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Japanese Color Theory

A Japanese print from the mid-18th century.

Color theory in Japan was originally developed based around a theory of the natural elements. Colors in Japan hold different symbolic and hierarchical meanings that they do in the West, although the Japanese color palette has heavily influenced Western art. The traditional use of color in Japan can be seen in Japanese literature like haiku, in Japanese woodblock prints and in the fabric of garments like the kimono.


The five main colors in Japanese color theory are linked to five natural elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The associated colors are blue (wood), red (fire), yellow (earth), white (metal) and black (water). All other colors are made from combinations of these elements.


Japanese color naming was standardized by 600 A.D. by Prince Shotooku, the first unifier of Japan. It was based around Chinese color theory, which was used across East Asia. Chinese color theory also uses the five elements as a philosophical basis for color combination. Aside from just being a theory of color, each element also represented a geographical direction, virtue, season and sense. These connotations were also carried by the colors. In 1862, the Japanese color wheel was recognized in the West, and it was used by modern artists to interpret Japanese color theory.


Japanese color theory is strongly associated with the harmony of the natural elements. Every color has a meaning beyond its actual hue. For instance, yellow represents the element of earth, the direction of the center, fidelity and the heat of midsummer. By using the colors together, the artist can emphasize a certain meaning based on the system.

Secondary Colors

In Japan, secondary colors are often developed after the name of the plant of flower they resemble. The other colors that are most frequently used in Japanese literature include purple, pink, green, brown and gray. These colors all also have virtues and emotions associated with them. Purple, for instance, was associated with the highest forms of morality, and only the Buddhist clergy could wear robes of that shade.


The traditional Japanese color palette has been broadened, even in Japan.

The simplicity and harmony of the Japanese color palette and its relating theory have made it popular in Western culture, as well as in the East. However, there are significant distinctions in meaning (yellow, for instance, can stand for bravery in Japan, whereas in Western culture it usually stands for cowardice), which means the audience should be taken into account before relying too strongly on the meanings of the colors.

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