Kotodama: the multi-faced Japanese myth of the spirit of language
By Naoko Hosokawa
In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama (言霊, ことだま); a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language. This belief originates in ancient times as part of Shintoist ritual but the idea has survived through Japanese history and the term kotodama is still frequently mentioned in public discourse. The notion of kotodama is closely linked with Japanese linguistic identity, and the narrative of kotodama has been repeatedly reinterpreted according to non-linguistic factors surrounding Japan, as well as the changing idea of “purity” of language in Japan.
The term kotodama literally means “the spirit of language” (koto = language, dama (tama) = spirit or soul). It is a belief based on the idea of Shintoism, the indigenous religion of Japan which worships divinity in all natural creation and phenomena. In ancient Japan, language was believed to have a spirit, which gives positive power to positive words, negative power to negative words, and impacts a person’s life when his or her name is pronounced out loud. Wishes or curses were thus spelled out in a particular manner in order to communicate with the divine powers. According to this ancient belief, the spirit of language only resides in “pure” Japanese that is unique and free from foreign influence. Therefore, Sino-Japanese loanwords, which were numerous by then and had a great impact on the Japanese language, were eschewed in Shintoist rituals and Japanese native vocabulary, yamatokotoba, was preferred. Under the name of kotodama, this connection between spiritual power and pure language survived throughout Japanese history as a looser concept and was reinvented multiple times.
One of the most significant historical moments in which the myth of kotodama was reinvented was during the Second World War. In order to strengthen national solidarity, the government reintroduced the idea of kotodama, coupling it with the idea of kokutai (国体, こくたい, koku = country or nation, tai = body), the Japanese national polity. The government promoted the idea that the use of “pure” and traditional Japanese language was at the core of the national unity and social virtue that is unique to Japan, while failing to use the right language would lead to violation of the national polity. Under the belief of kotodama, proposals to abolish or reduce the use of kanji (Chinese characters), which had been introduced since the modernization of the country in the second half of the nineteenth century, were fiercely rejected. Instead, the use of kanji as well as traditional non-vernacular orthographic style was encouraged. Furthermore, based on the kotodama myth, the use of Western loanwords was strictly banned as they belonged to the language of the enemy (tekiseigo) and those words were replaced by Sino-Japanese words. For example, the word ragubî, which is the loan from the English word “rugby,” was replaced by tôkyû, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “fight ball.” The word anaunsâ, which is the loan from the English word “announcer,” was replaced by hôsôin, a Sino-Japanese word meaning “broadcasting person.”
It is interesting to note that the kotodama myth was reinvented to encourage the use of Sino-Japanese elements, whereas in the ancient belief the myth promoted the Japanese native elements and eschewed Sino-Japanese elements. In other words, Sino-Japanese was redefined as the essential element of the “pure” and “traditional” Japanese language. Even the movements to simplify the Japanese orthographic system by abolishing the use of Chinese characters and using only kana (phonetic syllabaries) to write Japanese were considered to be violations of kotodama, despite the fact that kana was invented in Japan. This complete reversal of the position of Sino-Japanese elements can be explained by the belief that the increasing use of Western loanwords was creating a new threat to the Japanese linguistic identity. The idea of kokutai, along with other militarist propaganda, was stigmatized in post-war Japanese society and faded away. However, the idea of kotodama survived through the post-war democratization period into contemporary Japan with yet another face.
You still hear the word kotodama today. A song titled “Ai no Kotodama [Kotodama of Love] – Spiritual Message” performed by a Japanese pop rock band, Southern All Stars, is a well-known hit which has sold over a million since it was recorded in 1996. Above all, one frequently sees the term kotodama used in public debates on the subject of foreign loanwords (gairaigo, which excludes Sino-Japanese loans). For example, an article from a nationwide newspaper stated that “loanwords are threatening the country of kotodama.” Thus the idea of kotodama is still linked to the purity of language in contrast to Western loanwords but, unlike the link between kotodama and political identity of the country made during World War Two, it seems that the myth is now linked to its cultural and social identity while recent waves of globalization have increased the diversity within the contemporary Japan.
The diversity of Japanese society goes hand in hand with the diversity of its vocabulary, which we can see from the rapid increase of loanwords in Japanese. However, at the same time, this increases a sense of insecurity in relation to the linguistic and cultural identity of Japan. As a result, the ancient myth of kotodama has been reinvented as a way to manifest Japanese linguistic identity through the idea of a “pure” language. Kotodama has no fixed definition, and continues to transform as Japanese society undergoes changes. It is questionable if the Japanese still really believe in the spiritual power of language — however, the myth of linguistic purity persists in the mind of the Japanese through the word kotodama.
Naoko Hosokawa is a DPhil candidate in Japanese sociolinguistics at the University of Oxford. A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.