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09-23-2011, 02:47 PM

A Group of Girls (http://www.flickr.com/photos/adavey/4942219475/) by A Davey used under creative commons licence
Sakusa, the hamlet where the Yaegaki-jinja stands, is scarcely more than one ri south from Matsue. But to go there one must follow tortuous paths too rough and steep for a kuruma; and of three ways, the longest and roughest happens to be the most interesting. It slopes up and down through bamboo groves and primitive woods, and again serpentines through fields of rice and barley, and plantations of indigo and of ginseng, where the scenery is always beautiful or odd.

Lafcadio Hearn, Yaegaki-Jinja

The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush

The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush

With richness

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring

Then a stillness descended the blue hills.

I say a stillness.

David Baker, Hyper-

He spoke at much length on the question of dyes - praising madder and kermes for reds, precipitate of iron or ochre for yellows, and for blue either indigo or woad.

Oscar Wilde, Mr Morris on TapestryAlmost Transparent Blue is a 1976 novel by Ryu Murakami. The novel won the Akutagawa Prize, a prestigious Japanese literary award. Perhaps for its original approach - as a novel it's not very interesting. But it's a great title. Words for shades of the colour blue have a resonance. Cobalt blue. Cerulean. Ultramarine. Azure. Lapis lazuli. Indigo.

Indigo is the plant traditionally used to dye blue cloth in Japan. Blue is very important in the history of Japanese textiles. Indigo dye was long-lasting and practical and did not show the dirt. Dark blue indigo-dyed cotton or linen garments are comfortable and cool even in the heat of summer. The dye apparently protected the material against moths and insects. They say even mosquitoes avoid indigo blue.

In national and international judo competitions one competitor wears a white judogi and one wears a blue judogi. It's a medium blue, almost powder blue, usually dyed with synthetic dye like most clothing today. But some kendogi and hakama are still dyed naturally with indigo. I like Japanese indigo-dyed fabrics and designs. But for aikido I don't like the indigo dye bleeding out of a hakama so I only wear black hakama from Iwata (http://www.aikiweb.com/blogs/moon-in-the-water-19051/iwata-3973/). I do have a very nice indigo-dyed Japanese samue. It was a present. Samue are the traditional suits worn by monks for cleaning and manual labour.

In Japan the traffic lights are of course green but Japanese people say blue. This blurring of the distinction between blue and green happens in several other languages too. So in Japanese blue is sometimes used in a similar way to green in English, with a connotation of freshness or youth. In Japan the TV series 90210 is called the new Beverly Hills blue springtime report. A popular manga and animé is Blue Exorcist about teenagers who go to Exorcist school.

In English blue can mean dark or depressed. In European art Pablo Picasso had a Blue Period and Der Blaue Reiter - the blue horserider - was an influential group of artists based in Munich in the early twentieth century. In music the blues had a far-reaching influence on other kinds of music.

In some Japanese schools of the sword there is a chudan kamae - middle level guard stance - called seigan kamae. Sei can be written in Japanese as correct, straight. But it can also be written as blue. So seigan kamae is a blue eyed guard stance.

By the way there is another contemporary Japanese writer also called Murakami. Haruki Murakami. He is an important writer and will probably get the Nobel Prize one day. His most famous novel is 1Q84. Q is pronounced the same as 9 in Japanese so the title is an hommage to George Orwell's 1984 (there are a few comments about George Orwell below my blog post Don Quixote (http://www.aikiweb.com/blogs/moon-in-the-water-19051/tilt-4291/)). An English translation will be published on 25 October 2011. It might be the new publishing sensation.

There is a link below to a wikipedia article on the names of traditional Japanese colours. Got to go. Today I think I'll wear my harbour rat jacket.

And indigo itself? In Japanese indigo is ai. For aikido that is very cool.

Poems and quotation sources


Lafcadio Hearn, Yaegaki-Jinja

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/22403 (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/22403)

free e-book from project gutenberg of Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins


David Baker, Hyper-


Oscar Wilde, Mr Morris on Tapestry

cool music


Catherine Feeny, Mr Blue


The Fleetwoods, Mr Blue


Ella Fitzgerald with Joe Pass, Mood Indigo


Kim Yoon Ah, Tokyo Blues


Horace Silver Quintet, Tokyo Blues

Articles on indigo, Der Blaue Reiter, Haruki Muakami, and where to get samue in Tokyo

http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fc19991120a1.html Indigo dyers singing the artisan blues

http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fa19990916a1.html Indigo, a color to dye for

http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fv20011113a1.html Waxing lyrical over rural crafts

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/features/arts/T110810003021.htm The cool transparency of indigo dye









my blog on aikiweb (http://www.aikiweb.com/blogs/moon-in-the-water-19051/)
© niall matthews 2011

09-26-2011, 01:10 AM
Nice article.

I hate to be picky, but your translation of the title of Beverly Hills 90210 leaves a bit to be desired though. I believe the title in Japanese is ビバリーヒルズ青春白書. While the characters 青春 literally mean 'blue springtime', they generally just mean 'youth' or 'teen'. A better translation would be 'Beverly Hills Youth Report'. Of course the fact that the characters for 'blue springtime' are used to indicate youth, is interesting in and of itself.

graham christian
09-26-2011, 08:41 PM
Hi Niall.
Nice cultural column once again. I see you like how different things represent different meanings in different cultures. A fascinating subject in itself.

On the subject of blue here a bit of trivia you may or may not know. In ancient Greece they had words for colours but no word for blue.


Diana Frese
09-30-2011, 10:12 AM
I'm starting to miss my old hakamas all over again .... they were so worn out one day when I was visiting NY Yamada Sensei said "Hakama wo naose!" After Japan, he corrected me in Japanese a couple of times so the others wouldn't know what he was talking about. The problem was I had fixed them so many times it just wasn't possible. Then I got tied up with other things, life does that sometimes and here I am so spoiled I only want one of those hakamas again, the indigo ones from Iwata....

The picture is so charming, even in black and white, or sepia and white the softness of the fabric shows up and the expressions on the faces are so charming and lively, some, however, very serene. And so nice to know hakama wearing was widespread even among children. I was surprised to see gaily colored flowered sleeves and hakama worn by the modern graduating seniors in your blog, sorry I forgot the title!

And in the Tale of Genji, the chapter title Blue Trousers must refer to the young Murasaki growing up (the character, not the author) and getting her first hakama. I have the book here and am going to read it again as I did years ago.....

Thanks again Niall, this confirms my identity as, not a Japanese-American, or an American-Japanese, but an American partially educated in Japan and by Japanese friends, and by people from the USA and other countries who live or have lived in Japan. As Aikido spreads here (and elsewhere) it's nice to know that others, too, are learning about Japan's people, land, and culture.

09-30-2011, 09:04 PM
Thanks Robin. Of course you are right but I needed a literal translation so that it made sense for the article!

Thanks Graham. I didn't know that about Greek.

Thanks Daian. It's always good to hear your stories. The indigo hakama are beautifully made articles of clothing. But they are not practical for suwari waza in the heat of Japan.

A couple of other points about blue and indigo.

I noticed there is a drink called indigo (http://shimor-web.ocnk.net/product/830).

I didn't mention that blue 青い aoi is used in Japanese to mean pale-faced or wan.

Carina suggested talking about blue jeans. Jeans are dyed with indigo. The word jeans comes from bleu de Gênes - Genoa blue. And the word denim comes from fabrique de Nîmes - denim fabric.