Iris-Colored (ayame-iro) Iromuji Kimono with Gold Obi

An unpatterned purple-red kimono, with a white collar embroidered with purple and yellow flowers. The obi (the wide belt worn over the stomach) is made of vine-patterned golden cloth, and on it is an image of a Japanese court lady with long, straight black hair and multicolored, layered robes, facing away from the viewer and holding up a fan. Tied around the middle of the obi is a thin, violet-blue cord (the obijime), decorated with a piece of jewelry depicting an iris and two cattails, and peeking above the obi is a a thin layer of bright lime-green fabric (the obiage). The ensemble is finished with a pair of black and purple zori (formal Japanese sandals) and white tabi (split-toed socks).Click for larger version (PNG); click for PDF version. Click here for the list of dolls.

As I wrote back in February, when I drew a poppy red kimono and treated you to stories of red dye made out of mythical creature blood, I have been learning about Japanese color words from a couple of books, Kimono and the Colors of Japan: The Kimono Collection of Katsumi Yumioka and 日本の伝統色 The Traditional Colors of Japan. (More for my own amusement than for any practical purpose, as usual.) This is the second post in the series; I asked you (or rather, my readers in February) to choose the next color and Salvia Blue seemed to be the next winner but at the last minute Iris pulled ahead.

Iris (菖蒲色, ayame-iro) is a literal color name: the word 菖蒲 (ayame) means “iris,” so paired with the kanji for “color,” 色 (iro), the name really is “iris-color.” To be specific, ayame refers to one type of iris that grows in Japan, althouh there are two other common types as well, the 花菖蒲 (hanashōbu) and the 杜若 (kakitsubata), both of which have their own symbolic meanings; the situation isn’t helped by the fact that the words have apparently shifted over time, so that the fragrant ayame beloved by aristocrats a thousand years ago isn’t actually the ayame Japanese people know today. (For more on this shift, read this chapter from Liza Dalby’s memoir: bitter herb grows tall.) Nor is it helped by the fact that the same kanji, 菖蒲, can also be read shōbu — which is both another kind of iris and a shortened form of 花菖蒲 (hanashōbu). This iris-related confusion even prompted a proverb, いずれ菖蒲か杜若 (izure ayame ka kakitsubata), which literally means “Either the ayame or the kakitsubata“; the meaning is something like, “Both of these things are so overwhelmingly beautiful that there’s no point in trying to compare or differentiate between them.” It seems to be rather old-fashioned, and most often applied to pretty women or girls. “Which of those two sisters is more beautiful?” “Well, it’s like the ayame and the kakitsubata.” (For more information: Origami Volume 6: Iris (in English), いずれ菖蒲か杜若 (in Japanese), and a great deal of discussion on Twitter in Japanese with my friend Arietty I can dig up for anyone who’s really interested.)

Ayame-iro is a lovely rich, warm purple with reddish undertones. According to The Traditional Colors of Japan, the hex code for ayame-iro is #6F3381. The Prismacolor Digital Color Coordinator says that the closest single Prismacolor pencil is Mahogany Red, which shows the limits of the tool because that one is far too red. I’m seeing Dark Purple as being closer, but I think it is just a shade too red as well. Dark Purple over a light backing of of Violet is, I think, about right. Interestingly, some sources make a distinction between 菖蒲色 (ayame-iro) and 菖蒲色 (shōbu-iro). For example, this page lists shōbu-iro as a darker purple and ayame-iro as a light lilac.

According to “The Iris Garden at Horikiri,” at the time that article was written (1903), irises were regarded as beautiful, but not particularly emblematic of womanly modesty and virtue, unlike other flowers such as plum blossoms; the name “Ayame” therefore was used by geisha more often than by other women. One of my Japanese friends thought it still might have some geisha-ish overtones, although the first word it reminded her of was the decidedly unauspicious, although unrelated 殺める (ayameru; to murder or to wound). Still, she could think of one kid she knew of with the name, so although it seems uncommon it’s not entirely unused.

There was a famous historical Ayame: Ayame no Mae (菖蒲前), a court lady during the late Heian period (the 1100s). One day, the famous warrior Minamoto no Yorimasa (源頼政) caught a glimpse of her and fell in love with her, but she turned away all her suitors, and for three years his poems and letters went unanswered. The situation came to the Emperor’s attention, and he tested Yorimasa’s love by having Lady Ayame and two other court ladies appear in front of him, all dressed alike. If Yorimasa could pick her out, he could have her. But in those days, noble women kept themselves hidden from men, and Yorimasa had never actually seen his beloved face-to-face. Completely at a loss, he replied with a poem:
(samidare ni / sawabe no makomo / mizu koete / izure ayame to / hikizo wazurau)

Now, in Yei Theodora Ozaki’s telling of the tale, the poem is translated “In the rainy season when the waters overflow the banks of the lake, who can gather the Iris?” “The rainy season” refers to Yorimasa’s three years of disappointment, and the waters the many tears he had shed, so many that he couldn’t see clearly enough to discern the true Lady Ayame; this response was so modest and admirable that the Emperor took Lady Ayame by the hand and gave her to Yorimasa personally. In the version Anne Dyer tells, it is translated as follows: “When the June rains flood the pond, how impossible it is to distinguish the beautiful Ayame from common reeds!” The real Lady Ayame was embarrassed by this response, and blushed, allowing Yorimasa to pick her out of the lineup!

Incidentally, I am really into the poetry-filled beauty of the Heian period, but when it starts getting into the Genpei War and the rise of the warrior class my eyes glaze over, because there are so many Yoshis and Yoris and Mitsus and Moris and Shiges all shooting arrows at each other that I can’t keep them straight. Now, if they all happen to have a distant connection with a color name, by the time I finish this series I will know all about them and I’ll be prepared to try to read the Tale of the Heike again.

The kanji 菖 just means “iris.” It seems like it is almost always used as part of the compound 菖蒲 and not on its own, and while it’s not one of the characters students officially learn in school, it is one of the characters that can be used in names. キラキラname, a baby name site, suggests girls’ names like 菖子, Shōko, or 菖花, Shōka; one of my friends pointed out that since the iris is connected with May in Japan, such a name might be an indication that its bearer was born in that month.

Now, 蒲 is a little more interesting; it means “cattail” and is used in a few other contexts aside from 菖蒲. It’s not one of the characters that students officially learn in school, but it can be used in names. I’ve only seen it in last names like 谷蒲 (Kabaya), though.

Nowadays, the word “futon,” if it’s written in kanji, is written 布団; the first character means “cloth.” (団, which usually means “group,” means “round” in this case, as the first futons were round. I guess that’s why 団栗 – donguri, acorn – and 団子 – dango, dumpling – have 団 in them too.) But they were originally made from cattails, and written 蒲団.

蒲 is also part of the kanji used for the word 蒲鉾 (kamaboko), which you may already know if you’re into Japanese food or bentos, although I don’t know if the kanji are in frequent use. Kamaboko is a type of loaf made out of pureed fish, and is sliced and used in dishes such as soup. It can be very pretty, too: in this picture of soup made for New Year’s, the red and white disc in the middle with 寿 (kotobuki, long life) on it and the white disc with the plum blossom on it at the bottom right hand side are both kamaboko. Its name comes from how it used to be prepared: the loaf was spiked on a bamboo skewer, making it look like a cattail.

We are really getting away from irises now, but humor me for a moment: there’s an old slang word, かまとと (kamatoto) that means someone – usually a woman – who’s skilled at feigning innocence. In this case, “kama” refers to “kamaboko,” and “toto” is baby-talk for “fish,” so imagine a girl purposely giving a guy a chance to feel superior and amused by asking him, wide-eyed, if kamaboko is really made out of little fishies. It’s from the Edo period, and it stuck around for quite some time, long enough to show up in books on Japanese written by American men who spent a lot of time in Japanese bars after WWII, but when I asked one of my friends about it, she reported that it was now a 死語 (shigo), or a “dead word” – that is, slang no one uses anymore. (At least, that’s what she said once she stopped laughing. I suppose it’s a rather risque word.)

The kimono for today is an iris-colored iromuji (single-color formal kimono). The gold obi has an aristocratic pattern of karakusa, or Chinese arabesque, and a motif of three court ladies, as a reference to the love story of Ayame and Yorimasa. (But only one shows up on the front – the other two are on the back of the obi. Do you think the one you can see is Ayame no Mae, or is she one of the other ladies?) The obidome – that is, the little bit of jewelry worn in the middle of the dark purple cord on the obi – is an iris and cattail pattern, as a reference to the kanji.

Now, I haven’t even started talking about a lot of Japanese iris symbolism and tradition, such as the connection to a famous story in the Tales of Ise, why the flower is connected with the yearly Boy’s Festival and other fun tangents. That’s OK, it just leaves the door open for an iris-patterned kimono at some point in the future!

Thanks to my friends Tsubasa, Arietty, Sloppie and paopao_zou3 for answering some of my iris questions!

The wisdom of the paperdoll hive mind has picked out a tremendously interesting color for me this time, so choose for me again from another randomly picked five:

Poppy Red (shōjōhi) Iromuji Kimono with Gold and White Obi

Click for larger version (PNG); click for PDF version. Click here for the list of dolls.

Before I start this very long entry, a quick reminder: the Oscar red carpet starts tomorrow at 7 PM EST. I’ll be livedolling – that is, drawing as many of the gowns in attendance as I can before my fingers drop off – and I hope you can join me in the comments section for discussing all the gowns and perhaps adding your own, if you like! Even if you don’t have a TV, you can join in: I can’t watch it live either, so when I’ve done this before I just kept reloading the Oscar-related pictures on Getty Images. It looks like it’ll be streamed online at AP Live, so I will be trying that, too. I may be able to break my record of three in one night, due to the time difference…

I’m fairly well versed in English color names – especially those of the 146 Prismacolors that I’ve been using for over a decade – but in Japanese, the closest I get to sophistication is popping the words for “dark” and “light” in front of the basic color words. To fix this, I thought that I could learn some obscure Japanese color words, which would both brighten up my impoverished vocabulary and provide an opportunity for some cute drawings.

I started with the book Kimono and the Colors of Japan: The Kimono Collection of Katsumi Yumioka, which is both in English and Japanese and has a paragraph of information on sixty traditional colors, with a gorgeous picture of a kimono to illustrate each one. I also picked up 日本の伝統色 The Traditional Colors of Japan for my birthday, which has a sentence in English about each color but is primarily written in Japanese and has information on 250 colors. It also gives CMYK, RGB and hex code values for each color, meaning I can figure out easily what the nearest Prismacolor shade is with the Prismacolor Digital Color Coordinator.

The first color in Kimono and the Colors of Japan is 猩々緋(shōjōhi), a warm, cheerful red with a touch of yellow and a hex code of #E83015. Both books translate this as “poppy red”, and conveniently, the Prismacolor color picker tells me that the closest Prismacolor equivalent to #E83015 is Poppy Red. To my eyes, it looks like it could be either Scarlet Lake or Poppy Red, and that Poppy Red is just a touch too orange, but I have a feeling they will not all be this easy, so for now I’m accepting the coincidence.

The color is produced with dye made from the female cochineal insect, and it first showed up in Japan during the Warring States Period (1467–1573), when thick woolen fabric dyed poppy red was first imported from Southeast Asia. Japan was at civil war at this time, and many feudal lords had their battle surcoats (陣羽織, jinbaori) made out of this material, because it was thought that the color protected the wearer from arrows or bullets. (For an example of these battle surcoats, look at this reproduction of Oda Nobunaga’s surcoat.)

Let’s break down the kanji in 猩々緋. On its own, 猩 means orangutan, and the Japanese word for orangutan used to be 猩々 (shōjō). That’s because the animal was named after the 猩々 (shōjō), a mythical Chinese creature or spirit that was said to live on the coasts and enjoy drinking. It was said to look like a human, or like a monkey with a human face, with brilliant red hair and a face red from drinking too much, and according to one account its blood was thought to be what lent the fabric its protective qualities. The shōjō is also a character in a Noh play, Shōjō Midare, and the actor wears a shaggy red wig, a red mask and red clothes. If you look 猩々 up in a dictionary, one of the definitions is “someone who loves to drink,” but when I asked some of my Japanese friends, that usage doesn’t seem very common these days, so it is just an interesting, random fact; don’t put the term into practice unless you happen to hang out with a bunch of Noh enthusiasts. Incidentally, it is not very clear if the color name was simply named after the creature, inspired by its representation in the Noh play, or if it gained that name specifically because the dye was said to be taken from the shōjō’s blood or hair: all of my sources have something different to say about the matter. (It seems like the story about the dye coming from the blood is pretty common, but it could have gained the name first, and the stories about the blood and its protective properties, later.) One story claims that leaving sake out on the beach will tempt them to try it, then get drunk and fall asleep; from there, it’s a simple matter to extract the blood needed for the dye.

Of course, it’s not in the official list of kanji that Japanese students have to learn (常用漢字, jōyō kanji), nor in the list of kanji that may be used in names (人名用漢字, jinmeiyō kanji), and it only shows up in a few other words, so a kanji like that does one little practical good. So all of this detail is great fun, in my opinion, but those of you out there learning Japanese, don’t trip all over yourselves to practice writing it. (If you actually want to write orangutan, 猩々 is way overkill – the word you would be looking for is オランウータン.)

The middle kanji, 々, just indicates that the previous kanji is repeated. That is, we could also write the color name as 猩猩緋.

The last one, 緋, is slightly more useful than 猩, as it is also seen in other colors such as 浅緋 (asahi, light scarlet). This kanji indicates a deep, bright red. It’s not on the list of kanji that are commonly used but it is on the list of kanji that may be used in names. It shows up in a couple of other colors in Kimono and the Colors of Japan, so we’ll remember that one.

For today’s kimono, I’ve done a poppy red iromuji (色無地), which is a formal, unpatterned, single-color kimono worn by both married and unmarried women. (I’ll write more about the various types of kimono in the future, but I have had this entry mostly written for some time, and I wanted to get on with it.) The obi is decorated with a stylized wave pattern (青海波, seigaha) in gold and white, plus a sake (Japanese rice wine) bottle and cups, as a reference to the shōjō; as a nod to the English name of the color, the obi-dome (帯留め), which is the piece of jewelry in the middle of the obi, is a poppy. (That would be ケシ, keshi, in Japanese. Incidentally, poppies seem to be rather rare motifs for Japanese textiles; they were introduced in the Muromachi period, so it’s not like the flower was unknown, but they don’t have symbolic significance that I’ve found; perhaps the connection with medicine or opium was too strong to make it a desirable decoration for a kimono?)

Besides Kimono and the Colors of Japan and 日本の伝統色 The Traditional Colors of Japan, I also referred to Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design, The Colors of Japan and Japanese Art Motives. The story about trapping shōjō with sake is from the 1912 “Scientific Temperance Journal.”

I’ve tried to stay away from relying on online sources, but the detail about shōjō blood being thought to have protective properties was too good to pass up, and is from this page. For further information (in Japanese), you can also look at,, and the Japanese Wikipedia page on 猩々緋. For you kanji fanatics out there, you can find all the details about and on Denshi Jisho.

Now, “poppy red” is the first color in Kimono and the Colors of Japan, but if I go in order all I’ll do is red, red, red, and I’ll get bored. I’ve picked five colors at random from the table of contents of Kimono and the Colors of Japan. Which should I do next?

Prismacolors used: Poppy Red, Crimson Lake, Tuscan Red, Cream, Sunburst Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Goldenrod, Bronze, Sepia, Apple Green, Chartreuse, Kelly Green, French Grey 10%, 20%, 50%, 70%, Black, Cool Grey 10%, Sakura Soufflé White Gel Pen