Pinku (ピンク)

Just when you think Osaka is going to remain cold and damp and gray-skied and concrete-coloured forever, spring suddenly arrives. Mind you, it’s been a bit reluctant this year (and I have the cold to prove it), but here and there, spots of colour are peeking out all over.


Presently, I’m looking at a rooftop with pots of yellow flowers: nanohana 菜の花, also called aburabana (油花, oilflower), because the seeds are used to make Japanese cooking oil. Before they bloom, the buds and leaves are delicious; you can buy them in small bunches at the supermarket around now. For all I know, it’s genetically-modified canola from Saskatchewan. Very pretty though, on an old roof in Japan.


Years ago, while looking through a Japanese textbook from the late 40s, I came across a unit about adjectives of colour. Most of the everyday abstract ones I aready knew, but then I arrived at words like nezumi-iro (mouse-colour) for grey, and cha-iro (tea colour) for brown. Wait a minute, you say – tea is reddish brown, nearly orange. So it is – in the West. That’s why the Japanese call British tea koucha: red tea. I learned that the words to describe gradations of colour were mainly –though not entirely – nature-based (many of these words came from China, but others were coined in Japan).


One thing I’ve  noted is that when English-speakers describe something as plum-coloured (a reddish-purple) or peach-coloured (a sort of pastel orange), they are referring to the fruit, whereas the Japanese are referring to the flowers of the trees, that is, different shades of pink. The peach blossom (momo 桃) has the deepest shade, so momo-iro (桃色, peach blossom coloured) became the default adjective for most shades of bright pink. If, fifty years ago, you asked a kid what colour the sakura – cherry blossoms – were, he’d probably shrug and say “sakura-iro” (and think, “duh!”, or the 1950s Japanese equivalent)


Although English has many nature-based colour words, I’d wager it has far fewer in common currency than Japanese. Unless you’re really into fashion or design, it’s hard for most people to describe, in English, a specific colour beyond red, green, blue, brown, yellow, and variations on these (with light and dark and the odd -ish thrown in). Besides, when a store sells chinos in shades of stone and wheat and oatmeal, it just sounds contrived and twee to me, something dreamed up in the marketing department (according to a recent New Yorker article, the most popular new interior design colour is wasabi – oh, please!). English colour words are, for better or worse, abstract: either you know them or you don’t, even if you’re a native speaker. Without resorting to Google, I can’t tell you what puce looks like. Mauve? Some vague mix of purple and blue, I think. Chartreuse: that’s a French novel, isn’t it? In this, then, the Japanese language has a definite advantage – so many colour words which conjure up an immediate concrete image.


Yet if I were to use many of the words mentioned above, younger Japanese people would look at me funnier than they usually do. Oh, I’m sure they all know what momo-iro means, but they would look at any blossom, cherry, peach or plum, and call it “pinku”. A mouse is “gurei”. Grass (what little they see) is “guriin” and the sun is, of course, “reddo”. Describing my necktie as “cha-iro” is, to them, a bit like the old Japanese man who sidles up to you on the train to Kyoto and tries to wow you with his quotation from Beowulf (and don’t think thats never happened).

Pin-ku – to my ear sharp and metallic, like shears, no relation at all to the falling petals, or even the English word it’s based on. I guess I’m supposed to be flattered, but … I don’t get it.

This entry was posted in Blogroll, culture, japan, language, Osaka, teaching, 大阪, 日本. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Pinku (ピンク)

  1. billywest says:

    Interesting. I’ll have to start paying attention to the differences in speech between the young and elderly.

  2. azumarisan says:

    I actually really like the word “cha-iro” and in school when we were learning Japanese we used the word to describe brown.

    I still use the word for describing brown because i love tea, and the image i get in my mind when i think of cha-iro, is a lovely one. 🙂

  3. overoften says:

    With regard to colours, let’s not forget the joyous ambiguity of AO.
    Which a dictionary will tell you is blue.
    And green.

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