Category Archives: Word of the Week

interesting aspects of Japanese language

Just What is Indigo?

Just what is indigo? Most of us start out thinking we know, but do we?

The term indigo is, of course, used as the name of a color. To me it is
a deep navy blue with an ever-so-slightly greenish cast. But this is the description of the color called ai (藍) in Japanese. When indigo appears as one of the seven colors of the rainbow in the West it exhibits a slightly reddish cast.

Indigofera tinctoria – “true” indigo from India

Next, most of us would list it as a plant. But, which plant? Perhaps Indigofera tinctoria, commonly called true indigo? This is the one associated with the blues of India. It grows as a shrub and is in the legume family of plants along with beans and wisteria. It likes a tropical climate. The basic material we extract from the leaves to create blue is called indican.

Indigofera suffruticosa from the Americas

But indican is found in many other plants and in many other parts of the world, such as Indigofera suffruticosa. Even though it is commonly called Guatemalan indigo, this plant is native to most of the tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas including the Southern United States and all the way down to the northern reaches of Argentina.

Indigofera bracteolata – West Africa

Indigofera bracteolata grows well in the moist savannah lands of West Africa and thrives in sandy soil.

Isatis tinctoria – woad, covering Europe and the Middle East

Woad, Isatis tinctoria, is another common source of indican. It is native to the steppe and desert areas of the Middle East and Central Asia, and is related to mustard and cabbage. It is the plant associated with the blues of Britain, going all the way back back to the Celts.

Marsdenia tinctoria – covering Southeast Asia

Marsdenia tinctoria is commonly found in subtropical regions including Nepal, Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia. It is a winding shrub or vine that can grow up to fifteen feet long. It is related to a plant called dogbane.

Persicaria tinctoria – tadeai, or Japanese (buckwheat) indigo

And in Japan there is tadeai (蓼藍), (Persicaria tinctoria), also known as Polygonum tinctorium, or Japanese indigo. It is an annual that grows up to about three feet in height and grows well in temperate climates. It is classed with buckwheat.

Mercurialis leiocarpa – Japanese yama-ai

Strobilanthes cusia – Ryuukyuu-ai, Okinawan indigo

But even in Japan there are more plants than just tadeai that contain indican. There is yama-ai (山藍), Mercurialis leiocarpa, a slender perennial that hugs the ground.  Ryuukyuu-ai (琉球藍), Strobilanthes cusia, has leaves as large as a person’s hand. It is in the acanthus family and has been a long-time favorite source of blue for collectors of Okinawan textiles.

And of course, there is synthetic indigo. It made its first real commercial appearance at the tail end of the 19th century (1897) and quickly replaced the more laboriously produced natural sources. The actual core colorant of all of these sources, including the synthetic, are chemically identical. Slight visual variations can be appreciated among the numerous natural sources brought about by differing impurities in the plants or unique extraction techniques.

What Does Hinagata Mean?

Hinagata basically means a (miniature) model of something. For our purposes hina (雛) means small and kata (型 or 形) means form or design.

Wikipedia Japan defines it as follows:
美術関係を含む模型や造型と工業製品などのデザイン造型試作品の原型。The basic prototype, shape, form or mold for industrial goods, including art-related items.

In the fiber world it is commonly used to mean scale versions of clothing designs or the cartoons from which fabric designs are dyed or woven. Read on for examples of each.

Chuusen 注染

Chuusen (注染), as described elsewhere in the blog, is a process in which dye is poured through many layers of cotton at the same time, with the help of vacuum suction from below. The first character, 注, is also pronounced sosogu (注ぐ), and means to pour. It also means to concentrate one’s spirit or strength on (the task at hand).

The character is made up of two parts, on the left the radical for water,  and on the right a character meaning master, or chief.

You’ll find this kanji character, 注, as part of many compound words. In the case of chuusen, it is coupled with 染 (sen), which means to dye, and together they describe the core process involved.

Following are a few other compound words to help you better understand how this kanji is employed:
注意  (chuui) – caution, heed, warning
注視 (chuushi) – to gaze steadily, observe
注射 (chuusha) – shot, injection (as in a shot of medicine)

Oboro 朧

Oboro is a fun character in Chinese. Chinese characters used in Japanese are called kanji (漢字). Many kanji are made up of smaller, simple ideas to express larger complex concepts. In this case oboro, meaning misty or vague, is made up of the character for moon (月) and the character for dragon (龍). Can’t you just imagine how vague and elusive a dragon in moonlight would be, or how dragon-like a mist might seem as it forms and disappears over the fields and between the trees?

Here are a few other characters that have the kanji for dragon as part of their make up:

壟 If you place the dragon sitting atop a mound of dirt (土) you have the character for oka, or hill. If you combine this full character with another character, dan (断), you wind up with a word pronounced roudan (壟断) which means monopoly. Hmm, I imagine a dragon sitting atop a hill would have a monopoly on just about everything in sight!

龔 Dragon combined with tomo (共), together, gives us the word sonaeru (龔 える), which means to offer, or sacrifice. If you go together with your pal to pester the the dragon, I imagine it could be considered a form of sacrifice, don’t you?

If you put a whole bunch of dragons together, you wind up with urusai, or noisy!  The character looks a bit like a mother dragon surrounded by her brood. I’m sure those mothers reading this can sympathize.

Just to pursue the fun of kanji for a moment more, there are other ways of writing urusai. One of them is 五月蝿い. If broken down, the parts of the word mean May (五月), and fly (蠅) as in housefly. And here again, can’t you just imagine how noisy the flies must be as the hot and humid Japanese summer sets in?