容動詞 which can take either な or の when used in the attributive form (連体形). 

63. 私は母曰く、「あんたは、生まれた時から真っ黒でビックリした!」っていうくらい地黒だったそうです。
As my mother would say, “You were so pitch-black when you were born, I was so surprised,” indicating how I was supposedly so naturally dark. 

Describing Skin Color and Racial Connotations

Ex. 63 illustrates that in Japanese describing skin color with words like 白い “white” or 黒い “black” isn’t necessarily racially charged. For one, most conversations in Japanese are about Japanese people themselves, so contexts regarding skin color are typically through that narrower lens, which has to be understood by someone learning the language who comes from a different cultural background. 

In Japanese society, white skin has been associated with beautiful skin (美肌・びはだ). There is even the word 美白(びはく) which literally means “beautifully white,” which may also refer to whitening of the skin/teeth. Although 色白 is the most common word for referring to “light complexion,” 肌が白い is quite prevalent despite what foreigners with their own preconceived racial sensitivities might think. 

64. 肌が白い女性がモテる理由
Reason(s) why women with white/fair skin are popular.

There is nothing wrong with replacing “white” with “fair” to make the sentence culturally appropriate for an English-speaking audience, but this attention to racial concerns doesn’t exist in the original Japanese. Furthermore, because the use of 色 in 色白 and 色黒 comes down to appeal, they still mean 肌の色が白いこと and 肌の色が黒いこと respectively verbatim. As such, any argument by an English speaker that would suggest Japanese speakers use them over the ‘too direct’ 白い and 黒い would be nonsensical. 

This is NOT to say that racism over skin color doesn’t exist in Japan. Many prejudicial thoughts, both with positive and negative connotations, were instilled in Japan by American occupation during the 1950s and/or were fueled separately by traditionally held beliefs attributed to colors. An example of this is how “black” still has deeply negative connotations rooted in misfortune, evil, and bad luck. 

21st century Japan has been interacting with the outside world for nearly two centuries, and it is struggling like many other developed countries with handling race issues as immigration becomes more common. Having said this, many Japanese are mature enough to distinguish someone’s race from the culturally based semantic connotations phrases might have. 

When race is mentioned, though, the words for said races are used in much the same way as English. Meaning, color is intrinsically a part of the conversation. 

Japanese English
白人(はくじん) White person
 黒人(こくじん) Black person

These two terms are heavily used in Japanese society. Even in news, when race is mentioned in incidents occurring in multi-ethnic societies such as America, these words are used just as they are in the local media. Of course, it would a drastic oversimplification to describe people by these words, which is why ethnicity based on region is the safest means of describing a person. 

65. 黒人に対する人種差別が争点になっている。
Racial discrimination against black people has become a point of issue.

66. 東京の街を歩いていると、白人日本人のカップルを見かけることが多い。
When you walk the streets of Tokyo, you often see mixed white and Japanese couples.

67. ロシア人は辛いものが苦手?
Are Russians weak towards spicy things?

Japanese English
ヨーロッパ人 European
アジア人 Asian
アフリカ人 African
 オーストラリア先住民 Australian Aborigine 
 アメリカ先住民 Native American
 インド人 Indian

※It is also common to see ~系 attached to localities to show that someone is descended from peoples of said region. 

68. 新型コロナウイルスの流行をきっかけに、米国でアジア系女性への差別が注目されるようになった。
Attention has been drawn to discrimination against Asian women in America in part due to the spread of COVID.  

From Courrier News

69. アメリカ先住民はなぜO型が多いのか。
Why is it that so many Native Americans are O-type?

This is not to say, though, that other color-based terminology doesn’t get mentioned in Japanese from time to time when discussing race in an anthropological sense. In the 18th to 19th centuries, describing the races of the world as “white,” “black,” “yellow,” “brown,” and “red,” was very common. These phrases were coined into Japanese as direct translations in the following manner: 

Japanese English
白色人種(はくしょくじんしゅ) “White race” referring to European peoples.
 黒色人種(こくしょくじんしゅ) “Black race” referring to African peoples.
 黄色人種(おうしょくじんしゅ) “Yellow race” referring to Asian peoples.
 赤色人種(せきしょくじんしゅ) “Red race” referring to Native Americans.
 褐色人種(かっしょくじんしゅ)茶色人種(ちゃいろじんしゅ) “Brown race” referring to island dwelling peoples.

These words have been abandoned in academic contexts, but they can be encountered in layman discussions as their English counterparts still are. 

As a means of avoiding color altogether, American society has tried to replace these terms with other words such as “Caucasian/Caucasoid,” “Mongoloid,” “Negroid,” etc.. These words were then directly borrowed into Japanese. Although the use of these words have also become politically incorrect, especially outside of America, they continue to be used in Japan even in academic contexts.  

コーカソイド人種 Caucasian/Caucasoid race(s) モンゴロイド人種 Mongoloid race(s)
ネグロイド人種 Negroid race(s) オーストラロイド人種 Australoid race(s)

In Japanese, these words are void of direct skin color connotations, but it is becoming more common and expected to not just group humanity in such a broad manner, instead using more regionally specific terminology such as the following:  (South) East Asians → 東ユーラシア人 (East Eurasian), Pacific Islanders → 環太平洋, indigenous peoples of North and South America → 南北アメリカ人.