Traditional Japanese Colors

41010-0252 - Indigo - Ai Iro

The resurgent popularity of kimono has given traditional Japanese colors new life. In a series of 12 articles JS will explore some of these colors.

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“Japan is a country filled with a mystical blue color,” said Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), who wrote countless books about the country. Indigo blue, called ai-iro in Japan, was used by everyone from commoners to samurai. To the foreigners who flocked to the newly opened country in the late 19th century, it must have seemed that Japan was bathed in it.

But Japanese indigo was not the only mystical color. Japan had myriads of colors that were just as mystical as ai-iro.

Unfortunately, many of these colors wouldn’t survive Japan’s modernization. Even the ubiquitous ai-iro faded from the Japanese consciousness as synthetic technology increasingly took over after 1880.

This change was so dramatic and complete that for example dyer’s knotweed, the plant that provides the raw dye for indigo, had almost vanished from the Japanese landscape by the 1970s.

Many of these colors appear to have been lost forever. I can’t count the times that I have been told by Japanese artists, usually in textile or graphic design, that a certain traditional color can not be made anymore today.

41010-0237 -Dyeing

Traditional aizome dyers at work with indigo

41010-0265 - Indigo Dyeing

Nonetheless, with the new-found popularity of kimono and yukata (a kind of summer kimono), traditional Japanese colors are making a come-back. More and more young people are learning the traditional skills, and fashion designers are once again using these colors in their creations.

It is a come-back that has been slowly taking root over the past 20 to 30 years or so, but it is now given new impetus because so many young Japanese are rediscovering their own culture.

Over the next twelve weeks, we will delve into these traditional colors; every Monday a new article. No explanations or descriptions, just lots of photos and color samples; including many prints from the past. I hope you will find it inspiring and find a use for some of these colors in your own life or design.

As you get to know these traditional colors, let me know in the comments how YOU are planning to use, or are already using, them. I’d love to see your interpretations!

Articles in this series:

1. Traditional Japanese Colors
2. Traditional Japanese Colors – Modern Trad

Top image: Indigo dyed (aizome) thread dries outside in the city of Ome, Tokyo Prefecture. Photos by Kjeld Duits.

Kjeld Duits About the Author

Inspired by the stunningly creative street fashion that exploded on the streets of Tokyo and Osaka in the late 1990’s, photo-journalist Kjeld Duits launched JAPANESE STREETS in 2002. This makes JS one of the first fashion blogs on the net, and the very first to cover Japanese street fashion.

Recent articles by Kjeld Duits:

Comment (日本語もOK)

well, ai-zome is a very important dye for those who practice kendo for it’s antibacterian properties. I’m eager to read the forthcoming articles, as traditional dyes have always interested me. thank you!

Mar 9, 2010 (4596 days ago)

@Misato, I completely forgot about the antibacterian properties of natural dyes like ai-zome. Almost all the articles in this particular series of 12 have little text and lots of images, so comments like this one by you, really add value. Thanks for sharing!

Kjeld Duits (author)
Mar 9, 2010 (4595 days ago)

hi, i just wanted to ask if i can repost this on my blog? :) i find this really interesting.

-thank you. _

Mar 9, 2010 (4595 days ago)

@beatriz: Thanks for asking. Yes, as long as JAPANESE STREETS is cited as the source, and there is a link back to JS, please feel free to publish this on your blog. You can use the images, too. Please don’t hotlink them, but place them on your own server. Add the following, or a similar, message below the article: article and photos used with permission. Could you send me a link when the article goes live?

Kjeld Duits (author)
Mar 9, 2010 (4595 days ago)

Greetings from France! Great article! As an artist and an admirer of Japanese culture I find this topic very interesting, I can’t wait for more.
Regarding the indigo colour… indeed mystical is the perfect word to describe it.
The problem is that here in the West it’s a bit difficult to get your hands on traditional textiles and you need to have a natural fiber textile in order to have the “real” hue…
I’ve always loved to wear this kind of blue but usually it has been quite hard to find.

Mar 11, 2010 (4594 days ago)

well Elena, you have traditional indigo dye in a very common western clothes item: denim. the real denim is dyed in indigo, that’s why in the 70s and 80s, when you bought new jeans, your legs would turn blue.
washed jeans weren’t a very common thing, you would buy very deep blue jeans, they would last around 3 years and washed jeans were REAL washed jeans, the blue would fade with every wash.

Mar 11, 2010 (4593 days ago)

Thanks, Elana for the kudos, and Misato for the note about denim. Until recently it was difficult in Japan, too, to buy modern clothes using traditional dyes. But it is now getting better. I really hope traditional dyes will be used a lot more; I have lots of allergies because of the overuse of chemicals.

Kjeld Duits (author)
Mar 11, 2010 (4593 days ago)

You’re right Misato, denim has slipped my mind, maybe because it has been rather misused in our days and jeans are not real jeans anymore…
@Kjeld Duits: I’m in for traditional dyes and fabrics, it’s been a long time since I’ve started avoiding synthetic textiles and those two go inevitably together.

Mar 12, 2010 (4592 days ago)

@Elena: Very true. Actually, Japanese designers love developing new (read synthetic) fibers…

Kjeld Duits (author)
Mar 12, 2010 (4592 days ago)

So happy to hear traditional Japanese colors are making a comeback!! I’m a huge fan of these beautiful colors. They have been used in my work a lot and will do more in the future!

Apr 26, 2010 (4547 days ago)

The comeback makes me happy, too, Nipponaisuki. I am always entranced by these colors.

Kjeld Duits (author)
Apr 26, 2010 (4547 days ago)

I always thought Japanese fashion was very colourful, so it’s good to see traditional colours are coming back :D

May 5, 2010 (4538 days ago)

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