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Another Green World

Another Green World

What colour is springtime? Stepping out into the garden or the woods near Niwaki HQ in Dorset, or Tokyo (pictured - thanks Soeda!) the answer would seem to be green. Every new leaf, over-saturated with chlorophylls, is busy absorbing blue and red light, reflecting unwanted green light back to our eyes. Under the canopy of a freshly minted beech tree or the majestic candelabra of the flowering horse chestnuts, the air itself seems almost to have turned green.

The greenness of spring seems beyond doubt, so you might be surprised to learn that in Japanese, and indeed many other languages, green is not such a clearly delineated concept. In fact, the colour word most likely to be used in relation to spring in Japan is the noun “ao” 青 and its adjective “aoi” 青い, which could be translated as “fresh” or “newly grown” or “unripe” and carries with it a strong sense of blue as well as green. The kanji itself (青) originates from the Chinese word “qing” 青 which again implies “blue-green freshness”, and is used almost exclusively with naturally occurring phenomena, like the sky, grass and the ocean.

This overlap isn’t as unusual as it might first seem: in many languages and cultures blue and green are colexified (the fancy term for two or more meanings existing one word). But why? Is it just to do with where they sit on the spectrum of light, or is something else going on here?

If, like me, you watched black and white films as a child and wondered if the world used to be black and white, this will give you pause for thought: in ancient Japan, only four colours were named. Black, white, red and blue. Of course, there were the same number of colours to be perceived in the world (well, maybe not as much neon and certainly no Vantablack, developed in 2014 and famously employed by Anish Kapoor), but language developed in such a way as to group them by concept into hues and shades, and didn’t feel the need to put a fence around particular points on the spectrum.

Jay Griffiths makes some sense of this in her excellent book “Wild: An Elemental Journey” when she suggests that delineating colours into separate terms actually reduces them and takes them further from their essential, slippery, blended nature. Griffiths goes back to the somewhat lost root of the English word green which comes from the Old Teutonic grô - the same root for grow and grass. “To grow is to green”, she notes. The concept comes first and slowly spreads out to cover a whole host of conceptually related objects and events, before eventually settling on one, more narrow meaning.

“The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphor, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. It makes me wonder how many other words, when translated into English – especially sensory and natural words – really spark the same synapses in a native speaker?

Of course, the reality is, we’re all seeing the same thing. Like many received ideas about Japanese culture it’s not quite as simple as the headline suggests. Yes, blue and green are linked concepts, but then, aren’t they linked in English too? The sea, for starters: ask a child to draw a beach, and most likely they’ll deliver a slash of azure, but a trip to the seaside reveals a whole colour wheel of possibilities, from murky slate to rich turquoise, with many shades of green and blue in-between. And, just like in English, the same word used in a different context takes on a different meaning.

It’s a lot to take in. Fortunately, there are other, more didactic words for green and blue in Japanese: “midori” 緑 – a relatively new word, introduced as recently as 100 years ago – describes a green that we (that is, native English-speaking readers) would all recognise, “shinryoku” 新緑 is a perfect word for verdant new green growth, while “ai” 藍い could be used to describe our Shigoto Work Shirt, Kojima Work Jacket and Trousers, translating, as it does, to “indigo blue”. And coincidentally, indigo blue is great colour to wear in the spring, summer and beyond!