During my recent interview with Sathi, she mentioned kotodama as one of the Japanese concepts she tried to integrate into her everyday life. She summed it up as follows: “When you say good things, good things will happen.” This made me want to know more and do further research on this concept. Here is what I found.
What Is Kotodama?
The word kotodama is written with the following two kanji characters: 言霊. The first one, koto, means “speech” or “word,” and the second, tama, means “spirit” or “soul.” Kotodama can be roughly translated as “word spirit” and refers to the belief that words contain spiritual power.
Basically, positive words hold positive power, while negative words hold negative power. These powers can influence one person’s environment, occurring events, and mind. Therefore, we should be careful of the words we use because their power will come back at us. Furthermore, this mystical power does not only lie in words themselves but also in the way and intonation they are said. Kind words said with a harmful intent will bear negative energy. It is also believed that calling someone’s name out loud can have an impact on this person.
What Are the Origins of Kotodama?
Historically, it is thought that the kotodama belief dates back to the Nara period (710–794). It appears in the collection of poems Manyoshu, in which the expression, “the land where kotodama brings bliss,” is used to describe Japan.
Its roots are found in Shinto, the Japanese animistic religion. In Shinto, it is believed that not only people but also animals and all objects have a soul. In this context, it is not surprising that words are also thought to have a soul. In ancient times, spells and incantations to the kami [Shinto divinities] were seen as bearing some divine power, especially if they were spelled a certain way. Shinto priests voluntarily avoided using words coming from Chinese, believing that the kotodama only lies in the Japanese language of the origins.
Even in modern days, kotodama has been linked with the concept of a “pure” Japanese language as opposed to loanwords from other languages. This belief has political implications that were especially visible during the Second World War. In our current era of globalization, kotodama is sometimes an argument used by people who feel the Japanese language and culture are threatened by Western influences.
Some Implications of Kotodama in Everyday Life
Japanese culture stresses the importance of harmony between people, and the general rule is that conflict and negative talk should be avoided as much as possible (at least in public). However, there are certain situations in which the belief in kotodama is very visible.
The first one is in Japanese weddings, during which guests should make sure to avoid any words that may imply a separation. For example, “to cut,” “to break,” “to split,” “to go back,” “to end,” etc. The term “opening” is even used to refer to the end of the wedding! In Japan, guests bring money as gifts for the newlyweds and must make sure that the sum they give is not a double of two, which may hint at the fact that numbers, just like words, also have power.
Another situation for which there are taboo words is exams. Entrance exams are a significant part of every stage of education of Japanese students, and the matter is taken very seriously. In Japanese, failing an exam is literally said as, “falling at an exam,” so the words to avoid come from this lexical field: “to fall,” “to slip,” “to stumble,” etc.
Choosing Our Words
Do words really have spiritual power, and can they affect events? I will let you answer this question according to your own personal beliefs. However, we cannot deny the power words can have on the people who surround us.
You will probably agree that negative talk, gossip, and hurtful words are less preferable than encouraging, kind words, and constructive conversations. As Sathi mentioned in her interview, we are the first listeners of our own words. Maybe what we say influences us as much as the people we say these words to.
We live in an era in which we can express ourselves on the internet and be heard by an incredibly broad audience. Writer Michiru Hasegawa recently told me about the responsibility she felt when writing her articles. Still, maybe such responsibility should not only affect writers and media but all citizens. The ancient concept of kotodama reminds us that, under anonymous cover or not, speech, comments, articles, podcasts, videos, and social media postings have power. And that we should take responsibility for the words we put out into the world.