Japan Studies

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2000

Colors Matter

by William Hall

Are the associations with and preferences for specific colors in Japan similar to those in other countries? For the marketer in Japan this is not simply an academic question. Fashion, for example, is obviously an industry in which color is important and where "in" colors are subject to frequent change. But color is important also for high-tech products -- despite being identical products, some colors of i-Mac, such as blueberry, sell better in Japan than others. Packaged-goods manufacturers have spent significant sums over the years in researching which color combinations attract the greatest amount of in-store impulse buying in their particular product category. Can we also assume that certain color combinations are more likely to catch one's eye when surfing the Web, and therefore lead to a greater number of hits and unique site visits?

How are colors perceived in Japan compared to other countries? As a starting point we now have access to a fascinating study directed by Professor Hideaki Chijiiwa of the Musashino Bijutsu Daigaku (Musashino University of Fine Arts) in Tokyo. The study was conducted among 5,375 university students enrolled in Fine Arts, Design, and Architecture faculties in 20 countries across five continents. The countries covered were Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Laos, Singapore, India, Bangladesh, Canada, the US, Brazil, Russia, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Portugal, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand.

For most of the countries in the study, the average number of completed interviews was around 200, with more or less equal numbers of males and females. For Japan, a total of 1,071 interviews were completed (433 males and 638 females). The Japan sample was sub-divided into East Japan (primarily universities in Tokyo and Hokkaido) and West Japan (universities in Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka), and additional analysis of differences between the two regions was also conducted.

A total of 47 color samples were utilized in the survey, with each of these drawn from among the colors in the Munsell Color Index (which scientifically distinguishes between colors and accords each a code). Ten hues (red, yellow, blue, et cetera) and four tones for each hue (very light, light, bright, dark), together with five achromatic colors (white, black, et cetera) plus silver and gold made up the 47 color samples tested.

Respondents were asked a series of questions and were asked to write down the color number from 1 to 47 that most closely approximated the answer to the question. The questionnaire began with a number of questions that were relatively easy to respond to. For example, the color of the suit, jacket and sweater that one wears most often; the color of the building where one lives; the colors in one's room -- walls, curtains, floor, window frames, door, et cetera.

The questionnaire then moved on to more emotional aspects -- colors associated with feelings. For example, the color associated with the warmest feeling, the coldest feeling, the most light-hearted feeling, the most subdued feeling, and so on. Respondents were also asked to choose the color that they considered to be the most suitable for expressing the meaning of various concepts, such as happiness, loneliness, war, danger, elegance, the future, man, woman, and so on.

Finally, after completing the questionnaire outlined above on individual colors, respondents were asked their preference between pairs of color combinations. Eighteen pairs of two-color combinations, 12 pairs of three-color combinations, and nine pairs of identical photographs with different degrees of shade/light were tested.

A brief overview of the study can be found in the October 1999 issue of UP, a magazine published by Tokyo University Press. The results of the complete study, in full color, can be found in the 530-page boxed volume Zukai: Sekai No Shikisai Kanjo Jiten, edited by Professor Chijiiwa and published by Kawade Shoboh Shinsha in 1999. The box cover also contains the English-language title Encyclopedia on Color Cognition of the World's Youth.

Let us review some of the overall comparative results among countries before moving on to more specific comment on Japan. The sample numbers for each country were weighted, and when multivariate analysis was conducted on all questions from all respondents from all countries, three discrete country groupings emerged with the countries in each grouping having similar color association/preference profiles. China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan formed one group; Singapore, India, Laos, and Bangladesh formed a second group; and the countries from North and South America, Europe, and Oceania formed the third group. Russia was the only country that did not fit into any of these three groups.

Interestingly, however, when the analysis is confined only to those questions on the association of colors with concepts such as happiness, danger, elegance, et cetera, five discrete groupings of countries occur. These are China, Taiwan, and Russia in Group 1; Japan, Korea, and Finland in Group 2; The Netherlands, Germany, Italy, America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore in Group 3; France, Brazil, and Portugal in Group 4; and India, Laos, and Bangladesh in Group 5. Are cultural factors at work here?

The most common association worldwide was for the association of bright red with danger, with 96% of respondents making this association. The second highest association worldwide, with 88%, was for bright red with war. But, for Japan, the color most associated with war was black. Respondents were not asked to give reasons for their association of a specific color with a concept, and we can only surmise as to why black is the color most closely associated in Japan with war. Perhaps there is some association with the atomic bomb and black rain.

The third highest association worldwide, with 77%, was white with peace, perhaps because white doves are a widely recognized symbol of peace. But once again Japan is different. The color associated most frequently with peace was very light yellow in Eastern Japan, and very light blue in Western Japan. This difference in color association between East and West Japan is but one of many identified in the course of the study.

On the other end of the spectrum, only 39% of respondents had the same color association -- bright red -- with the concept of dedication, the lowest association worldwide among the 15 concepts tested. In Eastern Japan, the color most associated with dedication was a dark blush pink, while in Western Japan the association was with white. The second-lowest association worldwide, with 43%, was black with elegance. Once again Japan was different -- burgundy/wine is the color most associated with elegance by Japanese in the study.

ifferences between males and females within Japan in color associations on the various concepts also exist. One of the more interesting findings is the differences in color associations between males and females in regard to the associations with the words man and woman. When asked which color they associated with woman, Japanese female respondents gave dark blush pink, while Japanese males associated woman with lilac. In contrast, both males and females associated the color royal blue with the word man. Perhaps this reconfirms that, despite their protestations to the contrary, the male of the species will never understand females.

The study also asked respondents to write down their three favorite colors. Worldwide, royal blue was the top color, followed by bright red, and black. In Japan, the top two favorite colors were also royal blue and bright red, followed by emerald green in Eastern Japan and black in Western Japan.

The above data demonstrate that, while there are many similarities in color associations and preferences between countries and for regions within countries, differences also continue to exist. One industry where regional color differences are very important in Japan is in photofinishing. Blind roll checks of different brands and color preferences by area are regularly conducted. According to experts in this field, color preferences do vary by region, with Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka, for example, each having slightly different preferences. And thus the shades of color in the developed prints in each market are slightly different.

Although the study by Professor Chijiiwa was conducted among youth, it must be remembered that there are also differences in color preferences by age. Several confidential studies conducted by RBC have shown that, in general, colors favored by the older generation in Japan tend to be more jimi (subdued/sober) than those favored by the younger generation. This is perhaps not that dissimilar to the situation in many other countries, but this finding takes on an added significance for the marketer in Japan because of the rapidly aging population structure.

Note also that color preferences and/or acceptance of certain colors change over time. Some 30 years ago, it was rare to see any retail outlets in Japan having bright orange or yellow color schemes or signage. Many stores now do.

Similarly, for many years when the market was protected, gas stations had very bland signage. But, faced with the threat of deregulation and possible extinction, corporate identity consultants have been brought in to improve the design and visual appeal of the stations. Bright (some might say garish) signage that is visible and eye-catching from a considerable distance is becoming the norm.

In Japan, great weight is also attached to seasons, and certain colors are associated with certain seasons. Obviously, given the importance of cherry blossoms in Japan, pink is a color very closely associated with spring. And, among middle-aged and older Japanese ladies, for example, it is considered inappropriate to wear autumnal colors in the spring.

Interestingly, in some research recently conducted on website designs, we have found this concern for matching colors with the season to carry over to site color designs. Changing the colors of your site to match the seasonal colors, at least on the front cover page, may be something worth considering.

Note also that, as in many countries, certain colors are considered to be masculine colors, while others are considered to be feminine. The Japanese office for the most part still follows the open floor plan approach. In other words, except for very senior employees, nobody has a private office or cubicle. Thus, a female clerical worker will find it difficult to spend company time surfing female-oriented sites, since with all the desks cheek by jowl, the pinks / mauves / lilacs that appear on female-oriented sites are a giveaway that she is goofing off.

Japanese also associate certain colors with certain countries. And the colors used on a product may have an influence on the acceptability of a product from that country in the case where a manufacturer wants to closely associate his product with a particular country. In a study we have recently completed which covered the colors considered suitable for products from a specific country, Japanese consumers had very definite opinions on which colors were suitable and, perhaps more important, unsuitable.

And color can be used to capture the national mood. The Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a nationwide opinion poll in mid-December 1999 among a random sample of 1,930 adults. In response to the question on which color best represents this past year (1999), 29% gave gray, followed by 7% for blue and brown respectively, and navy blue and black each with 6%.

A pretty somber selection of colors. In short, colors matter, both in life and in business. So be attuned to possible differences in Japan versus other countries in color associations and preferences. At the same time, do not blindly accept protestations from well-meaning Japanese nationals that the color scheme of a worldwide brand or logo will not be accepted in Japan. Test it. Color preferences do change, and Japan is currently undergoing fundamental change.

William Hall (whall@rbc.co.jp) is president of the RBC Group, which provides market research and consulting services to foreign clients in Tokyo.

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