Wa no Iro: Add color to your Japanese

So last week I decided to challenge myself by attending a workshop at the Japan Foundation aimed at people with JLPT N2 and above. Although I’m sort of studying for N3 at the moment, I’ve only taken the N4 exam so far (~_~;) So you can see why this was a challenge for me.

The workshop was led by Yuko Hayasaka, editor in chief of the Visual Design Institute. The session would help us learn about colors unique to Japan, as well as help us explore Japanese culture and literature.

Our first task was to try and guess the names of different color cards we were given. Here is our first attempt:

photo 1 (3)

This was so hard! Apart from sakura iro (桜色)which was quite obvious by the color, and kurotsurobami (黒橡), which had the kanji for black, I believe we got everything else wrong! _| ̄|○ Here is what it should have looked like:

photo 2 (3)

After that, the rest of the lesson was focused on reading old Japanese songs/poems based on all these wonderfully complicated named colors. And this is where things got really complex, and I was reminded of what a gap there was between N4 and N2!

The poems were quite difficult to understand, as they were written in the heian period, and therefore use old Japanese. For example, words like こたえない (kotaenai) were written like こたへず (kotahezu). And there were many old words used, that even some of the teachers had never heard.

Here are a few of my favorite ones we looked at (probably my favorite because they were the only ones I somewhat understood).

yukari iro 縁色



murasaki no hitomoto yue ni musashino

kusa wa minna kara aharetozomiru

yukari iro is a shade of purple. It is broken up into the kanji for yukari, which means affinity/connection, and iro for color. Understanding the kanji of the color’s name helped me understand the song a bit more. Roughly, the song is talking about a Violet (murasaki) growing in Tokyo area (musashino). But what the poem is really about, is the type of emotions and imagery that are evoked when seeing that Violet. From what I understood, and I may be wrong, is if but one Violet is like a lover, and this Violet has someone they love, their connection, affinity and intimacy will be felt by everyone around.

(image source)
(image source)

usuhana iro 薄花色

人ごころ うす花ぞめの狩衣

さてだにあらで 色やかはらむ

hito gokoro usuhana zome no kari gormo

satedani arade iro ya kaharamu

usuhana iro is a shade of blue. It’s a light blue, a bit like the sky. usuhana is made up of the kanji usu, which means light (color) or dilute/thin/weak , and hana for flower. The poem compares people’s hearts, or human nature, to a dyed garment. Even if you attempt to preserve this light color , it may unfortunately suddenly fade. The subtlety and delicacy of this color is comparable to people’s changing hearts.

(image source)
(image source)

yamabuki iro 山吹色

山吹の 花色 衣 ぬしたれや

問へどこたへず くちなしにして

yamabuki no hana iro koromo nushi tare ya

to he do kotahezu kuchinashi ni shite

yamabuki iro is a shade of golden yellow, and yamabuki is also a Japanese yellow rose. I like this poem, because it’s what is called a 言葉遊び (kotoba asobi): a word game. Literally the poem more or less says “the yamabuki garment wearing master can not answer any questions from anyone. He has no mouth.” The last part kuchinashi ni shite can be interpreted as kuchi ga nai (he has no mouth). But kuchinashi is also the word for Gardenia ( a type of flower) in Japanese.

(image source)
(image source)

Don’t you just love Japanese even more?! I love the imagery and comparisons made with nature. The subtleties of the Japanese language never ceases to amaze me! But like I said, this workshop was somewhat difficult for me, so if you have any other interpretations or understandings of the poems above, please share in the comments below! And as it’s almost spring, I’ll leave you with this final poem 😉

sakura iro 桜色

花の色は うつりにけりな いたづらに

わが身世にふる ながめせしまに

(image source)
(image source)

4 thoughts on “Wa no Iro: Add color to your Japanese

  1. Great post! The subtleties and the double meaning of words are one of the things that I love about Japanese language. It is so flexible and creative. And as I study kanji, I discover that they again greatly add to the depth and complexity of the language.

    I think I am at about the same level where you are. I have passed N4 and am working towards N3. But I have the impression that people who have passed N2 are almost completely fluent in Japanese; I hope I can get there some day!


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