There’s a world of difference between blue and green

Words: Tomoko Parry Illustration: Yuka Morita

I thought I learned the difference between blue and green when I was a little girl. However, I had to consider the matter afresh as I acquired a greater range of English vocabulary.

In Japanese, we often use “blue” for the color which is normally referred to as “green” in English. 

Stop, wait, go

This once caused confusion when I was riding as a passenger in an automobile in America. When a traffic signal light changed from red to green, I called out to the driver: “It’s blue!” He looked at me askance, puzzled by my dumb foreigner’s mistake.

However, in Japan, we are taught that: “Red means stop and blue means go.”  

In general, we don’t say: “Yellow means hurry up and make that damn light change!”  We are much too polite to speak such words aloud, although we may mutter them under our breath when we think no one is listening.

Born blue

One of my fellow contributors to Japan Story, Susan Usui recently touched on issues of color in her charming blog entitled “The heavenly seal on Asian babies.” Writing on the topic of babies’ birth marks, she observed that the Japanese expression “having a blue backside” could be associated with an English phrase “being green”; i.e., being a rookie or being inexperienced.  

There is another Japanese term related to blue or green, which is 青春 (seishun) or literally “blue spring.”

Here, again, “blue” is used in place of “green.” “Blue spring” is early spring, referring to adolescence, youth, or the springtime of life.  Rather poetic, isn’t it? 

Natural shades

There’s also a touch of poetry to the translation of the English expression “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” which in Japanese becomes 隣の芝生は青い (tonari no shibafu wa aoi) or “the grass is bluer on the other side of the fence.”

Actually, the topic plants throws up a few more linguistic discrepancies. “Lush green leaves” become “fresh blue vegetation” 青々とした草木 (ao-ao to shita kusa-ki). A “green apple” turns into a blue apple 青りんご (ao ringo). ”  

Yet the rather nasty “blue mold” that appears on rotting fruit carries (bearing the scientific name penicillium expansum) remains horribly blue in Japanese 青カビ (ao kabi).

Similarly, pungent “blue cheese” is always described as blue in Japan (ブルーチーズ) although speaking personally, I fail to see it’s appeal, whether it’s blue, green or any other color of the rainbow. Why would you want to eat something that looks and smells moldy? I’d rather have fermented soya beans from Japan called natto 納豆 which are definitely brown 褐色 (kasshoku) in color.


Fortunately, one of my favorite drinks “green tea” 緑茶 (ryokucha) is unequivocally green  in both Japan and the United States and all other English speaking lands. I enjoy it freshly brewed and drunk al fresco beneath the wide blue skies of Albuquerque. And no, I don’t want any stinky blue or green cheese with it, thanks.