The Traditional Colors of Japan - All the colors of the rainbow and much, much more! -

A Brief History

Some of Japan’s colors have a lengthy background dating back to the Asuka period (538 ~ 710) and the hierarchical Japanese color system itself can be most easily traced back to 603 AD, when Prince Shōtoko established the first Twelve Level Cap and Rank System in Japan.

Based on Confucian values and the five Chinese elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), this particular hierarchy determined one’s rank by quality, rather than one’s heritage. Ranks were made identifiable by specific colors, as follows:

1.大徳 (Daitoku) Greater Virtue
2.小徳 (Shōtoku) Lesser Virtue
3.大仁 (Daijin) Greater Benevolence
4.小仁 (Shōjin) Lesser Benevolence
5.大礼 (Dairei) Greater Propriety
6.小礼 (Shōrei) Lesser Propriety
7.大信 (Daishin) Greater Sincerity
8.小信 (Shōshin) Lesser Sincerity
9.大義 (Daigi) Greater Justice
10.小義 (Shōgi) Lesser Justice
11.大智 (Daichi) Greater Knowledge
12.小智 (Shōchi) Lesser Knowledge

Within this system, the kinkiji (禁色), meaning “forbidden colors” were exclusively designated for use by only the highest ranking government officials and their robes. For example, the robes of the kuge (公家, the dominant aristocratic class in Kyoto’s imperial courts) were of the color Ōtan (orange), therefore the use of this color by any other lower rank was strictly prohibited. As such, the warm orange and red hues came to be associated with power and affluence. Examples of this can also be found in everything from ornamental combs and katana scabbards to the torii gates of Shinto shrines and the shrine-maidens’ garb. On the opposite end of the spectrum (ha!), the yurushiiro (許し色, “permissible colors”) were usable by commoners.

Now let’s fast-forward: the Japanese color sense grew considerably some some two centuries later, during the Heian Period (794 ~ 1185). A time considered to be the peak of Japan’s imperial court, the Heian Period is revered for its contribution to the arts, most notably in poetry and literature. It was at this time that such important cultural artifacts were created, such as The Tale of Genji (源氏物語), one of the first novels ever written, along with an utter plethora of poetry. The writings from this time were especially expressive, and as such, various new descriptions and color names arose from numerous pieces.

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