Sanzo Wada: A Dictionary of Color Combinations

Back in July 2016, I wove through summer crowds in Tokyo with my sister. It was the last day of my trip, and I was looking to shore up my luggage to the weight limit in one of Japan's many winding department stores. On a shop floor crammed with densely packed books, I made my first selection from the neat brackets, a small, unassumingly neutral jacket with an audacious title - A Dictionary of Color Combinations.

A book titled A Dictionary of Colour Combinations by Sanzo Wada

Sanzo Wada (1883-1967) was a Japanese artist, a teacher and a costume and kimono designer. Born in Hyogo Prefecture, Wada moved to Tokyo at age 16, intent on becoming a painter. Studying under Kuroda Seiki, a painter noted for bringing Western art theory and practice to a wider Japanese audience, Wada quickly grew a reputation for his western-style oil paintings and his unique susceptivity to color, winning several early awards. He was sent to France by the Ministry of Education to study art in 1909 and he stayed in Europe until 1914, spending a subsequent year in India and Burma (now Myanmar) before returning to Japan with a collection of colour samples he had amassed while travelling [1]

Sanzo Wada South Wind Japanese oil painting
South Wind | Sanzo Wada | 1907 | Public Domain

When Wada did return to Japanese shores, he became a faculty member of the Imperial Art Institute. From there, he founded the Japan Standard Color Association in 1927 and in 1932 Wada was appointed professor at the Tokyo School of the Arts. Here, he pioneered a systemized method to approach color across all disciplines of art and design.

In 1934, when Wada published an eleven-volume boxed set called Color Schemes, the series marked the first comprehensive, mass-produced organization of color match-ups and combinations. Having laid the foundations for colour classification, Wada then reorganized the Japan Standard Color Association into the Japan Color Research Laboratory in 1945, hoping to standardize color particularization in japan.

Around 1953, Wada was commissioned as the costume designer for the jidaigeki film Gate of Hell (also known as Hell's Gate). Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, the sensuously vivid film was shot in Eastmancolor and was the first Japanese color film to be released outside of Japan[2], with some credits also listing Wada as a color consultant[3]. For his work on the film, Wada won the Costume Design Catagory at the 27th Academy Awards.

While gaining fame through his early paintings, it is his rigorous studies in colour theory that Wada is perhaps best remembered. In 2011, Seigensha published A Dictionary of Color Combinations, a book derived from Wada’s extensive work. Nested between a modest cover design, the pages of colour swatches are structured in gradients, tables and cruciform layouts - with all 348 combinations carefully referenced by an index of CMYK coordinates for practical guidance.

Over his lifetime, Wada focused on the foundational element of color, laying the groundwork for contemporary color research and understanding. A Dictionary of Color Combinations contains schemes composed by Wada that are as striking and visually therapeutic now as they were in volumes over half a century ago[4].

A Dictionary of Color Combinations is available here



[1] The Japanese Cinema Book

[2] IMDB

[3] The Japanese Cinema Book


The Lavenberg Collection of Japanese Prints

Turner Classic Movies


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