Japanese Colour Names & Seasonal Combinations

wafuku – noun: traditional Japanese clothing

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Japanese Colour Rules

There are many, many rules to kimono wearing in Japan, though few Japanese know the rules now and relatively few experts ever knew them all. The list is vast and the rules complex.

Some rules are better known and more adhered to than others; among them, the colour combinations worn at different times of year.  Further down this blog post, below the charts of colour combinations, you can see the Japanese names for colours. The colours may display slightly differently on different monitors, so it is a rough guide.

The first colour chart below shows colour combinations that are considered acceptable for wear at any time of year. Below each is the name given to that particular combination of colours, although I don’t know the name of the last one in that first set.

The next set of colour combinations is only for Spring wear.

When Summer arrives, one may wear the following colour combinations.

The advent of Autumn allows the colours in the next chart to be worn.

Finally, the range of colour combinations that may be worn in Winter.

Here is another set of seasonal layering colour combinations, with the individual colours named.

The following charts show you Japanese names for colours.

There are endless rules about kimono wearing. The older a woman is, the more subdued the colours she must wear. Therefore you’d not see a mature woman in something like bright red. One way to produce a more subdued tone for a mature woman’s kimono is to dye the textile a bright colour, then re-dye it in a light, mouse-grey tone, to subdue the brightness; this is rather cutely known as ‘through mouse’, so a subdued pink would be pink through mouse.  Then there are the styles of kimonos, which have different levels of formality and are worn for different occasions, such as town wear, festival wear, visiting wear, formal wear of varying degrees etc, and a mature woman or a married woman would never wear a furisode style kimono, they are only for unmarried women who are still young. Other rules apply about differences in how a woman wears her kimono depending on her age; such as the position of the kimono’s collar at the back of the neck, the height crossover of the kimono on the chest and the position of obi, obiage and obijime.

The patterns one may wear change season by season too, as, to some extent, does the weave of fabric it is made of and whether or not the kimono is lined. A cool, lightweight, unlined, ro weave silk kimono may only be worn from June to September and neither unlined kimonos nor ones made from that light, airy ro weave may be worn at any other time of year, regardless of how hot it often gets before June. When it comes to patterns, cherry blossom is a good example of the rules; one may wear cherry blossom just before the trees flower but, once the trees are in bloom, one should not wear it anymore but one can then wear falling cherry blossom petals design, until the petals do start to fall, then one should stop wearing any cherry blossom pattern until the following year, shortly before the trees bloom again. There are some specific groups of flowers that are considered acceptable for most of the year, so those kimonos are more popular, as one gets more wear out of them. Kimonos are so expensive that few can afford the luxury of owning ones with patterns that may only be worn a few weeks a year.

The list of rules goes on and on. With enough knowledge of them, one should be able to pretty much pinpoint the age and status of the wearer, what kind of place/event she is going to and what season it is, just from the kimono outfit she is wearing.

In Japan, regular kimono wearers used to know many of the rules but only relatively few true experts (such as iki suji) would know them all. Younger generations in Japan, who rarely wear kimonos nowadays, know few or none of the rules and completely rely on a kimono expert to both know the rules and to actually dress them in their kimono outfits on the rare times they wear them for special occasions. The word that means ‘the putting on of kimono outfit’ is ‘kitsuke’ and one can hire the help of someone for their kitsuke. One very important rule you must never forget if wearing a kimono in Japan is ‘left over right’, meaning the left front of the kimono must be on top of the right front, on both males and females, because the other way round is only for the dead. The Japanese say that a way for English speakers to remember is to think of ‘left over rice’.

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10 comments

  1. I have a very ‘september’ Geiko hikizuri from Gion (see website link) and it is pictured currently with a winter obi until I find something with grapes and bellflowers :)

    We have Chrysanthemums for the onset of autumn and maple leaves and grasses which is also very autumn. However, we have pine also which is normally new year, bamboo leaves (autumn again) and what looks like sunflower (late summer)

    However the pine is purple and fresh green so that could indicate late summer/onset of autumn. I went for a September kimono classification as it is hitoe (un-lined)

    This is my only kimono I can pin down to a month currently, most are split into the 4 season or multi-season!

    In Japan it is about £100 to be dressed in your kimono by a shop so it is normally reserved for ceremonial occasions when you want something fancy.

  2. Hello, my name is Charlotte and I’m a University student studying Japanese culture.

    I’m actually in the process of researching for my dissertation and my topic (Japanese aesthetics in contemporary Japan) involves the discussion of seasonal colours and combinations. I was wondering, if you could kindly tell me where you found the information above? If it is your own research, could I possibly use some of the information in my dissertation, with full crediting of course.

    Sorry if this isn’t possible. I love the blog, it’s really informative.

    Thank you for your time,
    Charlotte.

    1. I just learned it, bit by bit, over the years, through books and internet research.
      Feel free to use any of the information or images in your dissertation.
      If you want a glossary of Japanese, traditional motifs/patterns, for your studies, give me your email address. The file is large (8-9MB), too large to email as one file, I think, but I can convert it into half a dozen pdf files and send one per mail. Let me know if you want it. I assume I can send it to the email address you have on here.

      Good luck with your studies, Charlotte..

      Ceri @wafuku

      1. Hello Ceri,

        I’m so sorry for the late reply. Thank you so much for allowing me the use of your precious research. It is greatly appreciated.

        Any information you could send me would be really great. My email is the one on the comments.

        Take your time if you’re busy.

        Thanks so much, it means a lot!

        Charlotte

  3. I was wondering, do you happen to know specifics regarding the system of layering for the Junihitoe? I know it was fairly complex and specific for court ranking, but I don’t even know where to start looking.

    1. I don’t know much about the rules of layering from that time. It was very complex, I understand, and knowledge of it took much study and was highly admired. The rules of kimono wearing that are still in use are too many for me to know all, I know even less about rules and fashions of the past, I only know little bits and pieces.

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