I chose this topic for a few reasons. It’s very tricky to run an Ikebana workshop for different schools. Each school has its own philosophy concepts and technique. But we all use the color which can connect us. In Sogetsu, color is one of three major elements: mass, line, and color. Sometimes, I see interesting, but colorless Ikebana structures. One thing is to make monochromatic Ikebana purposely with artistic intention, the other to make just a dull expression. I was always fascinated by color and its impact. The perception of color is unique to every culture and it would be helpful to Western Ikebanists to talk about colors in a Japanese way.
1.Four Basic Colours.
Color terms appeared in Japanese text in the 8th century: Aka, Kuro, Shiro, and Ao. But initially, they were translated as light, dark, clear and vague. Gradually they became defined in red, black, white and blue. Only these four colors can be qualified by the addition of prefix MA, meaning true or perfectly: MAKKA-bright red, MAKKURO-pitch black, MASSHIRO-pure white, MASSAO-sky blue. But still the original categories of light, dark, clear and vague are inherent in Japanese perception of colors. For example, an English speaker would call traffic light green, while in Japanese they call it blue or use a blended word, Grue. The other small phenomenon is the perception of the color of the sun. Because aka could be translated red, but also as brilliant light, Japanese paint sun red (the same in Korea). On Japanese flag, in all children’s books, the sun is red, not yellow.
2.The Hierarchy of Colours.
In the West aristocracy used precious metals and stones for personal adornment; in Japan, it was colors of dyes to symbolize rank and authority. In the 7th century, a system of 12 courtly ranks was established, each distinguished by the color of the headdress. The color of the clothing worn by aristocrats of each class was also dependant on rank. No one was allowed to wear the color of the higher rank but could wear the color of the lower rank. People of low rank, without position or official post, wore a uniform yellow dress. (In contrast in China yellow was worn by the emperor).
Purple was the color of Japanese aristocracy. Two other supreme colors are yellowish brown restricted to the emperor and orange-to the crown prince. Although official restrictions have ceased today it still influences the way Japanese evaluate colors. Royal robes still dyed from KUCHINASHIjasmineor gardenia for the emperor and from BENIBANA for the crown prince as in 718.
3.The Aesthetics of Mixing Colours.
In medieval Europe mixing the dyes to create new color was punished and considered devilish, threatening the order, created by God. Artists had to find all necessary colors from existing natural materials. That’s why a much greater variety of coloring materials was developed in Europe. At the same time13-14 century, the age of samurai, the Japanese dyers were not threatened by the notion that color changing is blasphemy against the divine order. They went on producing all kinds of hue from limited varieties of vegetable dyes. As a result of Europe primary colors such as red, yellow, purple were considered royal or aristocratic. On the contrary, in Japan, complex neutral tints were created by color mixing, in particular, yellowish brown and orange were considered royal.
RED- AKA. It represents blood, fire; it’s the color of rituals and warding off the evil. In the 7thcentury under Chinese influence, many palaces, temples, and official buildings were painted red. The vermillion ITSUKUSHIMA SHRINE floating in the sea in Miyajima, the 1000 torii gateways of the Fushimi INARI SHRINE in Kyoto, Red torii gates throughout Japan- they symbolize abundance, the power of life and act as a blockage to evil spirits.
LACQUERWARE, oxide red, vermillion and black from the 7th century became a symbol of authority and wealth. It was used for eating utensils, ornamental combs for women and sheath for samurai swords.
At the end of the 17th century, Europeans brought brilliant deep red cloaks and carpets to Japan. Soon after, the Japanese developed intense scarlet red cloth called SHOJO CRIMSON in a reference to a legendary emperor whose face was red from heavy drinking. It was made into JIMBAORI, sleeveless surcoat, lavishly decorated, and worn by samurai over their armor.
In Kabuki a bright red FURISODE, long-sleeved kimono was worn by young women of good birth. The idea is that the red represented the artless passion hidden beneath the exterior of the well-bred young girl.
Vermillion seal on documents and artwork still prevails in Japan, although there was a call for a personal signature.
BLUE-AO-the color of the sky, the sea and the planet Earth itself. In the West, blue signifies the infinite, the mysterious, and the supreme. In Japan blue never became associated with a religious sentiment, possibly, because the Japanese never worshipped an almighty god dwelling in heavens.
The blue dye comes from the Indigo plant. There are 50 varieties worldwide. KO-YA , the name of the dye, became a synonym for the hand dying industry. The demand for Ko-ya was so high that artisans had no time to color their own cloth. Hence came the saying; “a ko-ya who wear white”, meaning that anyone too busy attending to the needs of others to attend to his own.
Before the 20th century, Japan was a nation of indigo-dye: NORENS-short, over the door curtains, the tall indigo advertising banners, predominant blue people dresses, fields of indigo in foothills, indigo-dyed clothes drying in front of private houses.
In ceramics blue and white SOMETSUKE-blue underglaze patterns on a white ground with cobalt-based glaze. How appetizing plain boiled rice looks in Imari blue and white bowl.
In pictorial art, the Prussian blue pigment was introduced from Germany at the end of 18th century. UKIYOE artists such as Ando Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai created AIZURI-INDIGI prints. Thirty
Six Views of Mt. Fuji you can see at Tokyo National Museum.
BROWN-CHAIRO is not a basic color. But brown is a color of the earth, of rocks and sand, of tree bark, or animal’s fur. In this sense, it could be called the basic color of everyday life. Although the brown color was used in Japan since ancient times the actual name equivalent to English brown-chairo –tea color appeared in Edo period (1600-1867).
Brown is the color of simple aesthetics, wabi-sabi. The brown color is indispensable in Japan: buildings of old Shinto Shrines made up of plain, unpainted wooden timbers and roofs thatched with cypress bark; tea ceremony with handmade wooden utensils, raku tea bowls; anagama fired ceramics in rich brown undertones from ancient Jomon to Raku, Bizen, and Shigaraki.
In Edo period artisans started to use tea leaves infusion for brown dyes. The brown color produced became a symbol of the common people. Celebrated actors of Kabuki theatre seized upon the vouge for brown. Various shades of brown bearing the names of well-known actors became the color of the moment- which you can see in wood blocks by KATSUKAWA SHUNSHO in Tokyo NationalMuseum.
GREEN-MIDORI is the symbol of fresh and youthful, a symbol of new life.
The pine is used for New Year, for stage decoration at Noh theatre and other interior decorations.
Pine and Sugi (cryptomeria) commonly used for bonsai.
In Europe green dyes were from sap greens and from mineral malachite. In Japan, it’s overdyed method, first yellow then indigo. The result is called MOEGI, yellow-green, beautiful on silk, but rather dull olive-green on cotton.
In ceramics, green is associated with Oribe. Oribe was introduced by Lord Furuta Oribe in 1605 with vivid patterns and predominately green and black, which was a great and unusual contrast to monochromatic traditional wear. Today Oribe is produced in Tojima town with Oribe Street.
There is no unpleasant association with green color in Japan. In English, we are aware of “green-eyed” jealousy.
PURPLE-MURASAKI. The dye in Europe is the secretion of shellfish MUREX and PURPURA living in The Mediterranean; in Japan, the dye extracted from the root of MURASAKI-SO (GROMWELL). In both cases, it has a great scarcity value, and from early times carried a suggestion of privilege.
The earliest example of purple in Japanese history is the 8th-century Buddhist sutras inscribed in gold characters on the deep purple paper.
In “The Tales of Genji”, 11th century Japanese classic novel, the main heroine’s name is Murasaki to signify her perfection. The author of the novel after her work was named Lady Murasaki.
Although the clothing in Japan has been assimilated into the international scene in a flood of different colors, purple is still seen as noble and sacred color. You can see it in curtains at Shinto shrines; the fine cloth used to wrap valuable objects; the robes of Buddhist priests; and the costumes worn by the highest ranking sumo referee.
In English, the term ‘blue ribbon” signifies victory or something of the highest rank. In Japan, victor’s
banners are usually violet. The workings of history reveal itself.
GOLD AND SILVER Kin /Gin. Gold was introduced to Japan with Buddhism in the 6th century.
Gold in Japan means, first and foremost, Buddhist art.
Gold in Japan was plentiful In the 12th century. In Northern Honshu, wealthy families embellished their residences, inside and outside, with gold dust designs on black lacquer.
The Golden Pavilion of Kyoto KINKAKU-JI was built in 15th century as a retirement villa for the shogun ASHIKAGA YOSHIMITSU, the 3 story structure that was entirely covered in gold leaf.
Folding screens covered in gold leaf and decorated with bird’s eye views of scenes, in and around
Kyoto appeared in the 16th century.
Around the same time, famous actors from Noh theatre embodied their costumes with gold braid and impressed gold or silver foil. Similar extravagance spread to the kimonos and sashes-obi worn by ladies from affluent families, and eventually, to the luxuries robes of high ranking courtesans in the pleasure quarters.
It’s very different to Europe, where highly polished silver was a prized feature of the privileged. In general, the Japanese are not interested in the private possession of precious metals, as a symbol of wealth or authority. Gold and silver are used in Buddhist art, interior decoration and the decorative arts.
BLACK- KURO AND WHITE- SHIRO. Visually black and white represent opposite poles of darkness and
light. Black is one of the most distinguished colors of Japanese art.
Black LACQUERWARE with its mirror-like surface has attained the highest degree of technical sophistication. It fascinates us today the same way as it did over the nobles in the Heian period (794-1185).
Black ink painting-Sumi-e was originally brought from China; it flourished during 14-15 century and evolved into distinctively Japanese style in the 17th century until today. Monochromic black ink in the hands of a master can give an expression to all the phenomena of the universe, including spiritual overtones.
White was a sacred color of the gods in traditional Japan. Places associated with the gods were scattered with white pebbles or white sand, decorated with shimenawa- twisted rope with handmade white paper as a sign that space was purified.
The other example of sacred white is the offerings of round white rice cakes at the New Year, as a sign of thankfulness, or prayer to the gods.
White is used in a symbolic way at various crucial points in life. Japanese brides drape a white cloth in front of her hair at the wedding ceremony; the white robe worn by the dead. The white was a color not much used in ordinary, secular life.
The exception was OSHIROI-the makeup used to whiten the face depicted in my Ikebana below.
In the 7th century, Korean immigrants discovered white lead and presented it to the Empress. Since then, it was widely used for centuries as a makeup. The poisonous effect of lead was discovered only in the early 20th century, and the lead was replaced by rice powder. Still, white makeup is worn by Maiko and Geiko and Kabuki impersonators of female characters.
In ceramics, white color examples are Shino ware and porcelain, although white porcelain is used
mostly as a background with polychromatic painting over. Imari, Kutani, Satsuma colorful porcelain
is famous all over the world.
Examples in architecture are white walls of Japanese castles such as Himeji, the white plaster walls
of the merchant’s storehouses, and black and white diamond wall patterns- NAMAKO-NABE.
Resource: The Colours of Japan by Sadao Hibi, Kodansha International 2000