Different cultures around the world all have their interpretations of appropriate dress and the associated colors for a variety of situations, incorporated into their culture and traditions. This can make it difficult to avoid accidentally offending by wearing or displaying a certain color out of turn.
The color red is all over Japan, but is it OK for a foreigner to wear it? In short: Yes.
While red does have a deeper meaning in Japanese history and culture, there’s actually no specific stigma around wearing the color in Japan; in fact, it is considered one of the luckiest and happiest colors you can wear and is popular in modern Japanese fashion.
Red is one of the traditional core colors in Japan and has a range of meanings in both traditional and modern senses.
Traditional Colors in Japan
Japanese tradition recognizes 220 individual colors by their own unique names and meanings. Some of these colors date back to the Asuka period, which was between 538 and 710 AD.
The four core colors in Japanese culture are black (kuro), white (shiro), blue (ao), and red (aka). These colors were written into some of the earliest known pieces of Japanese history, as parts of the names of folk heroes and the subjects of proverbs. As time went on, certain colors became associated with certain classes, slowly developing into a system known as the Twelve Level Cap and Rank System.
It started at the very top with deep purple for a person of Daitoku (Greater Virtue) rank and went through the color spectrum all the way down to “light black” (a medium-toned grey) for Shōchi (Lesser Knowledge). It became a cultural taboo to wear a color that was outside of your societal station.
Red was the color used to denote the Dairei and Shōrei (Greater and Lesser Prosperity, respectively) ranks, with Deep red being reserved for Dairei. It was a color worn almost exclusively by aristocrats before modern dying processes became popular, as it was achieved in clothing by extracting the color from the akane plant, a difficult, intensive process that only the richest members of society could afford.
Of course, with the dawn of modern dying and manufacturing processes, a full rainbow of hues became available to everyone, regardless of status, and along with access to resources and education for advancement becoming more widely available, this caused the Twelve Cap system to slowly dissolve.
Nowadays, it’s perfectly fine for anyone to wear any color they like, although there are, of course, certain codes of dress for certain situations, as there are in any culture. For a full guide on proper dress in Japan, read Real Estate Tokyo’s article here.
The Meaning of Red in Japanese Culture
The color red has a variety of associations and meanings in modern Japanese culture. According to Namiko Abe, in an article for Thought Co, red has typically been used to decorate temples and shrines, as it is thought to scare away evil spirits and bring prosperity and peace. It’s also the color associated with the sun, as seen on the Japanese flag, called the Hinomaru, or “sun’s circle.” This is such a built-in association that while children from other countries might reach for a yellow or orange crayon when drawing the sun, Japanese children almost always draw it as a big red circle.
Red is the color used in many festivals and kinds of entertainment associate with tradition. When used in Kabuki (a traditional form of Japanese theater that relies on character archetypes portrayed through intense makeup and masks), an actor with red strips on their face was meant to be interpreted as courageous and just. Japanese New Year firework displays will often heavily feature red and white bursts, and the lanterns hung for certain festivals throughout the year will be made of red paper.
Red also has a special meaning and use in Japanese wedding ceremonies. While in Western cultures, brides traditionally wear white, in Japanese culture, a bride wears a red gown or, if she’s particularly traditional, kimono, to symbolize luck, knowledge, prosperity, and protection from evil. It will also be used in a lot of the decorations in the form of curtains and streamers striped in red and white.
This same combination of red and white if frequently used to wrap presents for things like weddings, birthdays, and New Year’s, similar to the Chinese tradition of giving out red envelopes of money on New Year’s. It’s the same idea of the color indicating celebration, joy, and prosperity. In contrast, black and white would be used for more somber occasions’ dress and accessories, such as funerals.
Red in Japanese Street Fashion
Of course, some of the universal meanings for red still apply. Red is associated with boldness, passion, anger, and romance. When it comes to clothing and fashion specifically, red is a color you wear when you intend to stand out, and this is especially true in Japanese street fashion.
Already known for being avant-garde and widely varied from one individual to the next, the collective of subcultures known as Japanese street fashion inspires, and has been inspired by, styles around the world, and is known for being “out there” and daring with its pieces and ensembles. These styles can range from frilly and girly Lolita to the subtle, but many layers of Decora and are divided into a wide and ever-expanding list of subcategories to suit every expressive need.
It’s a popular movement with younger Japanese people because they tend to have more disposable income now than ever before, as Japanese teens and young adults stay at home longer than any other culture’s youth, and therefore don’t have to stress about rent and utility expenses, instead, focusing on expressing themselves through their clothing.
Red is especially popular in gothic Lolita and punk styles, usually contrasted sharply with black or white, sometimes with matching hair. These styles are built on a sense of personal independence, and therefore the colors used in them are very much dependent on the individual rather than on some particular code of dress.
In most forms of Japanese street fashion, red is worn more as a statement color visually than it is for any particular deeper meaning. Brighter shades, closer to vermillion, are popular in the sharper, more abstract styles, while a deeper burgundy or crimson are staples to gothic Lolita and the “school girl” aesthetic.
Wearing Red in Japan
Because of these traditional associations, some foreigners traveling to Japan grow concerned with accidentally appropriating a fashion that is important to Japanese people, and therefore offending them, but this is rarely actually the case. In fact, some Japanese people tend to get excited that foreigners are interested in their culture and fashions at all. They would rather encourage them to explore their interest in it.
Red is a beautiful color, rich in history and meaning, but no longer exclusive to the ruling elite. While, of course, there are situations in which wearing bright, stand-out colors are inappropriate (during serious ceremonies or to particularly strict work meetings), you shouldn’t be concerned that you’ll be upsetting anyone by wearing your favorite red sweater out and about.
Japanese fashion is all about expressing yourself and showing off your personality. As such, your color choices should reflect who you are and what you want to say to the world, as much with red as with any other color.