If you have picked up a few phrases and/or words from anime, you probably know at least a few color names like “shiro” (white), “kuro” (black), “aka” (red), “ao” (blue), and “midori” (green). And if you’ve watched enough subbed anime and/or have visited Japan or studied a bit of the language, you may have noticed the use of the word “ao” or “aoi” (blue) to refer to all kinds of things from the blue sky and ocean to the green forests and inexperienced people. You may have not caught it, or maybe you didn’t even think about it, or, like us, it keeps you up at night.
Well, we’ll save you the Google search! Read on to find out as we discuss the blurry, fine line between green and blue in Japanese and some of the most common “ao” phrases and their meanings!
In the Beginning, It Was All Blue
There are many theories about how cultures see, define, and identify colors. Researchers have found that some cultures don’t have names for colors at all, have many names for the same color, or even use the same word for different colors. “Aoi” was used to describe all blue and green objects, as green was simply considered a different shade of blue. In fact, “ao”, technically is a slightly green blue, though you probably wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it on its own.
The Japanese word for green, “Midori”, surfaced in the Heian period but even still, it was considered a different shade of blue! After World War II, “Midori” was taught to kids in schools and Japan also adopted other color names like “orenji” (orange) to better fit in with the Western world.
Some scientists have found that different cultures may identify more or fewer shades of each color depending on what their life is like and how their language formed. Just like how Eskimos have dozens of words for snow or how “orange” wasn’t a word in English until orange trees were brought to England from Asia.
Now, this is just a theory based on our research, but if you’ve ever been in Japan or seen pictures of the mountains, you’ll notice that the almost perennial haze around mountain ranges makes them look a bluish-green shade even though they are covered in thick, green forests. In fact “Aoyama” means blue mountain! Granted, the word and kanji for “ao” originally come from Chinese, but one could argue the same about the mountainous regions in China.
And then there’s the ocean, which is different shades of blue depending on where you are, from deep blue to turquoise (which has a bit of green in it if you think about it, as do many other colors in the ocean), the sky is pale blue, and the mountains look the same shade as a blue-green crayon. Most of the blue things surrounding Japan are a greenish shade of blue, even if it’s slight, they are surrounded by blue-green nature, possibly explaining why they see green and blue as variations of the same thing.
By now, most things Westerners consider “green” are referred to as “midori” but there are many expressions and terms that are already so ingrained in the language that they have remained “ao” and therefore confusing to most foreigners in the country as well as anime fans in the West. Here are a few of the most common!
Ao shingo - Green traffic lights. This is where this writer noticed there was something afoot. “Why do you call it blue if it’s green?” I asked a co-worker while living in Tokyo. And her response was “Oh! You’re right! Huh...” which shows how different cultures see and process colors, they don’t even think about it!
Interesting fact: Traffic lights are different shades of red, yellow, and green around the world but they have a spectrum that they need to stay within. “Go” lights in Japan are actually the bluest green allowed!
Aoharu - Lit. “blue spring” = green spring. As we all know, spring is a time of rebirth and plants flourish beautifully in spring in the land of the rising sun. A poetic term, it’s not surprising to find several artworks—anime and manga included—that use this meaningful term (Aoharu Kikanjuu, Aoharu Ride, just to name a few). It’s usually used to describe the carefree, beautiful years of adolescence when teens bloom into adults.
Aomori - Lit. “blue forest” = green forest. Aomori is more than just a city in Tohoku. As mentioned before, this term is used to describe the deep blue-green forests in Japan.
〇〇〇 wa mada aoi - “XXX is still green”. Referring to someone wet behind the ears or immature, which we would usually call “green”, like unripe fruit.
Ao Yasai - Green vegetables. If you’re at a restaurant, don’t be confused by the “blue vegetables” on the menu, they are just plain old green veggies like broccoli, zucchini, and cabbage. Likewise, “ao ringo” is green apple!
Of course, there are many other words and phrases and much more information and studies by linguists and anthropologists but that’s all the time we have for today. We hope this article cleared up some stuff or maybe even showed you something you hadn’t even noticed before! We have included our references below. They are very interesting articles and we recommend you give them a read if this topic piqued your interest.
What other green “ao” phrases can you think of? Had you been wondering about this already? Share with us in the comments! Till next time!