09 May 2014

kotodama: the power of words

Words have power.

"I go into my library, and history rolls before me. I breathe the morning air of the world while the scent of Eden's roses yet linger on it. I see the pyramids building. I hear the shouts of the armies of Alexander."

Alexander Smith - inscription at the Brooklyn Central Library

Cultures worldwide seem to have some variant of this. Stories can hurt and ruin, as well as inspire and heal. Words can become mechanisms linking people to each other - and the divine to people and back again. In Buddhism and Judaism, "right speech" (or avoiding lashon hara, the wayward tongue) are commandments. We can go to a library, or online, and read the words and thoughts of many people - both local to us and distant - and have hope that we may be able to understand what they felt, what they reasoned. Even across time, we can do this: we can read the thinkers of the past. Maybe with a little help, granted, but it's still possible. No wonder words were considered magic!

In Japan, these ideas are embraced in the phrase "kotodama" ( 言霊 ), written with the characters for language and soul.

Dimensional witches love their words. Moshi moshi? (xxxHolic)

Kotodama, as this article by Naoko Hosokawa explains, has had changes in meaning over time: first used to mean native Japanese words used in traditional blessings and appeasement rituals (instead of Chinese inspired words), during the last century in Japan it has also been used to bolster a national wartime identity and to resist Western loan words, attempting to "keep the language pure" or "to not pollute this country of kotodama".

In other words, that the Japanese language somehow has a spirit on its own, and that it is a sacred thing that must be kept pure.

This idea is not new, as I said, or even particular to Japan. Abrahamic religions have this: Hebrew lived as a religious language for centuries, with much ink given to the ideas that the Divine created Everything by mystically arranging letters in black fire on white fire. Latin and Greek were considered mysterious, partly for its use in churches and ritual, partly for its ability to communicate across distances (it was a language of court and of law), and partly because the common person did not understand it except through the religious/ritual context. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church conducting ceremonies in the common language of the area is still a new thing, historically: the Church revised its position on the language of services in the 1960s. Latin remains an official language of the Vatican. In Islam, the language of the Qu'ran is so important, that any Qu'ran that does not have the original text in Arabic is not considered a true and holy Qu'ran, but merely an explanation, or a teaching tool for those who would not otherwise understand.

In Asia, this applies to Sanskrit, classical Chinese, and of course Japanese; that words, sounds, have inherent power. In manga and novels, this comes up again and again: verbal contracts to fox-magic to incantations from diviners and mountain ascetics.

 But taking the Japanese example again: it's not just debating language used in shrines, or in temples. It's general language too, and struggles for power, identity, and negotiating space amidst so much change.

Uka-no-Mitama likes video games - and romance. (Inari Konkon Koi Iroha)


  1. Thanks for writing this article - I really enjoyed your explanation about this "divine" idea of language which we talked a bit about earlier.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. n the wake of making the face you can now include some physical elements of your toon's face, for example, eyes, ears and other physical elements. weblink