April 13, 2016

A history of the colour pink in Japan

image1{The Meguro River (目黒川) at 中目黒 in Tokyo}

After my recent visit to Japan, which felicitously coincided with the cherry blossom season, I thought I’d spend a little time covering the history of the colour pink in that country. Compared to other languages (such as certain ones in Europe), the colour pink in East Asia does not nearly have as long an etymological history as other colours in terms of being recognized as a distinct colour in its own right rather than as a derivative of ‘red.’

However, in the case of Japan, ‘pink’ has a rather long history—as is fitting for the country with a famously deep appreciation for cherry blossoms. As far back as the 8th century during the Nara period, ‘pink’ or「桃花褐」was found in Manyōshū (万葉集- Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest surviving compilation of poetry in Japanese. In it, the colour is used to analogously compare the impermanency of a pink stain to the shallow feelings of a woman:


Here, the colour has been transliterated as ‘tsukisome,’ and while there are other variations on this word that involve the Chinese character for ‘peach’ (桃)*, they all denote the same colour: pink. In addition to the words for ‘pink’ that involve the character for ‘red’ (淡紅色、退紅), this raises the total number of possibilities to one that far outnumbers any imaginable counterpart sum in English.

Now, of course, the Anglicized pronunciation of ‘pink’ (ピンク- pinku) is most commonly used in spoken Japanese. And while the majority of other words for ‘pink’ are considered obsolete today, the range of ways in which this colour has been described indicates how much the concept of pink has been contemplated in Japanese thought throughout its literary history.

* 桃花褐(あらぞめ、つきそめ) 、桃染(つきそめ)、桃色(ももいろ)


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