Influence: Fall Colors

As the seasons shift, we are feeling inspired by the brilliant display of autumn leaves in Philadelphia. Here we reflect on how this season's colors have influenced Japanese culture.

 Maple Trees at Mama, by Hiroshige-ga. Brooklyn Museum.  

 Maple Trees at Mama, by Hiroshige-ga. Brooklyn Museum.  

Japanese life is carefully arranged by the seasons.  Beyond wardrobe changes and varied produce harvests, each new time of year brings a distinctive set of seasonal words (季語).  These terms have been codified over centuries of use in paintings and poetry to define specific seasons and even suggest associated moods, allowing the later haiku poets to evoke a definite time and emotional tone by mentioning one or two specifically seasonal images. 

Perhaps the most well-known autumn term is 紅葉, which literally means 'red leaves' but refers more broadly to all leaves changing color in the fall.  These leaves are regarded as both a sign of changing weather and an aesthetic pleasure in a class all their own.  Traveling to see beautiful groves is a popular national pastime—so much so that Japanese weather reports track the progress of each region's leaves—and has been since the Edo era (1603-1868).  

When the first Japanese poetry anthologies were compiled over a millennium ago, the beautiful yet short-lived leaves brought to mind life's impermanence.  Their proximity to the year's cold end made them a common symbol of melancholy as well. 

Even new-born autumn leaves fall like tears

--Kobayashi Issa (1812)

May you enjoy the wonderful colors painted on this canvas of leaves while it lasts.