Japanese Traditional Colours and their Significance and : lecture + interactive workshop

Your average Japanese Jane or Joe, or rather Takako and Taro, would most of time have a deeper knowledge of colours than the average Westerner. The words for scarlet (kurenaiake), crimson (), and vermilion (shu) and the difference between them are widely known and appreciated.

Japanese has more distinct names for colours than probably any other language in the world. Their names coming from traditional kimono dyes and many of them have a very particular cultural significance for Japanese people. Learn about them, the past and the present of Japanese colours, and how to create perfect (from the Japanese point of view) colour combinations in this interactive workshop.

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擬態語:のろのろ (sluggishly)

のろのろしないで、速くしなさい!Hurry up, don’t drag your feet!

時間がのろのろと過ぎて行った The hours crawled by.

ノロノロ運転 ”slow driving”, going below the speed limit

鈍い (のろい)slow, tardy, dull

鈍間 (のろま)blockhead, dunce, dullard

薄ノロ (うすのろ)  half-wit, simpleton

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擬態語:がつがつ (voraciously)


がつがつ食べる to wolf down, to gobble up, to devour, to eat voraciously

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Japanese words for taste sensations (食感を表す日本語の表現)

Japanese film classic Tampopo is a joyful celebration of Japanese food culture. In a famous scene there (see above), an old sensei jokingly winds up a young ‘un by making up, with a deadpan face, overly complicated rules of eating a bowl or ramen. Eventually, everyone present bursts out laughing at the sheer ridiculousness that the sensei‘s “rules” reach.

Food in Japan, however, is a serious business that requires quite an evolved vocabulary to deal with. Apart from the basic words such as 美味しい/おいしい (tasty) and 不味い/まずい (bad-tasting), Asian cuisines in general and Japanese one in particular are concerned with the balance and quality of the Seven Tastes:

・ 甘い あまい sweet
・ 酸っぱい すっぱい sour
・ 塩辛い/しょっぱい しおからい/しょっぱい salty
・ 辛い からい spicy
・ 苦い にがい bitter
・ 渋い しぶい tart
・ まったり(とした)or コクがある full of umami

Umami うま味/うまみ is the savoury taste of naturally occurring MSG, e.g., the taste of double cream or bone marrow broth. Many people in one way or another are aware of this taste but most languages do not have a specific word for it.

Japanese also has a slew of expressions to describe various nuances of tastes, textures, and flavours. For example:

・ 後味 あとあじ aftertaste
・ 口直し くちなおし eating something nice to compensate for something bad-tasting you’ve just had
・ 隠し味 かくしあじ ”hidden taste”, elevating or underlining the main taste by using a supporting ingredient such as a pinch of salt in a sweet cake, or cocoa powder in a beef stew
・ 甘口 あまくち mild
・ 辛口 からくち dry (wine)
・ ツンとした pungent (wasabi)
・ ピリッとした pungent (cheese)
・ まろやかな smooth or mellow (whiskey)
・ 甘酸っぱい あますっぱい sweet and sour (pork)
・ 甘塩の あましおの lightly salted (salmon)
・ ほろ苦い ほろにがい  slightly bitter (beer)
・ 濃い こい thick, intense (stew)
・ 薄い うすい thin, watery (broth)
・ 味がしつこい heavy-tasting
・ あっさりとした light and simple tasting
・ 味気ない あじけない bland, insipid
・ 生温い なまぬるい lukewarm
・ こってり thick (e.g., udon noodles)
・ 歯応えがある はごたえがる (pleasantly) chewy
・ 噛みにくい かみにくい (unpleasantly) chewy
・ 甘ったるい  あまったるい  sickly sweet, saccharine
・ ふわふわ fluffy (cake)
・ とろとろ (pleasantly) oily, creamy (e.g., tuna belly sashimi)
・ もちもち viscous like mochi
・ ほかほか (pleasantly) hot (temperature) like freshly steamed rice
・ ぷりぷり plump (e.g., shrimp)
・ しゃきしゃき crisp or crunchy (salad or vegetable stir-fry)
・ からっとした or さくさく (pleasantly) dry and/or not-oily
・ かりかり  (bacon or fish skin) crisp

I know dozens, or even hundreds more, especially onomatopoeic ones. Let me know in the comments if you want me to extend this list further.


Private Japanese language lessons
Want to learn Japanese? I am a PhD-educated Japanese language tutor with a university degree in teaching and 27 years of experience teaching all levels of Japanese. Available globally. Read more here or email me any questions.

Multisensory workshops, media-enhanced talks, and interactive lectures
Culture, history, anthropology, food, travel, science… I blend my academic training, my polycultural background, and my passion for all things beautiful and meaningful to give talks, lectures, and workshops online and in-person. Read more here or email me any questions.

Training in Effective Communication Across Cultures
How do you navigate cultural barriers to do business abroad? I put my experience of living, working and studying in 5 countries through the lens of my PhD in Social Sciences and my International House Certificate in Cross-Cultural Communication to provide highly engaging interactive workshops on life and work in Japan, United Kingdom, Russia, Thailand, and the Netherlands. Read more here or email me any questions.

Academic Skills Training and Mentoring
Baffled by your university coursework? Don’t know how to begin an essay? Missing submission deadlines all the time? I give interactive Academic Skills workshops for university students and provide individually tailored mentoring for all kinds of coursework.
Read more here or email me any questions.

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大器晩成 (たいきばんせい) – “Genius matures late”

The Japanese expression 大器晩成 (たいきばんせい – taiki bansei) is used for people who achieve success later in life


The world-renown Japanese painter Hokusai created his, perhaps, most famous painting, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, in his early 60s. He changed his name four times and kept reinventing his style his entire life.

Although he gained fame early on in life, he truly blossomed in his autumn years. On his deathbed at 88, he reportedly exclaimed, ‘If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.’

The Japanese expression 大器晩成 (たいきばんせい – taiki bansei) is used for people who achieve success later in life. It is credited to the Chinese sage Lao Zi, who is traditionally considered to be the mastermind behind Tao Te Ching, one of Taoism’s most revered texts.

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Why is Tokyo called Tokyo?


Before 1868, Tokyo was called Edo and was the actual seat of power in Japan, with the military government bakufu resident there. At the time, it was one of the most populated cities on earth with over 1 million inhabitants.

However, in 1868 when the bakufu came to an end, the emperor was moved from Kyoto to Edo, soon renamed Tokyo (東京) meaning the Eastern Capital. Where are the Northern, Southern and Western capitals then? If you move your finger on the map in those directions away from Tokyo, you will quickly find that Beijing (北京) is the northern one, and Nanjing (南京) is the southern one. Both were the capitals of either united China or various Chinese kingdoms at different periods of time.

The western capital may not be obvious, it is Xi’an (西安). The an bit was an auspicious wish for peace for the city and its kingdom. Together with Luoyang (洛陽), after whose layout Kyoto’s was modeled, those are the Four Great Capitals of China. Thus, Tokyo, by way of its name, latches on to this noble and ancient lineage, positioning itself as its inheritor.



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同性社交性 – homosociality

Many sociological terms lack decent equivalents in Japanese.  It seems the order of the day to get away with some clumsy Katakanese but to me it feels very unsatisfying ( 物足りない). In that sense, Chinese, having no other way but to render foreign words in relevant characters, shows more effort and creativity. Yet, character usage does differ between Chinese and Japanese and some Chinese neologisms feel a bit of a stretch or not quite there.
One example: homosociality. The Japanese Wikipedia article is titled ホモソーシャル, which is not just a mere phonetic rendering, but is not even a noun. What’s the noun from this then, ホモソーシャル性?Clumsy.
The Chinese term is 同性友愛. Makes a lot of sense,  doesn’t it? But then it excludes hierarchical homosocial relationships, which are not about either friendship or love.
My suggestion for a term with the coverage more or less equivalent to the English original is 同性社交性 or 同性関係性. What do you think?

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The origin of the Japanese word keizai (経済 ‘economy”)


No, you won’t see this yojijukugo in common use, but it is the one that a the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese word for economy 経済, is thought to derive from.

When Japan opened to the rest of the world in mid-19th century, it had to learn to communicate a lot of new things. Despite the thousands years of both inherited Chinese and indigenous Japanese scholarship, Japanese at the time lacked words to convey many concepts. Names for new objects as well as for abstract ideas had to be invented. In those days, the Japanese did not rely as much on katakanese, so they put their minds to make up new kanji-based words. Most of times,  those would  be very clever renderings of the meanings deciphered from European words and then reassembled  in Japanese. For example, the word for society, shakai, would be made of two characters 社会 meaning “gathering in/around a Shinto shrine”, which rather neatly and with a hint of metonymy gets across how the contemporary Japanese would envision ‘society’. Swap the characters, and we got 会社 kaisha, “company” or “firm” (by the way, both société in French).

Economy in the sense of a discrete domain, (egregiously) thought to exist independently of everything else, such as society, environment, or psychology, is a relatively new way of thinking about the relations between money, commodities and labour. It was novel to the 19th century Japan (and, granted, just barely established in the West too). Understandably, there was no corresponding Japanese word for it. So Meiji intellectuals, well versed in Classical Chinese, digged out a wise maxim 經世濟民 keisei-saimin from The Book of The Master Who Embraces Simplicity, a 4th-century treatise by Ge Hong, a Jin Dynasty official.

The meaning of  the phrase can be interpreted  as “keeping the world in order will help out the people”. This idea shows a strong influence of the Chinese political concept of the Mandate of Heaven with its insistence that “moral government brings peace to the country”). That kind of understanding echoes well with the parallel, much later Western concept of political economy: every political decision will have economic repercussions (i.e., the  prosperity of the population).

Ancient Greeks, to whom we trace the two words, thought of them as separate domains. Politics was the matters of the polis, whereas economy was to do with the oikos, home affairs. The wise man was to keep the twain asunder.

Bizarrely enough, despite centuries of effort in political and social theory, the modern practice is still more in  line with that archaic separation of the domains. The latter-day Neo-Classical theory, the dominant one in policy making worldwide, understands economy as a self-contained entity. Its success is judged by arbitrarily chosen quantifiable attributes, such as growth, controlled inflation and an infinitely expanding slew of other numerical meta-entities. Everything else  – environment, society, psychology, humanity itself  –  is treated as “externalities“, well worth sacrificing to keep the basic economic indicators within the range considered desirable  (a.k.a. #GoodForTheEconomyShitForThePeople). That makes it possible, for example, for the Economist to comment gleefully and sincerely on Pakistan’s economic growth while the country was devastated by floods. The same kind of thinking governs the global development industry, bringing the never-ending misery to the Third World.

It is exactly the opposite of the spirit of the original Chinese expression that gave birth to the word 経済. Will economics ever manage to overcome this pernicious misunderstanding?

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Writing Thai with Chinese characters? Consider it done!

When I started learning Thai, I really missed characters to make sense of the language. Many ur-Thai words (not those of Sanskrit, Pali or Khmer descend) do have that East Asian quality of being short, expressing a conceptual meaning, and also being handy to use as morphemes to form word compounds with new meanings. So what I did, I assigned Chinese characters to Thai words with corresponding meanings! I was so proud of myself,  thinking I invented a new way to write Thai! Besides, it really helped me ease in into a new language. As my Thai got better and words started making sense to me, I stopped writing them with characters.

Twenty years later, almost to the day, I discovered that there has long been a very similar way to write a Tai language like that: Sawndip script of the Zhuang language. This fascinates me no end, so I thought I would share this  discovery with you.

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花鳥風月: the beauties of nature

花鳥風月  literally means “flowers, birds, the wind and the Moon.” In the Tang Imperial court of China, whence the Japanese picked up their penchant for such four-letter words (四字熟語), nature appreciation was a big thing. After all, it was the early centuries of the Common Era and, in the absence of TV, internet and pachinko parlours, the only competitors to admiring the beauties of nature would be sex and, for the educated, books.

We rarely think this way, but for the most of us, everything around us, every single thing is man-made. Even trees in the park are planted there and the water in river is pollution-controlled and partly comes from sewage-processing plants. The nature on the other hand, is just-so. It happens there without anyone’s apparent will, yet it organises itself into ridiculously complex ecosystems, as if by chance. Human intrusions upon that marvelous order are like encroachment on a beautiful, elaborate building by increasingly smart, malicious mould that leaves mostly toxic waste and destruction in its wake. Even such beautiful excuses for progress and development as some architecturally fascinating cities and towns, ultimately are festering ulcers on the body of our planet. A particularly poignant example of such  human activity is the Tokyo Olympics 2020 site next to which the largest ongoing man-made disaster, the Fukushima Nuclear Plant keeps dumping lethal radioactivity into the Pacific Ocean and East Japan’s densely populated areas.
So, enjoy your 花鳥風月, while they are still around.

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