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The Spirit of Color in Japanese Traditions

Color is a most interesting phenomenon that we have the pleasure of perceiving through our human senses. On a physical or biological level the perception of a color is essentially the perception of light through our photoreceptors cells. As we can also look at everything in our experience from a spiritual perspective, with awareness of the energy or spirit that creates and animates all of our experience; we can understand that each color holds a particular energetic frequency. How we perceive this energy can differ according to our unique ways of translating and understanding the energy of each color, this is why the meaning or traits associated with each color can differ between various cultures or traditions.


Within this article we will focus on analyzing the role of color in Japanese traditions, we shall explore the Japanese perspective of color including color theory, color symbolism as well as learning a little about sacred and prohibited colors.



Japanese Color Theory


Color theory can be understood as the science and art of utilizing colors. It includes how colors are mixed, contrasted and combined. Western color theory is usually focused on the technical and physical aspects of color while Japanese color theory includes another layer of intent; Japanese color theory is related to elements of nature. The 5 primary colors within Japanese color theory are black (water ) , white(metal) , red(fire), blue(wood) and yellow(earth)


Every other color is created from these 5 colors. Color plays a huge role in the designing of the traditional Japanese attire, the kimono. Exquisite color combinations and tonal variations are utilized in kimono designing; colors are often combined in a way that can seem quite unique to the western eye. Many of these sublime colors and combinations can be experienced in the art reference book Dictionary of Color Combinations by Japanese designer and painter Sanzo Wada, the book is an artwork in itself and simply and effectively shares the beauty of a contemporary traditional Japanese view of color.


Japanese Color Symbolism


In Japan, two predominant traditional sources of spirituality are Buddhism and Shinto. The most widely practiced form of Buddhism is Zen Buddhism which you can read more about in the article 7 Life Enriching Teachings of Zen. Shinto is a belief system that includes harmony with nature, purity and sincerity. In Buddhism, the 5 primary colors are linked to different aspects of Buddha-nature and in Shinto the 5 colors are also linked to elements of nature. These colors are seen within Shinto shrines and Buddhist prayer flags. It is also well known that red and white are two of the more widely used colors in Japan. Colors in Japanese culture have specific attributes and emotions linked to them.


We shall now learn about the Japanese symbolic meanings of the 5 primary colors:


  • Black (Kuro): Black is regarded as a color that resonates with masculine energy. Black is a color that is associated with samurai and also holds the symbolism of power.

  • White (Shiro): White is regarded as a sacred color; it represents the energy of purity and godliness. White is also symbolic of the spirit world.

  • Red (Aka): Red is a color of protection and strength. It is a color that is highly regarded in Japanese traditions and it is widely used. Red can also symbolize prosperity.

  • Blue (Aoi): Blue is symbolic of coolness and calmness. It is associated with passivity.

  • Yellow (Kiro): Yellow is considered a color of courage and hope. It has a soothing and active energy. It is symbolic of lightness.


Beyond these 5 colors, Japanese tradition also includes beautiful muted color palettes as well as muted colors combined with brighter colors. These colors and combinations usually have an organic and nuanced feeling to them and are each, of course, named in Japanese. Below we shall learn about the symbolic meaning of a few more secondary colors in Japanese tradition. These colors are usually used in various tones and shades but these are the general meanings:


  • Purple (Murasaki): Purple symbolizes royalty. It had a regal energy.

  • Green (Midori): Green is considered to be a refreshing color. It is also a color that symbolizes rest, vitality and the energy of nature.

  • Orange (Orenji): Orange is a color associated with knowledge and wisdom. This color is symbolic of happiness and love.

  • Brown (Chairo): Brown symbolizes earth; it is also associated with tea (an important practice within Japanese traditions). It is a color that resonates with simplicity, durability and strength.


Sacred and Prohibited Colors


Certain colors were usually considered prohibited within the dress code of traditional Japanese culture; this was more prevalent in the past rather than in our modern times. Purple was considered a color for royalty and so it was prohibited for a commoner to wear this color.


Sacred colors in Japan most definitely include red and white and these colors are seen adorning temples and various celebrations. Yellow is also said to be a sacred color.

Learning more about how color is regarded in Japanese traditions can add a new layer of meaning to how we view certain colors, it can also offer us a deeper understanding and appreciation for Japanese traditions and ideals. Learning about how a culture or person perceives color provides us with a reminder of how we have the ability to energize and define our experience through collective focus. We cultivate the energy that we focus upon and so there is no right or wrong way of experiencing a color, but we can use color as a powerful means of expression and intentional alignment.

__Written by Music Of Wisdom team

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