Japan · Memoir · Writing

Japan Memoir Part 7: Water-Color

I’ve always loved the etymology of ordinary words. Was the color orange first, or the fruit?

In this case, I know the answer: the fruit came first, the color second. Until the 1500’s, the west had no orange, only red. Red-breasted robins aren’t red, now are they? That’s why.

Japan’s colors are also quite fascinating. Their scale does not quite match up to ours. Of course, modern usage means that I can equivalent every color with no trouble, but the definitions don’t match up as nearly as you might be led to believe.

Red, yellow, black, white, those match up fine. Chairo (literally, tea-color) is certainly brown, and while murasaki does not precisely translate to purple–it’s one of a dozen words for purple, most of them archaic but all of them from the Heian-era and so preserved–it does well enough.

Orange was not a color until modern times, which is why it’s oranji. Pink was traditionally sakura, but in modern times is pinku.

Green? Blue?

How do you explain to someone that colors are not bounded the same way? There’s light green, light blue, green, and blue. Kimidori, mizuiro, midori, ao.

Short words are usually old. Guess which is the oldest.

Previous chapters

Part 1: When the Worst Happens
Part 2: Streets that Live
Part 3: The Sound of Far Away
Part 4: What Can Be Bought
Part 5: The Comfort of a Known Noise
Part 6: The Dream of America

Okinawa 164


It always weirds me out to think that some of the children I’ve taught have mothers my age. I’m only just six years out of high school—where did the time go? How did I get to be of child-bearing age?

The city I live in is getting all its parks made-over, one at a time. The current national government is strange and strict in many of their policies, but they’re straight to the point on one count: Japan needs more children. It’s dying out by inches and unless something is done Japan as we know it will soon cease to be. The economics of population demand an increase this country hasn’t had in decades.

Not that you can tell this from my area. The shopping malls and playgrounds overflow with kids after the school bells ring. Day cares and kindergartens have waiting lists, with more being opened under government subsidies as soon as the facilities can be outfitted. Perhaps the latter attests more to Japan’s lowering affluence than its booming numbers of children, though, because certainly children are a rarity in too many places. A decade ago, two decades, marriage for women meant retirement to the home. Well, many women. Most women, the narrative goes. Plenty, anyway.

But these days they must work to support the expense of having a child, and so from an early age daycare must be available. Most certainly women wouldn’t want to work for any other reason. So the narrative goes.

This is where my last work came in: a new preschool, needing polishing up. I was to open a second classroom for the youngest children and provide a nourishing, rich English-language curriculum for the age two-to-three crowd.

Some people do not understand that for a child to learn a foreign language you must do more than put them in a room with a foreigner and hope magic happens. It takes time, it takes instruction, and it takes focused awareness of what young children need in order to develop as whole human beings, not just language-repeating robots or mindless screaming infants. It takes planning and understanding in order for this curriculum to emerge and results to be shown.

Alas, it is not only the Japanese who don’t understand this, by any stretch of the imagination. We are all of us guilty for wanting something for nothing, are we not? It’s just that some of us are in a position to know better. Or should be, anyway.

cherry blossom

I cannot think of a more beautiful country than this one. The mountains rise out of the plains starkly, shrouded in bamboo and pine. Houses cling to their bases, huge, sprawling places built to accommodate an extended family and still leave room for a couple rice fields.

In wood cuts three hundred years ago, artists painted highly-stylized depictions of the countryside, full of disappearing vistas and blue haze, sudden river bends and shrine gates rising bright red against the landscape. To the modern onlooker those pictures can seem fanciful, even folksy in their simple views.

They are entirely accurate.

In university I spent too many hours gazing out of the eleventh story window to the mountains I could not go to, watching them fade and reappear behind the rolling mists. Sometimes dark, sometimes light as the weather changed, they were everything the artists had seen and more.

It is easy to think of the past as apart, another land, another world. Especially in this country, where an old house is one that has been standing since the 1950’s. Nothing lasts in a land of perpetual humidity and rain. Nothing, that is, except the land itself.

It is no wonder that until two hundred years ago, the Japanese words for blue and green were the same. The sky is blue, here, and the water is blue. The mountains are blue and the plants are blue. Blue and green are as inseparable in this landscape as the color orange is from the fruit. Blue is green and green is blue, all over the countryside, until night comes and everything is black.

Japan likes to think of itself in terms of red and white. But really it is blue-green, with grey concrete scars all over.

cherry blossom

From my apartment to the subway is a ten-minute bike ride in any direction. North, south, east, west, I am conveniently triangulated, or quadrangulated perhaps, to be right in the middle of everything. Consequently, I am right in the middle of nothing.

There is a street of shops I have no use for just outside. Two barbers, a ba-chan clothing shop, and a home-goods-of-dubious-value store all line this side of the street. Perhaps I would go to the nearby restaurants, but the signs are unreadable scrawls and I am too shy to ask for the menu. Though I think shy is the wrong word. Asking would be bothering, and bothering is something I hate to do. If you are bothering someone for information, then you are pointing out that you are not in the know. Not in the know means outside. Outside is bad. I can’t go there.

When we first moved here, we went to the electrics shop down the street only to discover the prices were ten or twenty percent more expensive there than in bigger stores, with a smaller selection and nothing we much wanted. I think there’s a fruit stall nearby, but I have yet to see it open. The real-estate agent changed our locks, so we have no need for the locksmith across the street either. When I do my shopping, it is to the large shopping mall I go, not the tiny supermarket five minutes in the other direction, unless I am in need of cheap vegetables. Our bicycles were from enormous chain stores. We bought our furniture miles away and assembled it ourselves.

We are the cancer that’s killing our neighborhood. We are the ones who don’t shop local, who go to big stores with cheap prices for convenience and ease. We are the ones who don’t care when old family shops close, because they were dirty and old and not much good anyway. We are the problem.

A display of paintbrushes caught my eye in a small neighborhood shop on Friday. I stopped my bike and went in, asked for two in the size I needed. Paid five times the price for the exact same product I would’ve received in a big shop.

Perhaps they are the cancer that is finally dying off. Consider it.

2 thoughts on “Japan Memoir Part 7: Water-Color

  1. I haven’t done much research on this, but I thought Orange was around in Japanese for some time, as evidenced by the word “daidai” (or 橙色) which comes from an orange-colored plans.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point! If you look in Heian-era charts, they have lists of “persimmon” and “washed persimmon” and everything in-between. I just assumed, as I’ve never heard anything but “orange,” that the primary orange crayon color is a new boundary.

      Liked by 1 person

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