In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama; a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language.
The term kotodama literally means ‘the spirit of language’. 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.
“What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
― Kobayashi Issa,
Today we can observe that 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.