Archive for May, 2008

Yellow moon, blue traffic light

May 14, 2008

What color is the moon?

It’s not as simple of a question as you think. Of course, different times of the year, the moon appears in different colors, and then you have the “once in a blue moon” thing to think about.

But basically, it’s white or gray, right? I had grown up thinking that, anyway, until my wife, who is from Japan, told me it’s yellow. At first, I thought it had something to do with the curvature of the earth, the atmosphere, or air pollution levels causing the moon to appear differently in Japan. But then I started asking around—other Japanese people, Koreans, even second-generation Vietnamese-Americans. They all said the moon is yellow. I Googled it, and even found an academic study on the the cultural differences in color perception.

“Wow, we can’t even agree on the color of the moon,” I thought as we pulled up to a traffic light. “You can go now! The light is blue,” she said.

I ask her why traffic lights are blue, and she says it’s because go is the opposite of stop, and blue is the opposite of red. Riiight. “But if you saw the same color as that traffic light on a shirt, what color is it?”


Now she’s just playing with me.

Here’s my theory: Japanese people think in cartoons. Really. Color is perceived in terms of how objects would be represented in an illustration or a drawing, whereas Americans tend to perceive color in a more literal, photorealistic way.

Take fire. Japanese people will tell you that the sun is red (as in the Japanese flag). Of course, depending on various factors, real fire can be white, yellow, blue, red, or other colors. But which crayon do you pick up when you want to draw flames? Red? Therefore, fire is red, say the Japanese. Red is the color of hot, and so the sun is also red.

In Japan, color is not so much a matter of the actual spectrum of reflected light, it’s the semiotic flavor of an object.

A good example from Western symbolism is the “stick man.” If you think about it, the typical “stick man” drawing doesn’t really look like a person at all. But it’s such a commonly used symbol, we see a circle and four lines and immediately recognize what it represents. Japan has a lot of those symbols. After all, the Japanese written language is originally pictographic. Colors are also perceived in a symbolic way.

This also explains the Japanese habit of referring to silent things by the “sound” they make. It is common for a doctor in Japan to ask if your headache goes “don don” or “giri giri.” This is a serious question about whether your head has a deep, throbbing pain or a sharp, acute pain. Of course, you and I know that real headaches don’t make sounds, and when pressed, Japanese people will admit this too. But these imaginary pain “sound effects” are accepted and well-known in Japan.

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May 13, 2008

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