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Goin’ Japanesque!

Color-full Japan History: Purple Across the Eras

There is a history to the colors in Japan, just as there is in all countries. As an easy-to-grasp example, think of the colored belts (white and black) used in jūdō and how they signify a wearer’s skill. If we trace back to the roots, looking far into the past, we’ll find that this is the very foundation of the history of colors, namely the use of colors in systems of ranking. Today we’ll start our explanation there, with a special focus on the color purple.


The Twelve Level Cap and Rank System



The twelve-level cap and rank system was a rank classification system established in Japan in 603. Each member of the system was assigned a color corresponding to their position and wore a cap of that color. The order went purple, blue, red, yellow, white, and then black, with purple the highest rank and black the lowest. In addition, the colors were further divided into dark (“Greater”) and light (“Lesser”) shades. In total, this made for twelve ranks.

Owing to this, the colors forbidden to a person of a given rank were strictly determined, with those who could wear purple (called “murasaki” in Japanese) being particularly rare. Why was purple chosen for the top? It’s said that purple dye was highly valued at the time and that dyeing with purple took a considerable amount of effort.


Purple in the Heian Period

「源氏物語五十四帖 空蝉」 歌川広重画

During the Heian period (794 to 1185) there flourished an elegant centralized culture of the aristocracy where the color purple was much loved. After all, the famed Heian work Tale of Genji was also called “The Tale of Murasaki” and its author, Murasaki Shikibu, even had “purple” in her name.

Furthermore, there is a poem from the Imperial poetry anthology Kokin Wakashū that reads, “A single murasaki blooms, and for it I love all the Musashino plains.” The murasaki in the poem refers to the flower from which purple dye traditionally came, and because of this sense of affection by association the color purple came symbolize the bonds between people. The character for “murasaki” also gained the reading “yukari” (bond), and this remains even now as a traditional way to read that kanji in Japanese.


Purple in the Kamakura Period


The actual enforcement of color prohibitions virtually ceased in the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333). As a result, we begin to see military commanders decorating their armor with purple, the color of nobility. It seems that there are posers in every era, and armor in purple (once a symbol of the highest rank in the Heian period) stood out sharply and made a big impact on whoever saw it. Or perhaps it stood out a little too sharply and ended up more often being the recipient of “impact” from enemy weapons for it? At least, we suspect as much.


Purple in the Edo Period (Kabuki)

Come the Edo period, color restrictions were brought in yet again. Ordinances forbade everyday people from donning gaudy or gorgeous colors, forcing them to instead wear clothing in plain hues. As a result, people would instead find the joy of good fashion by wearing subdued exterior clothing with ornate and colorful purple linings. This remains with us in clothing like kimono, where sometimes it’s the inside of the garment that’s done in the more prominent and colorful shades.

To explore further, let’s look at kabuki, the trendsetter of Edo-era fashion. Sparked by the purple hachimaki (headband) that appeared in performances of the kabuki play “Sukeroku,” the shade “Edo Murasaki” became a smash hit among the common people. Even in that era, purple was a much-loved color.


During performances, a set of sushi containing inarizushi (made with thin sheets of fried tofu called “aburaage”) and a type of norimaki (seaweed-wrapped sushi) called sukerokuzushi were sold in theaters. It’s thought that this combination has its origins with wordplay that’s very typical of the Edo-ites of old. The “norimaki” refers to the purple “hachimaki”, and the inarizushi to Sukeroku’s lover Agemaki, as inarizushi is a fried (age) tofu wrap (maki).


What did you think of our little history of the color purple? We hope you’ll try out sukerokuzushi for yourself, perhaps as a compliment to the more famous (and equally delicious) salmon and tuna nigirizushi. If you head to a kabuki performance, the sukerokuzushi they sell at the theatre is fantastically tasty, made as it is with only the best ingredients!

Related: Traditional Japanese Color Combinations: The 3 Colors of Kabuki Curtains and More

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