Learn the Colors in Japanese: A Complete Guide

Colors add detail and texture to your words and paint an image in your listeners’ minds. Learning the colors in Japanese will add more vibrancy to your language.  Be sure to check out our learning Japanese page for more lessons to improve your skills!

Let’s begin by taking a look at the two different adjective forms for colors in Japanese.

 

Colors in Japanese:  Noun FormA big bunch of colored pencils, with a small happy face drawn on each of the tops. White background.

Let’s start with the basics. There are two forms of colors in Japanese. The noun form and the adjective form.

What is the difference? It’s the same as English; the noun form is used to talk about the color itself, not to modify another noun.

For Example:

  1. I like red.
  2. What color is this? It’s red.

The adjective form is the opposite. You ONLY use it to modify nouns/objects. This means that you will put a color directly in front of whatever you are describing.

Examples:

  1.  A red car.
  2. A blue house.

Japanese colors are the same, except that the word for noun colors and adjectival colors can be slightly different. Let’s take a closer look at both of these forms.

First, here is a list of the colors in Japanese in their noun forms.

Noun Colors

EnglishKanjiHiragana/KatakanaRomaji
Redあかaka
OrangeUsually written in katakanaオレンジorenji
Yellow黄色きいろkiiro
Greenみどりmidori
Blueあおao
Purpleむらさきmurasaki
Blackくろkuro
Whiteしろ shiro
Brown 茶色 ちゃいろchairo

 

色 (Iro): Color

You may have noticed that some of the colors end with the word 色 (iro). Iro means color, and as a suffix, it means the “color of -.” It is added to the color names when we want to talk about the colors themselves.

  1.  I like purple. 紫色が好きです。 Murasaki iro ga suki desu.
  2.  What’s your favorite color? I like blue. 好きな色は何ですか。青色が好きです。 Sukina iro wa nan desu ka? Aoiro ga suki desu.

Some of the basic color names already end in -iro. These are special cases:

  1. Yellow 黄色 きいろ Kiiro
  2. Brown 茶色 ちゃいろ Chairo

“Cha” means “tea,” and -iro is added to make it a color word (cha-iro: the color of tea).

For kiiro, the -iro suffix is added not for grammatical reasons, but just to make the word easier to pronounce and conjugate.

 

Using Colors in Their Noun Form

You can use colors in their noun form to describe something, but the color must always come AFTER the object/subject. Example: (Object/subject is/are {color}).

Example Sentences:

  1.  This car is red. この車は赤です。 (Kono kuruma wa aka desu)
  2.   His hair is brown. 彼の髪の毛は茶色です。 (Kare no kaminoke wa chairo desu)
  3.  Bananas are yellow. バナナは黄色です。 (Banana wa kiiro desu)

Putting a color in its noun form directly in front of an object/subject is not correct.

Wrong:

  1.  Red car: 赤車 – あかくるま (Aka kuruma)
  2. Black trousers (pants in the US): 黒ズボン – くろずぼん (kuro zubon)

If you want to describe an object/subject by putting a color directly in front of it (to modify the object/subject), it MUST be in the adjective form. We’ll talk about more below.

 

How to Conjugate Colors: Nouns and Adjectives9 people holding up a different colored puzzle piece (from left to right: white, red, orange, green, blue, magenta, yellow, purple, violet). Only their arms are visible, coming up from the bottom of the picture. They are all wearing formal business clothes.

There are two ways to conjugate colors in Japanese: the noun form and adjective form. The adjective form, which we’ll get to later, applies only to the primary colors: red, blue, yellow, white, black, and brown. All other colors are adjectival nouns, or what is known as no-adjectives.

 

Conjugating Japanese Colors:  Noun Colors (No-Adjectives)Dozens of umbrellas strung together above (maybe on the ceiling of a building) in all different colors like red, blue, yellow, green, orange, and pink. The picture is taken below the umbrellas.

No-adjectives take the particle の (no) before a noun. Let’s look at some examples.

  1.  Green dress: 緑のワンピース (Midori no wanpiisu)
  2.  Orange flower: オレンジの花 (Orenji no hana)
  3. Purple shoes: 紫の靴 (Murasaki no kutsu)

Let’s look at these in a sentence.

Example Sentences:

  1.  Your green dress is cute. – あなたの緑のワンピースはかわいいです。 (Anata no midori no wanpiisu wa kawaii desu)
  2.  I want an orange flower. – オレンジの花がほしいです。 (Orenji no hana ga hoshii desu)
  3.  She is wearing purple shoes. – 彼女が紫の靴を履いています。 (Kanojo ga murasaki no kutsu o haiteimasu)

No-adjective colors can also be used with the suffix -iro.

Consider the Examples From Above:

  1.  Green dress 緑色のワンピース (Midori-iro no wanpiisu)
  2.  Orange flower オレンジ色の花 (Orenji-iro no hana)
  3.  Purple shoes 紫色の靴 (Murasaki-iro no kutsu)

The colors are still no-adjectives, even with -iro added. The meaning is the same.

 

So, When Do We Use -Iro?

There is no hard and fast rule, but in general, adding -iro makes it more polite while omitting it is more casual. You are sure to come across both in your studies, so take note of the context when you see it, giving you a feel for how each is commonly used.

All colors other than the few adjective-form colors we will talk about next, are no-adjectives and are used the same way.

*Note: オレンジ (orenji) is an English loan word. There is an older native Japanese word for orange, 橙色 だいだいいろ (daidaiiro), but this is usually only seen on paints, crayons, and other art supplies. (Daidai is a type of citrus fruit.)

 

Noun Colors: Negative Form

To turn a color in its noun form, you just need to put じゃない (ja nai) or ではない (dewa nai) after it.  じゃない is used in more casual situations.  ではない is still casual, but slightly more formal than じゃない.

EnglishColor (Noun Form)Negative Form:
add じゃない or ではない
Negative Form: Hiragana/KatakanaNegative Form: Romaji
Red赤じゃない
赤ではない
あかじゃない
あかではない
aka ja nai
aka dewa nai
(not red)
Yellow黄色黄色じゃない
黄色ではない
きいろじゃない
きいろではない
kiiro ja nai
kiiro dewa nai
(not yellow)
Blue青じゃない
青ではない
あおじゃない
あおではない
ao ja nai
ao dewa nai
(not blue)
White白じゃない
白ではない
しろじゃない
しろではない
shiro ja nai
shiro dewa nai
(not white)
Black黒じゃない
黒ではない
くろじゃない
くろではない
kuro ja nai
kuro dewa nai
(not black)
Brown茶色茶色じゃない
茶色ではない
ちゃいろじゃない
ちゃいろではない
chairo ja nai
chairo dewa nai
(not brown)

**If you would like to use the polite form, drop the ない (nai) at the end of both forms and add ありません (arimasen).

Examples:

  1. 赤じゃありません。 (aka ja arimasen)  /  赤ではありません。(aka dewa arimasen)
  2. 黒じゃありません。(kuro ja arimasen)  /  くろではありません。(kuro dewa arimasen)

 

Noun Colors: Past Tense Form

To describe a noun color in the past tense,  you’ll add だった (datta) or でした (deshita) after it.  だった is the casual form, while でした is the polite form.

EnglishColor (Noun Form)Past Tense Form:
add だった or でした
Past Tense Form: Hiragana/KatakanaPast Tense Form: Romaji
Red赤だった
赤でした
あかだった
あかでした
aka datta
aka deshita
(was red)
Yellow黄色黄色だった
黄色でした
きいろだった
きいろでした
kiiro datta
kiiro deshita
(was yellow)
Blue青だった
青でした
あおだった
あおでした
ao datta
ao deshita
(was blue)
White白だった
白でした
しろだった
しろでした
shiro datta
shiro deshita
(was white)
Black黒だった
黒でした
くろだった
くろでした
kuro datta
kuro deshita
(was black)
Brown茶色茶色だった
茶色でした
ちゃいろだった
ちゃいろでした
chairo datta
chairo deshita
(was brown)

 

Noun Colors: Negative Past Tense Form

To change a noun color (or any type of noun) into the negative past tense form, you just need to add either じゃなかった (ja nakatta) or ではなかった (dewa nakatta) after it.  Both of these are in the casual form.

EnglishColor (Noun Form)Negative Past Tense Form:
add じゃなかった or ではなかった
Negative Past Tense Form: Hiragana/KatakanaNegative Past Tense Form: Romaji
Red赤じゃなかった
赤ではなかった
あかじゃなかった
あかではなかった
aka ja nakatta
aka dewa nakatta
(was not red)
Yellow黄色黄色じゃなかった
黄色ではなかった
きいろじゃなかった
きいろではなかった
kiiro ja nakatta
kiiro dewa nakatta
(was not yellow)
Blue青じゃなかった
青ではなかった
あおじゃなかった
あおではなかった
ao ja nakatta
ao dewa nakatta
(was not blue)
White白じゃなかった
白ではなかった
しろじゃなかった
しろではなかった
shiro ja nakatta
shiro dewa nakatta
(was not white)
Black黒じゃなかった
黒ではなかった
くろじゃなかった
くろではなかった
kuro ja nakatta
kuro dewa nakatta
(was not black)
Brown茶色茶色じゃなかった
茶色ではなかった
ちゃいろじゃなかった
ちゃいろではなかった
chairo ja nakatta
chairo dewa nakatta
(was not brown)

**For the polite form on the negative past tense, you’ll use じゃありませんでした (ja arimasen deshita) or ではありませんでした (dewa arimasen deshita) instead.

Examples:

  1. 赤じゃありませんでした。 (aka ja arimasen deshita)  /  赤ではありませんでした。(aka dewa arimasen deshita)
  2. 黒じゃありませんでした。(kuro ja arimasen deshita)  /  くろではありませんでした。(kuro dewa arimasen deshita)

 

Colors in Japanese:  Adjective Form5 high heel shoes, lined up in one row, taken from the back (colors from left to right: red, yellow, green, blue, magenta).

As I mentioned earlier, the primary noun colors also have an adjective form. Let’s take a look at these.

Adjective Colors

EnglishKanjiHiragana/KatakanaRomaji
Red 赤いあかいakai
Yellow黄色い きいろいkiiroi
Blue青いあおいaoi
Black 黒いくろいkuroi
White 白いしろいshiroi
Brown茶色いちゃいろいchairoi

Using Colors in Their Adjective Form – Examples:

Adjectives ending in い (i) can be placed before a noun to modify it.

  1. Brown dog: 茶色い犬 (Chairoi inu)
  2. Blue ocean: 青い海 (Aoi umi)
  3. Red apple: 赤いりんご (Akai ringo)

Sentence Examples:

  1.  I have a brown dog. 茶色い犬を飼っています。 Chairoi inu o katteimasu.
  2. I want to swim in the blue ocean. 青い海に泳ぎたいです。 Aoi umi ni oyogitai desu.
  3. That red apple looks delicious. あの赤いりんごはおいしそうです。 Ano akai ringo ha oishisou desu.

Color adjectives function like any other adjective and can be conjugated in the same way.

 

Conjugating Japanese Colors:  AdjectivesAn artist holding a palette with a lot of colors like orange, different shades of blue, and yellow on it. The artist is holding a paint brush with their right hand, and the palette in their left.

Here are all of the ways to conjugate the adjective form of colors in Japanese.

 

Color Adjectives: Negative Form

Make the negative form of color adjectives by dropping -い (i) at the end and adding -くない (kunai).

EnglishColor (Adjective Form)Negative Form
(drop い off the end and add くない
Negative Form: Hiragana/KatakanaNegative Form: Romaji
Red赤い赤くないあかくないakakunai (not red)
Yellow黄色い黄色くないきいろくないkiirokunai (not yellow)
Blue青い青くないあおくないaokunai (not blue)
White白い白くないしろくないshirokunai (not white)
Black黒い黒くないくろくない
kurokunai (not black)
Brown茶色い茶色くないちゃいろくない
chairokunai (not brown)

Example Sentences:

  1.  The curtains aren’t red. カーテンは赤くないです。 (Kaaten wa akakunai desu)
  2. Her bicycle isn’t yellow. 彼女の自転車は黄色くない。 (Kanojo no jitensha wa kiirokunai)
  3. Marie’s face isn’t pale. 真理恵の顔色が青くない。(Marie no kaoiro ga aokunai).*

*This is an idiomatic usage, which we will get to later.

 

Color Adjectives: Past Tense Form

Make the past tense form of color adjectives by dropping -い (i) at the end and adding -かった (katta).

EnglishColor (Adjective Form)Past Tense Form
(drop い off the end and add かった
Past Tense Form: Hiragana/KatakanaPast Tense Form: Romaji
Red赤い赤かったあかかった
akakatta (was red)
Yellow黄色い黄色かったきいろかった
kiirokatta (was yellow)
Blue青い青かったあおかった
aokatta (was blue)
White白い白かったしろかったshirokatta (was white)
Black黒い黒かったくろかった
kurokatta (was black)
Brown茶色い茶色かった
ちゃいろかった
chairokatta (was brown)

Example Sentences:

  1.  Her cat was black. 彼女のねこは黒かったです。Kanojo no neko wa kurokatta desu.
  2.  My wedding dress was white. 私のウェディングドレスは白かったです。(Watashi no ueddingu doresu wa shirokatta desu)

 

Color Adjectives: Negative Past Tense Form

Make the past tense form of color adjectives by dropping the -い (i) at the end and adding -くなかった (kunakatta).

EnglishColor (Adjective Form)Negative Past Tense Form
(drop い off the end and add くなかった
Negative Past Tense Form: Hiragana/KatakanaNegative Past Tense Form: Romaji
Red赤い赤くなかったあかくなかった
akakunakatta (was not red)
Yellow黄色い黄色くなかったきいろくなかった
kiirokunakatta (was not yellow)
Blue青い青くなかったあおくなかったaokunakatta (was not blue)
White白い白くなかったしろくなかったshirokunakatta (was not white)
Black黒い黒くなかったくろくなかった
kurokunakatta (was not black)
Brown茶色い茶色くなかった
ちゃいろくなかった
chairokunakatta (was not brown)

Example Sentences:

  1.  Taro’s shoes weren’t red. 太郎の靴は赤くなかった。 Taro no kutsu ha akakunakatta.
  2. My dad’s car wasn’t blue. お父さんの車は青くなかったです。 Otousan no kuruma ha aokunakatta desu.

Note that all forms of i-adjectives can be used before -です (desu) or not. Using -desu is polite speech, and omitting it is a more casual style.

There is a slight difference in meaning whether you conjugate the adjective or the copula -desu as past tense. Observe the differences in the following:

Example Sentences:

  1. Colors Noun Form: 黒い猫だった くろいねこだった (Kuroi neko datta) It was a black cat.
  2. Colors Adjective Form: 猫が黒かった ねこがくろかった (Neko ga kurokatta) The cat was black.

 

Other ColorsStrips of different colored pieces of paper (purple, yellow, green, red, orange, brown, black) stacked on top of each other to form a spiral shape (like a Slinky)

There are many other color names in common use. Here are some of the most common.

These colors are all no-adjectives (colors in their noun form).

EnglishKanjiHiragana/KatakanaRomaji
Light Blue水色みずいろmizuiro
Navy Blue紺色こんいろkoniro
PinkUsually written in katakana ピンクpinku
Gray 灰色 /グレーはいいろ /グレーhaiiro / gure-
*Silverぎんgin
*Goldきんkin

*The color names for silver and gold are the same as the names of the metals.

Example Sentences:

  1.  She wore a navy blue skirt. 彼女は紺色のスカートを履いた。 (Kanojo ha koniro no sukaato wo haita)
  2.  Can I have a pink balloon? ピンクバルーンをもらっていいですか? (Pinku baruun wo moratte ii desuka)

 

Cultural Notes on ColorsAutumn in Japan with the changing of color of leaves. In the foreground, there are tree branches with green, orange, and red leaves over a pond. In the background, there is a small red temple like structure with a red bridge leading to it. There are more green trees behind the shrine.

Throughout this article, you may have noticed that 4 colors are slightly different from the rest: red, blue, black, and white. These colors have a special status. They are the oldest known colors in Japanese, having made their first appearance in the Kojiki, a chronicle of Japan’s history that is part history and part legend, and was written in the 7th century.

These colors maintain their special status today, often forming parts of place names, family names, and are featured heavily in expressions that use colors.

There are unique forms that only apply to these colors. The following colors have the character 真 (ma), which means pure, added before them.

 

Extreme Colors in Japanese

EnglishKanjiHiragana/KatakanaRomaji
Bright Red真っ赤まっかmakka
Pitch Black真っ黒まっくろmakkuro
Pure White真っ白まっしろmasshiro
Deep Blue真っ青まっさおmassao

Example Sentences:

  1.  His face was bright red. 彼の顔は真っ赤だった。 (Kare no kao wa makka datta)
  2.  The night is pitch black. 夜は真っ黒です。 (Yoru wa makkuro desu)

 

Cultural Differences in ColorThe Azusa River and Hotaka mountains in Kamikochi, Nagano, in Japan. In the foreground, there is a gently running river, with a range of green mountains in the background.

Historically, these 4 basic colors are thought to have had a broader scope than they do today, and this ambiguity persists in the use of 青 (ao – blue) today. Ao covers a range from green to blue and is used in many places where we would use green in English.

The Most Famous Example Is:

  1. Green traffic light: 青信号 あおしんごう (Aoshingo)

But there are many such expressions, including 青松 aomatsu “green pine trees” and 青ねぎ aonegi “green onions” as well.

 

Japanese Expressions Using Colors

EnglishJapanese ExpressionHiragana/KatakanaRomaji
Pale 顔色が青いかおいろがあおいKaoiro ga aoi - lit. blue face
Scheming, sinister腹黒いはらぐろいHaraguroi - lit. black stomach
Pretend to know anything白を切るしらをきる Shira o kiru - lit. cut the white
Inexperiencedケツが青いけつがあおいKetsu ga aoi - lit. blue ass
While I'm alive…目が黒いうちめがくろいうちMe ga kuroi uchi - lit. while my eyes are still black
Complete stranger赤の他人あかのたにんAka no tanin - lit. red stranger
Shrill voice黄色い声きいろいこえKiiroi koe - lit. yellow voice

As you can see, mastering the colors and their related expressions adds a rich dimension to your Japanese. You’ve learned all the major colors and some of the more interesting color-related idioms. There’s a lot of information here, so refer back to it when you need it, and enjoy expanding your color vocabulary. Happy studying!

 

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