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In the Shade: Japan’s Colorful History

Laura Brown | Editor’s Picks | Dec 12, 2019
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There are myriad reasons to fall in love with the multitasking SHISEIDO Kajal InkArtist. Our 4-in-1 liner, kajal, eyeshadow and brow color goes on like silk, lasts all day, and can stand up to rain, tears and even an absent-minded swipe of the finger.
As well as looking magnificent, there’s also a colorful history lesson inside every pencil.

Each of Kajal InkArtist’s ten shades has its roots in ancient or modern Japan, and they all paint a vivid cultural picture.


Kabuki White is inspired by kumadori, the distinctive stage makeup worn by kabuki actors.

This traditional form of theater dates back to the 17th century, and the striking white face paint provides a base for colorful symbolic patterns. After a performance, every actor makes an oshiguma—or face pressing—onto a piece of silk to preserve their makeup for all time.

Darkest black Nippon Noir is similarly dramatic, a nod to one of Japan’s most revered cinematic genres.

The breathtaking Japanese landscape provides SHISEIDO with ample color inspiration, too.

Vibrant Rose Pagoda evokes the familiar red of the sacred multi-storied structures that can be found across the country. Tea House is a rich, earthy shade reminiscent of simple wooden chashitsu, where tea ceremonies take place. Lilac Lotus is named after the flower of enlightenment, and its pink-purple color mimics the delicate but mighty petals that emerge resplendent from murky waters.

And, of course, those beautiful blossoms make an appearance: not the famous cherry trees, but their floral rival, the Plum Blossom. The custom of hanami—when crowds gather to enjoy the spectacle of the blossoming trees—usually centers on cherry blossom season, but there is an ancient form of the ritual called umemi, which focuses on the oft-overlooked plum blossom.

This eyeliner pencil is a sedate, reflective and sweetly-scented affair.


Many of the SHISEIDO Kajal InkArtist shades, such as Azuki Red, have their roots in Japan’s fascinating and complex color system. These traditional colors originated in the Twelve Level Cap and Rank System, created in 603 by Prince Shōtoku to represent social hierarchy, but in the centuries that followed, the list grew to include hundreds of hues.

A boom in Japanese literature and art meant a whole host of new descriptions for colors were imagined by the greatest creative minds of the day. Some, like “Vanishing Red Mouse,” “Contemplation in a Tea Garden” and “Thousand Year Old Green,” are evocatively poetic. Others are charmingly literal—”The Color of an Undried Wall,” “Underside of Willow Leaves” and “Harbor Rat.” Azuki Red is exactly that—the color of the reddish-brown bean used to make red bean paste. Azuki beans are believed to be lucky, and have been being eaten in Japan since 4,000 BC, their redness bringing good fortune and warding off evil.


Gunjo Blue (an eye-catching ultramarine) and Birodo Green are both historical colors. Birōdo means velvet, and it’s a deep, sumptuous shade. For a long time, however, green didn’t actually have an official name in Japan. It was considered part of the blue family, and even today, some everyday green things—traffic lights, for example, and vegetables—are still described as being blue. It wasn’t until after World War II that the word for green started to be taught in schools.

Finally, Sumi Sky, a gorgeous teal, combines a pair of ancient color names: the matter-of-fact “Sky Blue Color” and Sumi-iro, or “Ink Color,” a reference to Japan’s rich calligraphic heritage.

While we’re exploring ancient color systems, we can consult a different—but no less significant—color theory to find our perfect SHISEIDO Kajal InkArtist match. Opposites attract on the color wheel, first created by Sir Isaac Newton in the mid-1600s. If you have green eyes, opt for Rose Pagoda, Azuki Red and Plum Blossom to really make them sparkle. Blue eyes are enhanced by a swoosh of Tea House, and the hazel-eyed among us will look dazzling in Lilac Lotus and Birodo Green. Nippon Noir will turn brown eyes into pools of molten chocolate, but a pop of bright color, particularly Sumi Sky or Gunjo Blue, will emphasize any flecks of amber or gold. And Kabuki White? It’s a bold look for any eye color.

But there are really only three rules when it comes to SHISEIDO Kajal InkArtist: have fun, express yourself, and create your own colorful work of art every day.