The Parallel use of Kōhaku (紅白)

In the Japanese language, there is a word called “kōhaku” (紅白)¹, which stands for the colors red and white. Historically², these two colors play a unique role. They can be used in pairs, or at opposite extremes in distinguishing groups. For example, the colors on Japan’s flag are represented by the colors red and white. Other familiar items include “kōhaku maku” (紅白幕, red & white curtain), kōhaku chōchin (紅白提灯, red & white paper lanterns), and other types of decorations used for celebrations. The two colors are also used for food and treats, such as “kōhaku mochi” (紅白餅, red & white rice cakes) and “kōhaku manjū” (紅白まんじゅう, red & white steamed buns with various filings), which are commonly used for ritualistic occasions. In activities and sports, two teams are created for the sake of competition; one team is called “akagumi” (紅組, red team) and the other “shirogumi” (白組), and each may carry a corresponding flag or handkerchief as to indicate which side each member is one.

Examples of how red & white are used in the following: Japanese flag (top-left), kōhaku manjū (top-right), kōhaku chōchin (bottom-left), kōhaku maku (bottom right)

Recently, I came across two words in an old Japanese document I am translating, each based on one of the two colors mentioned above. The document in question is related to warfare and swordsmanship in the past, and features a section that deals with what a warrior can do even when no weapon is in hand. Although used separately, in the context the two words appear in really signifies the parallel existence that kōhaku represents.

The first word is “sekishu” (赤手)³. Literal translation would be “red hand”, which is actually correct if we are talking about the color of someone’s hands. However, depending on the subject matter, the use of the color red has a different meaning. Here’s the dictionary definition from one of the resources I use for translations called “Kotobank“:


〘名〙 (「赤」はむき出しの意) 手に何も持たないこと。なんの武器もないこと。素手(すで)。空手(からて)。徒手(としゅ)

The above definition expresses that the manner in which red is used in this word is to mean “exposed” or “naked”. Together, sekishu stands for “bare hands”, or having no weapons in hand. It has the same meaning as other words of similar use, such as “sude” (素手), “karate” (空手), and “toshu” (徒手).

On a separate note, the word “hakushu” (white hand) doesn’t exist historically. Actually, there is the word “shirode” (白手) . It has no reference to fighting, but instead refers to a type of glaze used on porcelain.

The 2nd word from the document is “hakusen” (白戦). If translated literally it reads “white battle”, but this is not the correct meaning. Taking a look at the definition once more found on Kotobank:


〘名〙 手に何も持たないで戦うこと。


Hakusen means “unarmed battle”, where no weapons are used to fight. The use of “haku” (white) is to express a plain, natural form, without the addition of anything else (in the form of weapons, those will add another flavor, or “color” so to speak). A similar word to this is “hakuheisen” (白兵戦), which also can refer to hand-to-hand combat⁴. As for an equivalent “akasen” or “sekisen” using the color red, none exists as far as I can tell from my research.

In conclusion, kōhaku has a strong cultural influence on words, actions, and events. Based on the context mentioned above, we see how red and white are used to mean literally the same thing through the two words sekishu and hakusen. These are great examples of the parallel use of the two colors that represent the word kōhaku. To this day, these colors are popularly used in special occasions in Japan year round, which can be experienced visually even in public events and festivals.

1) There are several ways of writing the word red. For kōhaku, the character “紅” is used. However, one of the more common ways of writing the word red is with the character “赤”. On top of this, there are different pronunciations for both red & white. Here’s what’s used in the article:

Red = aka, seki, ko

White = shiro, haku

2) There are several theories behind the origin of the word kōhaku. One theory is that the colors red and white were used to distinguish the warring armies as early as during the Genpei Gassen (源平合戦, 1180 – 1185). Another is that the word has even older roots, where the colors represent life (red, such as a new born baby) and death (white, such as the white garments worn by those who have passed away).

3) Can also be pronounced as “akade”

4) Actually, this is partially correct. The full meaning of “hakuheisen” is close-quarter combat, which primarily refers to the distance where warriors were close enough to use their pikes, swords, knives, and (if nothing else was available) fists or grappling techniques during Japan’s warring period in the mid century. The root of this is in the word “hakuhei” (白兵), which is a special terminology that refers to “unsheathed, bladed weapons” used for fighting, which became especially prevalent during 1500s. From Edo period onward, due to less dependency on large battlefield weapons and more development in martial techniques in civilian clothing, the use of hakuheisen adapted according to how fights were later conducted. Especially in the later years, hakuheisen was used to refer to numerous methods for close-range fighting, from bayonets to even CQC.

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