Mikado Yellow: A 19th Century Imperial Colour

Mikado is a deep yellow. It is used in a variety of ways in logos and in times you want a yellow that shows up against a white background. The name vastly grew out of popularity around the late 1800s to the point that it’s rarely used.

History of the deep yellow

Mikado by definition means emperor of Japan. The breakdown of the word is Mi (honourable) + Kado (gate/portal.) It was a former title to emperors of Japan from a certain period. The term was commonly used by the English in the 19th century but became obsolete. Most empires wore plenty of garments throughout their time of rule. They would wear yellows, purples and crimsons as a representation of their costly expenses since these colours were rare to find at these times.

Painting of the Emperor Go-Daigo of the 14th century. Public Domain.

Like purples in most societies, yellow was only meant for the people with higher social status. Depending on the society, yellow was reserved for the higher class or the emperor. People were forbidden to wear vivid colours. So the outside of their outfit would often be brown, but they would bend the rule by using colourful linings. This was a colour only reserved for the ruler in 618 AD and one of the first laws that mention the restriction. Yellow represented bravery, wealth and refinement. It has been an important colour for Japanese culture since the War of Dynasty in 1357. Warriors of the South wore a yellow chrysanthemum that has a pledge to courage. The flower represented the emperor of Japan and the royal family.

The Chrysanthemum monarchy is one of the longest heredity dynasties in the world. The chrysanthemum flower is the “official” Japanese flower is the 16-petal golden chrysanthemum used for the imperial seal. It’s on the money and official government documents like passports. The flower originated in China but was imported into Japan in the Nara period (710–94) has a medicinal plant. An early anthology of the waka form of Japanese poetry called Kokin Wakashū that complied in the Heian period (794–1185) suggested that the chrysanthemum was popular for its medicinal benefits and appearance. The flower wasn’t adopted as the imperial flower until emperor Go-Toba (1180–1239; r. 1183–98) chose it as his official personal emblem. There are more than 350 types of chrysanthemums in the world. The flower on the emblem is the ichimonji, a flat blossom flower with two overlapping rows of petals; the type of chrysanthemum on which the imperial crest is based. The Chrysanthemum is shown on the Emperor’s robes and throne.

Image of Emperor Go-Toba of the 12th Century. Public Domain.

The flower is also associated with the royal family because it resembles the Sun. In Japanese mythology states that the first Emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

HEX Code for Mikado Yellow #FFC40C

In the 1800’s there was a book discussing accounts of “The Flowery Kingdom and the Land of the Mikado: Or China, Japan and Corea, Containing Their Complete History Down to the Present Time Together with a Graphic Account of the War Between China and Japan” by Henry Davenport Northrop. He write about their similarities, differences and culture when most of the dynasties of their land were somewhat in power from a war diary written about the wars between China, Japan and Korea.

The similar structure of Buddhist and Taoist belief systems were influential one how they use colours and meanings. Yellow was apart of the five colours in the Five Elements theory. The Element theory was described corresponding with the a season, direction, planet and animal. This theory has been applied on Feng Shui, medicine, astrology, music, martial arts and military strategy.

Chart for the Five Elements Theory

There are different types of mikado colours besides yellow like mikado brown, mikado gold yellow and mikado orange. The dye is a very old dye but not as popular as other contemporary deep medium yellows like Imperial Yellow. The dyes were mostly a clothing dye for natural fibres like cotton and wool. The materials would have to soak in a neutral bath or a bath of common salts and glaubers-b salts. The method of making the Mikado colours come from Western Chemistry and Textile books of the 1800s.

The opening of Japan to Western culture came from the shift of powers in the Meiji Restoration; from the end of the Tokugawa shogunate to the restoration to the emperor of supreme executive authority in the country. In 1868, the Charter Oath of Five Principles launched Japan on the course of westernization by creating a new school system, abolishing feudal land laws and creating a new government cabinet. The new rule modernized and Westernized the country turning it into an international power.

Around this time, the play The Mikado is an operetta comedy set in Japan written by Gilbert and Sullivan. The other name for the play is The Town of Titipu. The play opened in 1885 and became Savoys Operas longest-running play. The synopsis of the play is the son of the emperor comes home from afar to find his girlfriend only to find that his girlfriend moved on to a cheap tailor. The play is supposed to be of British Victorian life but set in Japan. Many theatre goers say that the play is outdated and politically incorrect with the portrayals of the characters and the actors putting on yellow makeup for the costumes. Some words and costumes were changed to modernize it but the 136-year-old play can be embarrassing. In 2016, the play was amended by resetting the play in Renaissance-era Milan, eliminating all references to Japan.


The Flowery Kingdom and the Land of the Mikado: Or, China, Japan, and Corea by Henry Davenport Northrop

America’s Textile Reporter: For the Combined Textile Industries, Volume 12

China, Japan, Korea: Culture and Customs

The Chrysanthemum: Flower of Emperors – Nippon

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