Meaning Of Japanese Stripes

While walking in the towns of Japan, you may sometimes find houses, buildings or temples where big striped screens are hanging. Those hangings have meanings and the meaning depends on the colour.





This is a screen used on festive occasions and for special celebrations such as anniversaries and weddings. Sometimes you will find them outside or inside the shops. It means those shops are newly opened or they are doing special promotional sales.

The combination of red and white means something special in Japan and basically it has two meanings;


1. Red and white are the colours of two competing teams.

This tradition is said to have originated from the battles between Heike (Taira) clans and Genji (Minamoto) clans (1180–1185), which is generally called Genpei War.

Genji clans were fighting under the white banner, while Heike clans were under the red banner.

The battles between Heike and Genji was so significant that their names and their actions still remain in modern Japan. For example, Japanese schools usually have an activity called Undo kai / 運動会, which can be translated as Sports day, in which the students are divided into two team, Akagumi / 赤組, the red and Shirogumi / 白組, the white.

Another good example would be a NHK’s annual music TV show on New Year’s Eve, Kōhaku Uta Gassen. (See our website “2 Hours Drive From Tokyo” if you are interested in what an average Japanese does on New Year’s Eve.)

Kōhaku Uta Gassen literally means “Red and White Song Battles”. In this program, the best hit singers of the year are invited, where the female singers are in Red team and the male singers in White. Celebrities, who become hot topics of the year, are invited to vote for one team at the end of the program to decide the winning team. Practically, this battle does not mean anything at all and no bookmakers is interested in the result but I was very keen on which team would win when I was a child …



photo from Netabare gazo


2.Red means newborn baby, while white means death.
There are several theories but I’d like to share the one that I like best with my dear readers.

Baby is called AKA-chan in Japanese. ‘Aka’ (あか) is red and ‘chan’ (ちゃん) is a diminutive suffix; it expresses that the speaker finds a person endearing. In general, chan is used for babies, young children, grandparents and teenagers. It may also be used towards cute animals, lovers, close friends, any youthful woman, or between friends. (explanation on the usage of ‘chan’ from Wikipedia, Japanese honorifics) Moreover, the word ‘Aka-chan’ is not a slang at all and it’s a proper Japanese word which you can use everywhere and to whomever. To be precise, ‘Aka-san’ and ‘Aka-sama’ are not correct!

Why is a newborn baby called ‘Aka-chan’? There are several possible origins but mainly because the skin of newborn baby is red. Red also means “Nothing”, the absence of anything, and “genuine”. So another possible reason for the use of the word “red” for a newborn baby can be their genuineness.

For those who are studying Japanese, I would like to add two interesting expressions in which the word ‘red’ is used; Aka no tanin (赤の他人), a red stranger, which means “a total stranger”, Makka na uso ( 真っ赤な嘘), a bright red lie, which means “an absolute lie”.


While, white means “death” and “separating”.
In Japan, when someone dies, his/her body is put in a coffin. Before putting the body in a coffin, they normally dress him/her in white. It’s called Shini-shozoku (死に装束). As I cannot put a photo of someone in this dressing, it could be hard for you to understand without a photo of it but the dressing has an outlook of a traveler in white. Here, “death” means a trip to another world.


Photo from Kotoku-sha, an organizer of a funeral


There are other situations where people wear white, totally in white.

In Shintoism, priests (Kannushi) wear white when they practice religious ceremonies such as purificatory rites.


Shito priests in practice in Isejingu
(photo from Ise no ryufu)


In Buddhism, too, when monks or ordinary people do ascetic practices, such as standing under a waterfall and climbing a mountain for a visit to a temple situated in a high mountain, they wear white.


A spiritual practice standing under a waterfall
photo from Chisoku-an in Mt. Noro in Hiroshima Pref.



people visiting Kuon temple in Mt. Minobu


This is because the colour white means “purity” and “death”. People do their spiritual training as if they died once to restart their lives.

Brides dress up in white also in Japan, which means a farewell to the past life with their family.


a bride in white
photo from Bridal House, Oe


There is another interesting culture that I want to share with you. When you give a present to someone, you must not choose a white handkerchief. A white handkerchief means a “farewell” and it can mean that you don’t want to see them any more or you want them to wipe their tears with this handkerchief…

white handkerchief


Why is the combination of red and white signifies the celebration?? They say it is like the two enemies sharing a same table. Perhaps like the two presidents of two big power nations sharing the same table …. There must be several subject to clear before a peaceful conclusion but sharing the same table is the start which ought to be celebrated. Nothing won’t move either way unless newly started. And for the celebrating of a new start, the two opposites, birth and death, allies and enemies, must first share the same table.


Kohaku-Manjū 紅白饅頭, read and white steamed bums are traditional gift for celebration.
photo from Asahido’s blog


On the other hand, if you find black and white screens hanging, you will know that they are holding a funeral.


In the beginning of Showa period some funeral organizers started to use black x white screen for funerals and since then this custom has spread all over in Japan. However, black and white screen had been originally used also for celebration. Today, higher ranked shrines or royal families use it for auspicious occasions, too.

This black x white screen is called a whale screen because of its colours. It can be one of the examples that shows that whales have had a close relationship with Japanese people.
にほんブログ村 歴史ブログ 日本の伝統・文化へ
にほんブログ村 英語ブログ 英語の日記(和英併記)へ


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