Coral in Japan

Photo of coral via Flickr

The Pantone announced Color of the Year is living coral. Living coral is the coral color with a gold undertone. We can now see many coral-colored clothes and cosmetics in shops.

The single word “coral” covers many colors; for example--deep red, coral red, coral orange, softer orange, coral pink. Japanese people’s image for “coral color” can be seen in literature. One example is by Shouyou Tsubouchi, who was a writer and a professor at Waseda in the nineteenth century, and famous for translating Shakespeare books. He wrote “the beautiful face like a flower with coral colored lips” in his book  Naichi Zakkyo Mirai no Yume (内地雑居未来之夢). Another interesting example is in Kakehashi no Ki (かけはしの記) written by Shiki Masaoka, famous poet in the nineteenth century. He described strawberries as coral-colored aubergines. Japanese people used to associate a red image to the coral color rather than orange or pink.

Red coral ring via Flickr

Coral, or Sango in Japanese, was popular as a jewel. It is said that red coral was popular in Japan while orange coral was often used in Europe to make accessories.

Piero della Francesca, Madonna di Senigallia via Wikimedia Commons 

Rapfael, Les Trois Graces. Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons 

In ancient Europe, it was believed that coral had the power to cure illness or could serve as an amulet to keep demons away. Coral necklaces were popular and they appeared in some paintings.

Shosoin via Wikimedia Commons

The oldest coral jewelry now existing in Japan is the coral beads kept in Shoso-in, the treasure house of Todaiji Temple. The scholars said that they were used to decorate their crowns and robes. In 752 AD, when they hold the Eye-Opening Ceremony to celebrate the completion of the Great Buddha, these coral-decorated crowns were probably worn by Emperor Shoumu and his wife Empress Komyo.

The princess and Urashima via Wikimedia Commons

In Japan, coral also appeared in traditional fairy tales. Urashima Taro, The Fisher-boy Urashima, is one example. Though there are many versions of this tale, main plot is like this: one day Urashima Taro, the fisher man, found that children bullied a turtle. He bought the turtle and released to the sea. Two or three days later, the turtle returned and took him to the Ryugu Castle (Dragon Palace) under the sea. The Palace was surrounded by many swinging seaweeds and pink and red coral. Otohime, the princess, thanked him for saving the turtle and he enjoyed gorgeous meals, music, and dancing fish. After three years, he decided to go home. Otohime allowed to do so and gave him Tamatebako, the treasure box, though she missed him. However, when he returned, everything was different. Actually, seven hundred years had already passed, and his family and friends were all gone. He opened the box and white smoke from it turned him into very old man.

Princess Kaguya returning to the moon via Wikimedia Commons

Another story is Taketori monogatari, The tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which is widely known and turned into a movie The Tale of Princess Kaguya by Studio Ghibli.The plot is like this: once upon a time, there was an old man who was a bamboo cutter and lived with his wife. He found the shining bamboo and cut it down. Inside the bamboo, there was a beautiful cute baby of about nine centimeters. They named her Kaguya and raised her. Princess Kaguya grew beautifully though she always hidden behind misu or bamboo blinds. Since the reputation of her beauty prevailed, many men, including five princes, tried to propose to her  but she denied them all. Upon the five princes, she imposed impossible tasks in order to refuse their marriage offer. The impossible tasks for each were bringing a treasure that did not exist in reality such as the stone begging bowl of the Buddha Shakyamuni from India, a jeweled branch from the mythical island Horai, the legendary robe of the fire-rat from China, a jewel from a dragon's neck, and a cowrie shell gave birth by swallows. A jewel from the dragon’s neck is ball-shaped coral covered in crystal. Even the emperor sent love letters and they started to exchange letters, but she often looked at the moon and cried. Actually, she was from the moon and had to leave soon. The Emperor’s army, the old man and his wife tried to stop people from the moon to take her to the moon, but could not.

In addition, powdered coral was used for coloring traditional Japanese paintings. Since it was expensive, it was often used only for paintings in temples or for wealthy people.

Also, a company based in Kyoto is selling traditional Japanese coral-colored nail polish and lip gloss. Why don’t you try this special color on yourself in the year of coral?