(Japanese) Colors - Thoughts on the First Viewing of Keith Recker's New Vid on Colors

I wrote my ranty "thoughts" on MegWeaves FB page when this vid with Keith Recker came out a little while ago, then FB lost it. Just as well, it probably suited here better. You may remember Keith from that glorious Hand/Eye magazine, and before that, Pantone.
Keith spoke on "Color At Work: Storytelling in Branding, Packaging and Commercial Imagery," and addressed each hue on the rainbow, and pink, and achromatics, at the International Museum of Folk Art in New Mexico, USA. He focused on feelings/symbols portrayed/represented by hues/colors, with examples old and new tied to persons, era, movements, brands, etc. (And if nothing else, his voice will melt your heart.) 

I'm going to write about what I thought after watching it once, because I will take away different things in subsequent future viewings. Also remember, I grew up outside of Japan almost as much as inside, my family wasn't particularly "traditional" and we lived in the suburbs, and I haven't lived there for 27 years. What I say are impressions based on "facts as I remember them". 
Early on, Keith mentioned corporate images, and the first thought that sprang to mind was when I worked for IBM in Japan in the 80s. Back then, the company logo was the stripy (in eight parts,) pale blue on white background, although they might have employed others from time to time, or earlier. Anyway, the company decided to use a pale gray version as well. I liked it immediately, because... gray... but there were numerous in-company near-hysterical announcements/articles/justifications/excuses explaining the decision. I didn't think it was a big deal as it was just a pale gray version of the existing one, not a replacement, (albeit nicer,) and giggled at how these grown men took themselves ridiculously seriously. I don't remember much of what I read, and after a couple, I stopped reading. But then this was the 80s, men wore conservative suits, (navy blue pin-stripe were called "IBM suits"; oldies reminisced about when hats were required; and the younger generation took pride in Yuppiedom, dressing for success. And IBM was never known for a sense of humor. Maybe a couple of oldies in high places objected.
Keith discussed universals, across space and time, e.g. purple for royalty. Much of the association with wealth/power is related to the scarcity of dye material, we know. However, I find myself far more interested in geography/culture/ethnicity/language-specific interpretation, especially how language dictates how we think and see the world.

Take for example the Japanese word, "ao". It means blue, but not necessarily indigo. It's also a name for a group of colors from somewhere on the blue side of yellow-green, through greens and blues as we know them, to just around where red starts to creep in. Purple is a world unto itself. It's not as though we don't see green; we have gazillion names for different greens in addition to the generic "midori," but when I was a kid I had to be careful when oldies said "ao" because I never knew. Traffic signals were often described as, "aka, ao, kiiro," i.e. "red, blue, and yellow."

On to red; in Japan, "aka" usually points to a light vermilion, red-orange-red. When red starts to show signs of blue in it, it's "beni-iro", lipstick color. When I was a kid, having returned from three years in the US, teachers were astounded I drew the sun with my yellow crayon, not with orange or red; I in turn was alarmed to be told sun was red. Apocalyptic, no? And though not exclusive, it's still there. And what I perceive to be one of the traditional Chinese color combination of orange-red and gold, considered not very nice in my family, looked spectacular in the desert sun in Beijing. Everything in its context. 

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, there was definitely an awkward coexistence of Japanese and Western colors; for the most part we used them in different contexts. So if you learned Nihon-ga, Japanese painting, the paint colors were all in Japanese colors, same as the colors in Kimonos, good-quality, chiyogami papers, etc. School paint sets were an awkward mixture of both traditions, as were some weird kids' picture books.  Western clothes were mostly in brighter Western colors; one reason Mom could not get enough of European shoes and handbags on Dad's meager salary.

Although I'm not sure when exactly it started, I noticed a big change/merge in the 80s when I went home after finishing collage in the US. Then, Western tourists started buying up old Kimono, furniture, art, etc by the container-loads, as well as demanding to see Kabuki/Noh, Ukiyoe, and that salacious curiosity, Geisha culture. (It's actually Geiko or Makiko they were looking at in most cases, as most Geishas were well over 60/70 by then, but does it matter when gawking is the goal?) 
And if it's good enough for Westerners, it must be good enough for us. Some Japanese became interested in aspects of Japanese artforms,(in decline after the war,) even in modest patriotism, (gone after the War and Allied Occupation, and strictly self-monitored by ourselves.) As an aside, one of the best things to happen was a sudden flourishing of visits and exchanges among Japanese and Asian youth. I believe one or two of my cousins went.
And where there was yen to be made, T-shirts, garments and accessories with Japanese motifs, (but often in Western colors,) filled the tourist market. Gradually, though, better-quality items started to pop up in our own clothing stores, and we started wearing our own colors/motifs in the shape of dresses, skirts, jackets, etc. Goodness, they were expensive, even though most were synthetic, and not even machine-washable. And though terribly frowned upon at first, women started recycling their family silk into Western garments they can wear more often. And because this is Japan, numerous affordable how-to books came out. 

The other side of the coin was, in order to seduce young Japanese women to wear Kimono, department stores started displaying Kimono "outfits,"  (my word, meaning the whole set from top to bottom,) coordinated in Western colors, rather than kimono, obi, obijime, zohri, everything separately. This was a visual shocker even to me, not just brightness/saturation, not just foreign colors, but the concept of an "outfit" as unified/coordinated unit disregarded seasonal/cultural sensibilities. (In fairness, if you remember the 80s trend, Western fashion and interior was also coated in one color, I remember.) Anyway, these outfits were, frankly, ugly, too bright, but young women weren't stupid, they may not have bought the whole lot, but over the years experimented with mixing and matching.
(I also wonder if machine-washable synthetic kimonos became readily available around this time; they existed at least in the 70s, I understand mostly for people who had to wear them every day to work, e.g. waitresses. Mom got me two in '74 before I left for the Minnesota, after someone told at the last minute.)

In the last few decades, I understand there has been a huge resurgence of Mehsen-style Kimono, (peak mid-1800s to mid-1900s,) with bold patterns and colors, which looks to me to be the perfect solution for the modern sensibilities. As well, young, (and not so young,) men wear kimono, outside New Years celebrations, in public. Also the desire to know our own color traditions is still there. You can buy paints and origami sets and embroidery threads in Japanese colors, and as ever, there are gazillion good books at all price range, with names, season, dye origins, etc.

That's about it for nostalgia for now. I'm glad Japanese my age, (my sister, convent school friends and former colleagues, just for starters,) are far more knowledgeable in these areas than moi, and only hope they are handing down that knowledge, and again that word, sensibility. Because culture, you see it best when something "just feels wrong." 
Last but not the least, wouldn't we love to be in Keith's daughter's high school media literacy sessions Keith taught? I would. 

So, what does it say about me who chooses gray, first and foremost, as the best color to symbolize me?


Meg said...

I should have kept that piece.

Laura Fry said...

I love the subtlety. That's a gorgeous cloth! :)

Meg said...

Thank you very much, Laura. One of my all time favorites, but so delicate I had to put the series of three in those cellophane bags. One day the old shop manager rang to ask she had an autistic young women with her, and if it was OK to open and let her feel it, even though there was no chance she would buy it. Of course I replied not just yes, but an emphatic YES, PLEASE!! Then the shop manager changed and the new one stuck it in a drawer for six months, because she "couldn't possibly put scarves in bags in the shop," and never told me until I asked. It takes all kinds!! :-D

Charlene said...

I have heard that language is important to define concepts, your example that Japanese children use orange or red to draw the sun, while Americans use the yellow. Makes me wonder if language affects what we perceive? Do you know if someone has written about this. I have had conversations with people about the bias of colors - some can't seem to see the difference between a yellow based red and a blue based one. Is it language or perception?

Meg said...

Charlene, you're testing my patchy memory. I know I read a couple of articles in the late 70s when I studied Linguistics. (Mind you, back then Linguistics relating to other aspects of human life, e.g. Socio-Linguistics, Ethno/Anthropological Linguistics, Psycho-Linguistics, Neuro-Linguistics, etc, were in their relative infancy, and our knowledge of the brain and other body parts have exploded since then.) I recall the general consensus was, we probably perceive colors the same way, when individuals are not burdened by physiological anomalies, (last word mine,) because that's physiological. But we interpret/use/express differently, partially defined by our languages. I can't remember what other factors were, but cultural practices/traditions come to mind, e.g. Japanese are conditioned to feel happy when we see vertical wide-red/white-striped banners, but know there's a funeral with black/white ones.

Not color, but there are more reading material relating to how many names a group has for a natural phenomenon; Inuit names for snow was a biggie. Which reminded me our different names for rain, and how rain and fog is on a continuum, and how some of those names elicited different emotions.

Sorry, not much help, but if I come across something, I'll share. I wouldn't be surprised if there are gazillions by now, some being too sciency and difficult for me to understand. :-D

Meg said...

I've been thinking about Russian colonization of Ukraine and the resurgence (since the 90s) and survival of Ukrainian culture.

Meg said...

And the self-censoring by the colonized.