Kotodama, spirit of words

Language or rather words, have power. I have often heard my grandmother or father advising my sister and I about the way we use words through anecdotes.

My father would say, “Words have power. They attract the good and evil, positive and negative energy.” I would hear stories about how devas grant wishes by saying ‘tathastu’ as they pass by us and that is why we should be careful about the words we use, my father has told me.

Though they do not have any specific name I’m aware of in Tamil culture, in Japanese culture, the phenomenon is called Kotodama.

Kotodama means ‘words soul’. Koto means words and dama means spirit or soul. It is a shinto concept, which believes that words have supernatural powers and verbalising them can make wishes come true. It means that words have their own spirit and it contains the power of the thing it stands for. The belief, which is more prominent in the folklore, states that when you utter the word at the right time using right method, what you are doing is you are summoning the power and giving it to the word.

I came across it when I was reading a manga called ‘Her majesty’s dog’. The female protagonist possesses the power of kotodama and can grant wishes just by saying the word. Let me explain how it works. For kotodama to work on someone, you first need to know the real name of the person. Then you use the name to command the person to do what you want or what the person wants. It might be something as simple as making him do your homework to kill someone. You could summon rain and you could destroy your village with fire. You can use it for good and evil. The words, it is believed, have the power to do anything and one should be careful when using it.

Why is kotodama important in Japanese culture?

Knowing about kotodama is important in more ways than one. Japanese language we see today was not what was used in ancient times. Japan of that time, addressed as Yamato, did not have the script of its own. Kotodama belongs to that time, when the script was not influenced by foreign languages. Hence it was considered pure. (Japanese script is heavily influenced by Chinese pictorial characters kanji. You can read it in my blog about evolution of Japanese script.)

According to the book A History of Japanese Literature written by Jin Ichi Konishi, it is perceived by poets of that time thought that kotodama was very unique to Yamato as it did not exist in a foreign language. It states, ‘kotodama was a concept formed from an awakening consciousness of existence of one’s own country in contrast to foreign lands.’ Most of literature originated during this period, between 300 BC and 300 AD, was in the Yamato language. 

In archaic times, the books states, kotodama was alive throughout Yamato and there was no need for people to specifically give a name for the language. They had an understanding that uttering them brings a result, be it good or evil. It was only when people were exposed to foreign language, they found the need to understand and detail the process of what they termed as kotodama. It came to define the ancient age and kotodama became a language unique to Yamato literature. 

As we move from ancient to modern Japan, kotodama is no longer used. But the term kotodama takes different forms at different periods of time. According to an article ‘Kotodama: the multi-faced Japanese myth of the spirit of language‘ written by Naoko Hosokawa, kotodama was reinvented during World War II to strengthen national solidarity. The Japanese government then promoted the use of kotodama, which it termed as pure and traditional Japanese language and defined that it as the core of the national unity and social virtue that is unique to Japan. During that time it was banned to use foreign words that might have found its way into the language. New words were coined using Sino-Japanese words. However the perception varies vastly from how kotodama is originally understood, which used only ancient elements and Sino-Japanese was foreign since it contains Chinese characters.

If you are wondering if anyone would use kotodama now, yes it is very much in use now. But unlike WWII where it was used for political purposes, it has now come to be associated with Japanese cultural identity. Hosokawa states in his article that the ancient myth of kotodama has been reinvented as a way to manifest Japanese linguistic identity through the idea of a “pure” language. This is to feed the increasing insecurity Japanese feel in relation to culture and linguistics.

I’m not sure if anyone continues to practice kotodama in villages or even believe in the spirit of words anymore. Like other superstitious beliefs, it is probably a myth. But like Hosokawa mentions, the concept of kotodama or rather the notion of pure language continues to live.

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