When I was younger, my mum enjoyed asking us philosophical and unanswerable questions. The old classic, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound, was a favourite. Her other favourite, which always stumped me was, how do we know that what I call the colour blue and what you call the colour blue are the same colour?? It seemed such a complex question, incorporating anatomy, perception, semantics and nature versus nurture. It never occurred to me at the time that colour may actually be a question of culture. Having spent time in Japan, I now know that colour is not necessarily a fixed concept and culture determines the way in which we categorise and contextualise colour.
When I started Japanese classes and my teacher was teaching directions, we started talking about traffic lights. She mentioned the blue traffic light. I was a little puzzled. I had recently been in Japan, and knew the traffic lights in Japan are the same as traffic lights in Australia, and the “go” light is definitely green. I asked her why she had called it blue. She explained that many green things in Japan were referred to as 青 (ao) blue, such as “blue apples” and even the term “he is green behind the ears” is translated in Japanese as he is blue (immature). This was a little perplexing. I was pretty sure that an entire nation could not be colour blind.
After some confusion, then some reading and some discussion with Japanese friends, it has become apparent that colour is culturally subjective. For many hundreds of years there was no name or designation for the colour green. Of course, the trees, the plants, the ocean (sometimes) and many other things were green, as they are still, however green was considered a shade of blue. It was not until the Heian Period (794-1185) that the name 緑 (みどり) midori started to be used for green. However, it was, at this time, still considered a shade of blue, and remained thus until the Second World War. After the war, green or midori, started to be taught as a seperate colour in elementary school. I must say that in my experience in Japan, a lot of young people actually call green グリーン (guri-n), not midori.
Given that blue is my favourite colour, I do wish Granny Smith apples were a lovely shade of blue, rather than green. It would aesthetically please me beyond comprehension. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I love the understanding of the complex cultural differences that are discoverable through learning another language. Not only do such experiences challenge your preconceived or assumed ideas, they allow for multiple layers of connection and understanding over a myriad of topics and allow a better understanding of yourself through learning about someone else.
Photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/128352658117932744/