Japanese Color Theory

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Japanese Color Theory
Lyn: Flickr.com kudomomo: Flickr.com

Colour theory in Japan was originally developed based around a theory of the natural elements. Colours in Japan hold different symbolic and hierarchical meanings that they do in the West, although the Japanese colour palette has heavily influenced Western art. The traditional use of colour 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 colours in Japanese colour theory are linked to five natural elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The associated colours are blue (wood), red (fire), yellow (earth), white (metal) and black (water). All other colours are made from combinations of these elements.

Japanese Color Theory
Lyn: Flickr.com kudomomo: Flickr.com


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


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

Japanese Color Theory
A Japanese print from the mid-18th century.

Secondary Colors

In Japan, secondary colours are often developed after the name of the plant of flower they resemble. The other colours that are most frequently used in Japanese literature include purple, pink, green, brown and grey. These colours 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 simplicity and harmony of the Japanese colour 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 colours.

Japanese Color Theory
The traditional Japanese colour palette has been broadened, even in Japan.

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