Colors in Japanese & Chinese Culture - Kaito Japan Design

Colors in Japanese & Chinese Culture

Chinese and Japanese Color Symbolism

East Asian countries are among the many global nations and regions that place value on colors. In Chinese and Japanese culture, colors play an essential role in representing aspects of society such as feelings, rituals, ceremonies, or other events. While each traditional Japanese or Chinese color may not represent the same ideals, they are recognized for their symbolic meaning and deeply engrained involvement in many activities.

Colors in China and Japan can be considered either lucky or unlucky. Each culture places value on specific colors as a positive or negative symbol. In some situations, a color may even be regarded as offensive. This lesson will explore the symbolism of Chinese and Japanese colors and the color meanings in both China and Japan.

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Colors in Japanese Culture and Their Meanings

China has heavily influenced traditional Japanese colors and their meanings throughout history. The origins of important Japanese colors and their symbolism date back to the 7th century when Chinese presence was heavy on the island of Japan. Though the color meanings are not the same as in China, Japanese colors have their roots in the Chinese philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Taoism was not a significant philosophy in Japan as it was in China, but it played a small role in how Japanese ideals are represented differently than in China. Confucianism led to the association of each social class with color and partly influenced the meaning of certain colors in Japan.

The largest Chinese influence on traditional Japanese color symbolism was the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and the native Japanese religion of Shintoism. Under these animalistic ideologies (in which nature spirits were worshiped), colors represented the core values of living a pure and modest life. White, black, red, and blue are considered the only genuine and primary colors in Japanese culture. Other colors also hold symbolic meaning, but most Japanese traditions, clothing, architecture, and events are represented through the primary colors of the language.

White in Japanese Culture

White is a popular color in Japanese culture because it is symbolic of purity. It is used as the background on Japan's flag to represent the nation's purity and reverence for the gods in the light of the rising sun. White is especially symbolic when paired with red. White is also known as a color that symbolizes divinity, truth, simplicity, humility, and mourning. Initially, white was only worn at funerals. It was rarely worn in everyday life. Over time and through Western influence, the color of mourning has shifted from white to black. Modernly, white is worn in the commonplace, and black is generally reserved for sorrowful events such as funerals.

White is used as the focal point of many Japanese Shinto shrines. White sand, white pebbles, and other white decorations are representative of the purity of the gods. Drawn from Buddhism, white can additionally represent the wisdom and knowledge of the gods present at Shinto shrines.

In the past, the Japanese’s colour of mourning was white. It was only after the western influence that they switched to black. In Japanese culture, and like many others, white represents purity and cleanliness. It is considered to be a blessed and sacred colour.

Black in Japanese Culture

Another important traditional Japanese color is black. Black is commonly associated with formality (or formal events), elegance, and mourning. It may also represent unhappiness, fear, evil, bad luck, or misfortune. Black has been historically used in formal attire such as that of samurai, inspired by the social ranking system of Confucianism. The color black also represented the lowest two ranks in the Japanese social class system, opposite purple.

The oldest known use of the color black was in tattoos. Fishermen and hunters would draw fish tattoos or game on their skin to protect them from bad fortune. Black tattoos later labeled prisoners who had performed acts of bad luck. During the Meiji period (1868-1912), some individuals would dye their teeth black using a solution of dissolved iron and vinegar to be fashionable. Black is also used in calligraphy and ink painting to create simplistic yet beautiful pieces of artwork.

Black has been synonymous with death, evil, and destruction in almost every culture, so the colour of mourning is black in most countries, including Japan. Since ancient times to this day, black has been the colour used for makeup. Back then, the Japanese had a custom where they would paint their teeth black. This unusual custom called o-haguro, which involves dying one’s teeth black with dissolved iron and vinegar, prevents tooth decay. It is still practised during funerals by locals in the countryside and some geishas on special occasions.

Red in Japanese Culture

Red is one of the most dominant colors in Japanese culture. It is the symbolic color of the imperial nation, represented as a filled circle (to symbolize the sun) on the national flag. The color red is associated strongly with authority, strength, sacrifice, joy, and happiness. It is regarded as an auspicious color in Japan, especially when paired with white (also used on the national flag).Red is used in decorations at important events such as weddings and birthdays, and it is also commonly worn at gatherings such as these.

The color red is used heavily in Japanese architecture, especially at Shinto shrines. The specific red color, akani, is believed to offer protection from evil or disaster. It also increases the spiritual connection between humans and the gods worshipped at Shinto shrines, or kami. Shinto celebrations use the color red to reach out to the gods more effectively as well. In ancient history, red colors were created using pigments from the Rubia Akane or the Safflower.

In Japanese culture, the colour red represents authority and wealth. It is a powerful colour, and you can find proof in the Japanese flag, which consists of the colours red and white. And in the flag itself, you can see in the centre the red circle, which symbolises the sun. Even in marriage ceremonies, most brides wear traditional red attires. Moreover, red envelopes are used when money is offered as gifts on special occasions

Blue in Japanese Culture

The final primary color in Japanese culture is blue. Blue commonly represents the sea and the sky (for which Japan is surrounded) and symbolizes purity, dignity, calmness, stability, security, and fidelity. Indigo is a natural and popular shade of Blue made from the leaves of the indigo plant. It is used extensively in clothing and textiles, common-wear, and formal attire. Many business people and students wear blue clothing traditionally to show their calm and serious intentions in the workplace. Blue can also be found in some architecture and technology, but it is not as commonly seen in these applications as the other primary colors.

Japan, a nation surrounded by blue water, the colour blue symbolises purity, cleanliness, passivity and fidelity. It is considered a lucky colour and is a popular colour in Japanese clothing, such as kimonos. Indigo got its name ‘Japan Blue’ when foreigners visited Japan during the Meiji period. They were amazed to see Japanese towns covered with Indigo blue everywhere such as their beddings, towels, kimonos, etc.

Purple in Japanese Culture

The colour Purple symbolises royalty, nobility, and luxury.
There are only two countries in the world that use purple in their national flags: Dominica and Nicaragua. Other countries don’t include the colour in their flags because the purple dye is quite expensive. And as such, this colour was only affordable by the wealthy people in Japan in the past. In fact, ordinary people were not allowed to wear purple-coloured clothes then.

Green in Japanese Culture

Green, another colour considered lucky in Japan, symbolises fertility, growth, youth, eternity, vitality and energy. The Japanese are nature-loving people, and on the 29th of April every year, which is the birthday of Emperor Shōwa, who loved nature, they celebrate Greenery Day.

Orange in Japanese Culture

For the Japanese, the colour Orange represents happiness and love. It also indicates knowledge and civilization. It is among one of the most popular colours used in clothing.

Pink in Japanese Culture

Pink symbolises femininity, spring, youth, and good health, and it is among the popular colours in Japanese clothing in Japan. When it comes to character, this colour represents a child-like personality. Also the beautiful color of Sakura Trees.


Yellow in Japanese Culture

In Japan, yellow symbolises nature and sunshine and is considered a sacred colour in the Far East.Yellow is used in many Japanese terms. For instance, when one has a ‘yellow beak’, it means that they are inexperienced and ‘yellow voice’ refers to the high-pitched voices of kids and women.


Each of these colors represents essential values and ideals of Japanese society. They are among the most used colors in traditional and celebratory clothing, including on kimonos, a traditional Japanese robe. Vibrant purple robes usually are used to honor a member of society. In contrast, vibrant green and pink floral patterns are used on kimonos and other clothing articles to symbolize peace, life, and happiness. The geisha famously wore a different colored kimono for every month of the year.



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