Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Masshiro, Makkuro, Makka, Massao 真っ白, 真っ黒, 真っ赤, 真っ青

If you've been learning Japanese for a while you might have seen one or two of these words already: makka 真っ赤, massao 真っ青, masshiro 真っ白 and makkuro 真っ黒. These words all start with the kanji for the word "truth," 真 followed by the name of colors, so one might wonder what's so "true" about them and what do these "true" colors mean in Japanese.

白 vs. 真っ白

The first thing to understand is the difference between shiro 白 and masshiro 真っ白, kuro 黒 and makkuro 真っ黒, aka 赤 and makka 真っ赤, and ao 青 and massao 真っ青.

Basically, in terms of color, there's no difference. Both shiro and masshiro refer to the color "white." However, the masshiro puts emphasizes on the fact that something is white. That is, it's not just, merely "white," it's very white, completely white, totally absolutely white.
  • masshiro 真っ白
    Really white. Very white. Pure white.
  • makkuro 真っ黒
    Really black. Very black. Pure black.
  • makka 真っ赤
    Really red. Very red. Pure red.
  • massao 真っ青
    Really blue. Very blue. Pure blue.

This is why you might find contradicting translations for these words in dictionaries. In essence, all the ma does is put emphasis on the color. But a dictionary might choose to translate makka as "deep red," while another dictionary may translate it as "bright red." They are both strong reds, but they're opposite kinds of red. Likewise, massao can be "deep blue" or "bright blue" and so on.



An important thing about these words is their usage in idioms. That's because, while something that's literally "white," shiro, may also be called masshiro, "really white," an idiom that uses masshiro for its emphatic effect can't have it replaced for the simpler shiro.


For example:
  • atama ga shiro ni natta 頭が白になった
    [My] head became white.
    (it changed colors!)
  • atama ga masshiro ni natta 頭が真っ白になった
    [My] head became really white. (literally)
    My head went blank!

Just like how a paper that's "entirely white," masshiro, could also be said to be a "blank" paper, the word masshiro is also used idiomatically to say that your head has gone "blank." That is, you're sick and have a headache or something and can't think straight or something.


Sometimes masshiro is used to emphasized how pretty the whiteness of something is.
  • masshiro na yuki wa hontou ni utsukushii 真っ白な雪は本当に美しい
    Pure white snow is really beautiful.

Snow is white, so saying the snow is just "white," shiro 白, is mostly pointless. However, with masshiro 真っ白, the intent changes from simply describing the snow to putting emphasis on how much white it is. The same apply to other colors, we are deliberately putting emphasis on how much more purely colored they are.


  • gamen ga makkuro no mama nanimo hyouji sarenai 画面が真っ黒のまま何も表示されない
    The screen continues completely black with nothing displayed [on it].

Above, makkuro 真っ黒 tuned out to be "completely black." Remember, this isn't a literal translation, but it shows the many ways the Japanese modifier ma 真 can be interpreted in English. The screen isn't just "black," it's totally black. Entirely. Completely. It shows nothing.

Similar but different, makkura 真っ暗 means "really dark" and comes from the adjective kurai 暗い, "dark," instead of the color kuro.



  • osake wo nomu to kao ga makka ni naru お酒を飲むと顔が真っ赤になる
    If [I] drink alcohol [my] face turns really red.

Another idiom. In anime, red-turning faces are common. (o //// o). That sort of comical blush definitely doesn't depict the real world colors perfectly, nobody's facial skin become tomato all of sudden. At most, "slightly red" would be true, but people like to exaggerate what they say.

あはははは。顔、真っ赤っかになってるよ!あははは。 quote from manga Karakai Jouzu no Takagi-san からかい上手の高木さん
Manga: Karakai Jouzu no Takagi-san からかい上手の高木さん
  • Context: Takagi sees the outcome of her teasing.
  • a-ha-ha-ha-ha.
  • kao, makka-kka ni
    natteru yo!

    [Your] face, [it's] becoming red!
  • a-ha-ha-ha.
    *more laughs.*

The word makka 真っ赤 is also often used with "blood," ti 血, in anime.


  • massao na sora. massao na umi. massao na kao. 真っ青な空。真っ青な海。真っ青な顔。
    Blue skies. Blue sea. Blue face.

The sky and the sea are some of the bluest blue things to have ever blued on the blue planet of Earth. It's no wonder that they are often referred to as massao 真っ青 instead of just ao 青.

And then, another idiom, because why not. The "blue face" thing is about being pale, actually, which is also what masshiro could say, but in a different way. The phrase kaoiro ga warui 顔色が悪い explains it: "the color of [your] face looks bad." You don't look well. You look like you saw a ghost or something.

Other Ma-Colors

So we have covered four colors... but what about the other colors? What about mammidori 真っ緑, "really green," for example?

Well, those words don't exist, practically.

Though I can't say for sure the reason. Maybe it's because "green" already stands out pretty good on its own, maybe "yellow" does so too, maybe you can only make idioms and expressions out of the four colors we have seen in this article, I don't know. I can say that other colors aren't used with the ma modifier. That's just how it is.

Other Words With Ma

There are, however, other words that start with ma and function in similar vein.

There is massugu 真っ直ぐ, "straight way, "direct," there's mapputatsu 真っ二つ, which means in "two" and is usually used when something is divided in "two." There's mattou 真っ当, which means "proper," like mattou na shigoto 真っ当な仕事. "proper job." Etc.

Further Reading

See Also

  • do- ド~
    Another prefix that emphasizes things.

1 comment:

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  1. I guess, "ma" exists with 4 color basically because it was only 4 colors in japanese for a long time. (明暗顕漠 system). Which were kuroi, shiroi, akai, and aoi (which was almost everything that was not black/white or red).