Colors have had a special place in all cultures. Ever since man started using language, describing and classifying things around him has been of primary importance. In the most ancient texts, you come across some the most vivid descriptions of skies, of trees etc. However, these descriptions often contain what could seem as misplaced color terms. This often led people to assume that people of the ancient world were unable to perceive certain cultures. The study of color perceptions is not very old. A cultural understanding of color perceptions have given us valuable insights regarding the connection between perceptions and cultural associations.
Insights into the culture
For this reason, analyzing the number of color terms a community has offers insights into the culture itself. All cultures evolved by ascribing external meanings to objects around them, and colors are no exception. Different colors stand for different feelings, evoke different sensations and often represent a unique elements. All of these meanings are culture-specific.
After the advent of globalization, there have been an incessant mixing of cultural practices and concepts. It has become increasingly important to understand the cultural differences when dealing with trade in good and services. What may be considered appropriate in one culture might mean derogatory or even evil in certain other cultures. A good understanding and. appreciation of cultural differences can go a long way in establishing relationships across cultures.
Cultural differences in the meanings associated with certain colors often give rise to interesting conflicts. For example, red has drastically different connotations in different cultures. In Chinese culture, red stand for good luck and prosperity. Chinese people wear red to celebrate their New Year. Meanwhile, in African culture, red symbolizes death and violence. It is associated with grief and personal loss. Wearing red to a celebratory function in Africa could be a bad decision. While black is worn to funerals in the Western countries, several Asian countries associate mourning with white, which is used in weddings in the West.
Colors also have religious associations. While green represents Islam, Christianity looked down on green for a long time due to its association with pagan practices. The color blue has spiritual meanings in Judaism and Hinduism celebrates blue as the color of Lord Krishna.
Japanese culture and colors
It is reasonable therefore, to believe that to understand a culture, you need to understand the cultural meanings of colors. Japan, known for its unique style of paintings and colorful streets, is obviously no exception. If you think Japan is colorful now, Japan’s history might just blow your mind. Ancient Japanese culture and society were deeply rooted in sense of colors. Geishas were a huge part of Japanese culture and they determined color trends in the society. The colors worn by a geisha were hardly random. They were carefully chosen for each season, each month, and symbolized specific things. The geishas experimented with combinations of colors which caught on among the common people and came to represent Japan itself.
Other influences on Japan’s history with colors and their significance came from other Asian cultures with whom they involved in trade. The color red is supposed to have been an influence of China. The meanings associated with the color red also involved Chinese connotations.
Japan’s color palette also has a lot to do with Japan’s geography.
The oldest written records of Japan includes some history and a lot of mythology. Japan’s mythology and stories from ancient culture are known for its vivid imaginative nature. They include mentions of four primary colors; white, black, blue and red. These still contain traces of their historic meanings in their associations, and only these four colors take intensifiers such as the prefix ‘ma-‘ to indicate a deeper tone or purity.
The color perceptions of a culture often reflect the geography of the place. This should not come as a surprise, since most primitive descriptive terms of a language must have dealt mainly with what the people saw around them, naturally.
Japan is an island. The colors terms white, black, blue and red are characteristic of the place, surrounded by stretches of stunning blue water and insulated from other cultures. These four colors probably have their origins in native, naturally occurring elements, as observed in color terms inspired from native animals.
The color blue has a special place in Japan’s history and culture. You will come across a lot of blue objects, even among the exported items from Japan. This is a common thread among Asian countries. Blue has a lot of historic significance in Asia, as one of the earliest progressions made in textile trade. Indigo was cultivated almost exclusively in Asian countries and some parts of Africa. Textile trade was a gateway to export industries, and often played a huge part in their development. So it is not surprising that the color blue often has a special place in these cultures. Blue objects composed a large part of Japan’s export items.
Japan use to have an interesting social system that had a lot do with colors. The society was strictly hierarchical and displayed through the color of their robes. The highest aristocratic people wore a color that did not even feature in the hierarchical color listing. It was only referred to as the ‘Forbidden color’. Of the colors that were allowed for common folk, the color blue was work by higher ranking people. It symbolized wealthiness and prestige, while also remaining a color of the common folk.
Of the four primary colors, red, black and white have spiritual connotations. Red is often believed to be the color of power and wealth, black is considered spiritual, often adorned by monks. White is associated with all that is spiritual, mostly seen in shrines. However, blue has no religious or spiritual connotations in Japanese culture. Some hypothesise that this is because blue represents wholeness and Japanese culture never had one all-powerful God. Blue is more secular in that sense, than the other primary colors. Blue is more associated with everyday objects. You will come across a lot of blue objects in Japan, including ceramics, clothes and gadgets.
Blue symbolizes all that is pure and transparent, like the sky. Like most cultures, purity is a highly held quality in Japanese culture. Newborns are usually wrapped in blue colored textiles. Blue is also often worn by pregnant women and women who are looking for marital proposals. Blue has a similar connotation in a lot of cultures, probably because of its association with water sources. It could also be because blue is one of the naturally procured pigments, especially in Asian countries, through indigo plants. Before the age of synthetic pigments and industrial dyes, indigo was a popular dying agent and widely used in clothing. For this reason, several auspicious occasions and gatherings involve people wearing sky blue attire. Interestingly, weavers and people who were incharge of dying textiles were known for wearing white and not blue.
Blue is a popular choice for clothing in Japan. It is the most widely used color in Kimonos, worn by women. The color blue is associated with virginity and femininity. This is interesting when compared with the Western perception that blue is boys’ color and pink is for women. Western choices for young girls and female babies rarely involve blue objects. The concept of an ideal women in the olden days, had a lot to do with purity of mind and body. The association of blue with femininity is probably also because of its association with purity and innocence.
Green-blue traffic lights
One interesting fact about Japan is the fact that blue is sometimes seen in place of green on traffic lights. This is because, in the earliest color palette, there was no word for green. The word ‘ao’ stood for both blue and green. It is not uncommon for cultures to perceive two colors as one. An often quoted examples is the case of the ‘wine-red’ sea in Greek writer Homer’s ‘Iliad’. This often happens with colors that lie close to each other in the color spectrum. Because color is a fluid spectrum, one color easily blends into another, without any perceivable boundaries. So in cultures that do not have a vast vocabulary of color terms, it is common to have one term for what may be perceived as different colors in another culture.
If you go for an interview in Japan, blue would be your safest choice for wardrobe. Blue is considered the color of dignity and overall composure. It is the most popular choice among corporate professionals. Blue is also the color of stability. Wearing blue to a workplace or to a business meeting often exudes a sense of well-settledness and trustworthiness. This is particularly important to keep in mind in a country like Japan. Looking well dressed is an important part of the culture. You would be amiss to go overdressed or underdressed. A huge part of looking well dressed is the choice of color. The job market in highly competitive, and first impressions matter a lot. Although judgments based on color can seem like ancient practices, traces of the hierarchical attitude towards the society are still visible in the current Japanese society.