Is this green or blue in Japanese?

May 29, 2015 Juju Kurihara 4 Comments
The other day, a German friend wanted to learn a little Japanese and she asked me the names of the colour since she is a clothing designer. “How do you say white in Japanese?” Typical questions until we stopped at a traffic light. She asked, “How do you say green?” She was looking at the traffic light. I answered, “It´s midori (緑/green)… but if it´s a traffic light, it´s ao (青/ blue)"
She looked at me puzzled. I know it´s confusing. 
“It´s not blue, it´s green” she said and started pointed out blue things and green things on the street. “Is this green or blue?"
I know what is green and blue. I can see the difference. But as I explained to her the concept of color in Japanese, I had re-discovered how the names of the colours established in Japanese language.   
Green vegetable is Ao Yasai (青野菜), blue vegetables in Japanese. 
Green caterpillar is Ao Mushi (青虫), blue caterpillar.
Green bamboos are Aodake (青竹), blue bamboos.
Have you ever tried Okonomiyaki? This green power is Aonori (青のり), a type of seaweeds. 
Do Japanese see less colours than others? No, but in the ancient Japan, there were only four colours existed in Japanese; shiro (白/ white), kuro (黒/ black), aka (赤/ red) and ao (青/ blue). And only these four colours can be used as adjective, which ends with “i”; shiro-i, kuro-i, aka-i and ao-i. 
This is because ancient Japanese people distinguished the colour by Meian Kenbaku (明暗顕漠).
 Mei comes from the word Akarui (明るい), Akashi (明かし) in the old way of saying. The image of mei is the sky of dawn. The night breaks and the horizon becomes red. Ancient Japanese related aka (赤/ red) to alai (blight).  
An is opposite to mei. It´s dark (暗/an) and the image of the night. It´s kurai (暗い) or kurashi (暗し) in the old time and from here it developed the colour kuroi (黒い/ black).
The word ken (顕) means clear and the ancient Japanese people called it shirui (shirushi). The clear colour for them was white and the colour shiroi (白い) was formed. 
The last, baku (漠) means unclear and refer to a greyish colour, neutral colour like desert. People called it awashi (あわし) and became aoi (青い/ blue). This colour referred to any unclear colour besides white, black or red. It means blue wasn´t so specific colour like we know now but used for wider range of colours including green.     
These were all called ao (青/ blue). 
In the same reason, when they say aka (red), it referred to warm colour. 
But the word midori (緑/ green) did exist in the ancient time. Just it wasn´t the name for colour but meant sprout. Then with the time, midori started to refer the colour of sprout. Actually there are many colours which were the name of the things. I think this is the same as in other languages such as the colour orange. Did it not come from the fruit? In Japanese, the colour daidai-iro (橙色) came from the fruit, daidai, Japanese orange. Most of the time the colours which were originally things; plants, food, animals or inanimate things such as sora-iro (空色/sky colour) are combined with iro (色/colour). In Japanese they are not colour but just referring to a colour of something. For instance, nezumi iro (ねずみ色) is a coloour of nezumi, mouse means grey.  
The word ao is really diverse in Japanese because of this reason and depends on the type of blue, it´s written in different kanji. Usually it´s written as 青 and this is what we commonly consider blue.
蒼 is dim blue. But it also means the strong growth of the plants and says, aoaoshii (蒼蒼しい). By repeating ao twice, it gives the power of green.  
With the same reason, Japanese people call “aoi” by referring to freshmen or young people who haven´t a lot of experience yet. Also blue refers to something is not mature such as fruits. 
Then 碧 refers to greenish blue, so called cobalt blue. 
Back to the traffic light. At the beginning it was called green light but since the red is aka and ao sounded better than midori, which has three syllables. Now I´ve heard there are traffic lights using bluer lamp so that it fits the name.
So yes, Japanese people do know the difference of green and blue. But when they want to refer something fresh (except the traffic light), they tend to use ao instead of blue.
このマンゴはまだ青いから食べません。(Kono mango wa mada aoi kara tabemasen / I don´t eat this mango yet as it´s still green)
There is a good video talking about colours in Japanese.

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  1. Giuseppe Money 3 years Reply

    Having read this I believed it was really informative.
    I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this
    informative article together. I once again find myself spending
    a lot of time both reading and leaving comments. But so what, it
    was still worth it!

  2. Ferdinand 5 years Reply

    Super interesting!! Arigato!

  3. Harry 6 years Reply

    Bikkuri shimashita! OMG! Tahnk for an good & offbeat article.

  4. Barrie Wilmot 7 years Reply

    This is fascinating. I’ve only been learning to speak Japanese for about 6 months and I had no idea about this 🙂 thanks for a great article!

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