JOK Notebook

Nature's Palette

An image on Amazon Japan surprised me in two ways:

First, this product can make a bra three hooks longer. I've never heard of such a thing!

Second, it's labeled 芋色, which we can read as いもいろ. Although 芋 primarily means "white potato," this word breaks down as sweet potato + color and, logically enough, means "sweet potato color." So should we conclude that 芋色 is always magenta, coming from the skin colors of these satsuma sweet potatoes?

Or could the orange flesh of a sweet potato also qualify as 芋色?

As it turns out, the interpretation of 芋色 can vary widely. For instance, it's sometimes hot pink but is reddish-brown in the hair of one illustrated character, as indicated by the tiny 芋色 tag underneath. 

You won't find 芋色 in a dictionary, and perhaps its unofficial status dovetails with its flexible meaning. But dictionaries certainly have plenty of object + 色 compounds, and some prove puzzling.

From Plants and Trees

As with 芋, many other color terms in Japanese relate to plants and trees. See if you can match the kanji words to the right colors, using some colors twice. To maximize the challenge, I won't include breakdowns!

1. 桃色 (ももいろ) a. dark brown
2. 柿色 (かきいろ)     b. light purple
3. 小豆色 (あずきいろ) c. reddish brown
4. 桜色 (さくらいろ) d. pink
5. 胡桃色 (くるみいろ)  
6. 藤色 (ふじいろ)  

I'll block the answer with a sneak preview of the latest essay, which is on 芋 and goes far beyond a discussion of the bright colors of the sweet potato:

Okay, now for the answers:

1.d. 桃色 (ももいろ: peach blossom + color) is pink! What a surprise, as the English color peach is a light orange. However, 桃色 refers to the blossoms of that tree, which are definitely pink.

2.c. 柿色 (かきいろ: persimmon + color) is reddish brown, as well as yellowish brown. The skin and flesh of the persimmon fruit are typically bright orange, so both definitions seem strange to me. My proofreader agrees that 柿色 seems a bit lighter than reddish brown. His sources define it as “yellowish red,” and he agrees that some persimmons certainly have that color: 

Daijisen helpfully offers swatches for colors, including this one for 柿色:

When it comes to defining colors, a swatch is definitely worth a thousand words! I'll keep sharing such swatches without identifying Daijisen as the source.

3.c. 小豆色 (あずきいろ: azuki bean (1st 2 kanji) + color) is also reddish brown, says Breen, as that's the color of the skin of this bean. My proofreader says that he associates a much darker color with 小豆色 than with 柿色

4.d. 桜色 (さくらいろ: cherry + color) means "cherry blossom color," which is to say pink, even though the blossoms can also be white. My proofreader says that with 桜色, he envisions a  color that's a bit lighter than 桃色. He also notes that 桃色 can have sexual nuances (which is why some sensual images appear at the 桃色 link), whereas 桜色 does not. Here are swatches for 桜色 and 桃色, respectively.


5.a. 胡桃色 (くるみいろ: walnut (1st 2 kanji) + color) is anything (e.g., cloth) dyed with walnut tree bark, resulting in a dark brown:

6.b. 藤色 (ふじいろ: wisteria + color) means "light purple." That makes perfect sense.

The Colors of Our Surroundings

Some colors that come straight from our surroundings may seem indisputable:

水色 (みずいろ: light blue)

water + color

空色 (そらいろ: sky blue) 

sky + blue

草色 (くさいろ: dark green)

grass + color

But when is water actually light blue? And isn't the Tokyo sky more often gray than aquamarine? It sounds funny to me that 草色 is dark green, as the English term "grass green" refers to a brighter, lighter hue. 

Here's another term inspired by nature:

乳色 (ちちいろ: milk white; opaque white)     milk + color

This one seems fine if it's about cow milk. However, 乳 can also represent "breast milk," which can be clear, white, bluish, tan, or yellow on a normal day, even changing to pink, orange, red, brown, green, and black, depending on what a woman ingests! 

A final color from nature should seem fairly easy to understand:

土色 (つちいろ: earth color; ashen; deathly pale)     earth + color

I generally envision dirt as a walnut brown, but that's not accurate; soil can come in fiery volcanic reds or anemic-looking yellows, as well as being black, light gray, dark gray, or even green! As for the Japanese term above, it represents a range from yellow brown to golden brown to greenish, as well as "ashen" and "deathly pale," much to my surprise!

It turns out that when someone looks dead-tired, people refer to his or her face as 土気色 (つちけいろ) or 土色. The idea is that a human face should not have such a color. 

Who'd Have Thunk It?

Speaking of brown, this is one of my favorite Japanese color terms, probably because I'm a tea addict:

茶色 (ちゃいろ: light brown; tawny)     tea + color

At the same time, this word strikes me as illogical. The Japanese automatically associate 茶 with green tea, not with black tea (which they perceive as red, incidentally). Still, I like to think that someone concocted this term after pouring a splash of milk-white cow milk into a cup of dark tea, watching as the colors swirled into a sweet shade of caramel. Oh, my proofreader mentions that hojicha (ほうじ茶, ほうじちゃ) might have inspired the term 茶色. Now, why didn't I think of that? I adore hojicha.

Because 茶色 is a common word, I'm quite familiar with it, but the next set is new to me, and going from the breakdowns, I would never have been able to deduce the colors they represent:

桑色 (くわいろ: light yellow)

mulberry + color

蒲色 (かばいろ: reddish yellow)

bulrush, cattail + color

鴇色 (ときいろ: pink, the wing color of the crested ibis) 

crested ibis + color

Both 蒲 and 鴇 are non-Joyo. 

Daijirin says that 桑色 is the color of something (probably cloth) dyed with mulberry roots. 

Instead of 蒲色, people more often write 樺色, in which the non-Joyo 樺 means "birch." But as the papery-thin bark of the birch is white, this didn't help me understand how to arrive at "reddish yellow." What's more, searching Google with かば led me to pictures of gray hippos (カバ, 河馬: river + horse)! I also found nothing reddish about bulrushes but finally realized that cattails culminate in a reddish-brown tip.

Here are 蒲色 and 鴇色, respectively:


Speaking of brownish things, I was most alarmed to find this word:

渋色 (しぶいろ: tan)

Although 渋 means many things, I have long associated it with "diarrhea," an idea that Denshi Jisho supports, as does Breen with terms such as  渋り腹 (しぶりばら: bowel pains; painful loose bowels) and 渋る (しぶる: to have a loose painful bowel movement). When I blogged about that possible meaning for 渋 in 2007 (in my blog at, I mentioned that this definition astounded a native speaker. Eight years later, my comments have had the same effect on my current proofreader. He says that Kanjigen offers no such definition for 渋. As for 渋色, his sources say that the 渋 means 柿渋 (かきしぶ: persimmon tannin), which is certainly brown.

Whew! After all the beautiful sources of color that we've contemplated, from cherry and peach trees to the sky and sea, I would certainly hate to think that diarrhea inspired the name of a color! 


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