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Grammar detail: colors in Japanese

colors in Japanese
439 words
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As in English, colors in Japanese can be used as nouns or as adjectives. However, color words can be somewhat irregular.
Let's start with the basics! The most common colors in Japanese have forms which end in い and function as normal い adjectives.
Usage of any of these colors is perfectly regular. For example:
あか
ネクタイ
いました

I bought a red tie.
かお
あか

Your face is red.
When using these forms as nouns, the い is simply omitted. For example:
わたし
だいす
大好
きな
いろ
あか
です
My favorite color is red.
More generally, the noun form of a color is created by taking the kanji for the color, and then adding the kanji that means color,
いろ
. For example:
When a color name is formed this way, it can be turned into an adjective by adding い:
この
きいろ
黄色
セーター
てみません

Why don't you try on this yellow sweater?
Some colors are irregular - the kanji is used to make the noun form, and the noun form is turned into an adjective using の:
むらさき
じゅうたんこの
あか
カーテン
ちょうわ
調和
しない
だろう
A purple carpet will not go with this red curtain.

Reading of 色

色 is read either with its on reading ショク or its kun reading いろ. As we've already seen, it is somewhat irregular - it's often read in kanji compounds with いろ (whereas you would expect the on reading). So when do you use each reading? In general:
  • When you see 色 on its own, it is read いろ.
  • When you are referring to a specific color, or a situation where a single color applies, you would use いろ. So for example: 黄色, 金色, 何色, 顔色.
  • When you are counting colors, or referring to a concept which might involve several colors, you use しょく. So for example: 一色, 二色, 配色, 原色, 天然色.
  • When combined with kanji that function as color adjectives on their own, such as 白い, the reading tends to be しょく. For example: 白色, 黒色.
To see comprehensive lists of words that use each reading, use our kanji reading search tool:

Some additional notes

In Japanese, the color 青い is usually translated 'blue' and 緑 as 'green'. However, the 'blue' color of 青い includes the blue-green color of traffic lights, and 緑 is usually reserved for brighter greens such as emerald. Partly as a result of this, Japan traffic lights are considered to be 赤黄青 (red, yellow, blue-green) - not 'red, orange, green' (for more on Japanese traffic lights, see the link below).
The English expression 'black and white' has a parallel expression, but in Japanese the colors are reversed: (white and black).
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Kanji used in this grammar

セキ   シャク   あか    あか red   あからむ to turn red   あからめる to blush   
セイ   ショウ   あお-    あお blue   
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ハク   しろ white   しろ    しら-    
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コク   くろ    くろ black   
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ショク   シキ   いろ color   
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オウ   コウ   き yellow   
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カイ   はい ashes   
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ロク   リョク   みどり green   
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チャ   サ    tea   
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シ   むらさき purple   
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キン   コン   かね gold; money   
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カ   なに    なん what?   
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ガン   かお face   
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イチ   イツ   ひと    ひと- one   
ニ   ふた    ふた two   
ハイ   くば to distribute   
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ゲン   はら meadow   
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テン   あめ    あま- heaven   
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ゼン   ネン    resemble   
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バイ   か to buy   
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シ   わたくし    わたし I, myself   
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ダイ   タイ   おおきい big   おおいに very much   おお-    
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コウ   この    す to like   
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チャク   ジャク   つ to arrive   つける to attach   き to wear   きせる to make wear   
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調
チョウ   しらべる to investigate   ととの to be arranged, to be in order   ととのえる to adjust, tune   
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ワ   オ    peace, harmony   なご to be calmed down   なごやか calm, gentle   やわらぐ to be softened   やわらげる to soften; to alleviate   
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