Pink Bubble Necklace, 2020, Mariko Kusumoto. Image courtesy of Mariko Kusumoto. The necklace is kōbaiiro, or plum safflower red.

The pinky shade of blossom still blooming popular in Japan

Our new book Iro: The Essence of Colour in Japanese Design shows how once fashionable colours for courtiers live on in the country's newer designs

We might all see the same colours, but the way we describe, create and identify different shades in the visible light spectrum remains a cultural, rather than universal undertaking. For further proof, leaf through a copy of Iro: the Essence of Colour in Japan.

In this new book the author and art-history professor Rossella Menegazzo, traces the beautiful, idiosyncratic development of colour definition, identification and representation in Japanese culture. Professor Menegazzo points how, for example, how certain distinct colours were achieved by courtiers in the Heian period (794 to 1185), not via a single piece of cloth, but by the layering of garments. “This tradition was formalized in the Kasane no irome,” she writes, “a ceremonial dress code that detailed how imperial-court nobles should combine their robes according to social status, occasion and season. To achieve the appropriate colour, the layering might begin with just two robes, but this could stretch to twelve for court ladies (known as jūnihitoe) or even eighteen for certain formal events. One example of the Kasane no irome’s key colours is kōbai, which could be achieved by simply layering a shiro (white) natural silk robe over one in beni.”

In her entry on kōbaiiro, or plum safflower red, Menegazzo describes how courtiers would mimic this bright, blossom colour via another combination. “Kōbaiiro was among the most highly regarded hues used in the Kasane no irome,” she writes. “This colour was achieved by layering a kōbaiiro outer robe over a suō (or sappanwood red) under robe.”

While such layering might be rarer these days, the pigment lives on in contemporary culture, in both high and low culture. Iro reproduces images of two appropriately pinky-red lunchbox dividing cups, as well as a similarly hued polyester bubble necklace, created in 2020 by the Japanese-American artist and jewellery designer, Mariko Kusumoto (above). The cups are pretty inexpensive, while the necklace retails for thousands, yet the both channel that natural, priceless kōbaiiro colour, once prized by Japanese courtiers, long ago.

Iro on the pinky shade of blossom that's still blooming popular in Japan


To discover more about the vivid colours that make up the Japanese spectrum, order a copy of Iro here.