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, Poems

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.


6 thoughts on “Kotodama

  1. As an outside observer, it’s interesting to watch ancient beliefs modify to conform to more recent findings.

    Japan, since ancient times, had held to an isolationist policy, and could afford to find something to admire in the purity of their as-yet unmixed language, but after WW II, having lost control of their destiny, and facing an influx of foreigners, it is not surprising that the definition of Kotodama would evolve.

    It was not long ago that believers in the Abraham religions placed their god and his habitat above the earth, in the clouds – after all, that’s where lightening and thunder originated. Then humanity learned to fly, and so the kingdom of their god was relegated to someplace we could never go – space, out beyond earth’s atmosphere. But then we went to the moon. At last report, the Judeo/Christian god dwells somewhere beyond time and space.

  2. … and then, if perhaps loosely, there’s the Greek “logos” which can also be used as to tell, say, speak, hence, a language. I think that all human races are aware that “speech” is something special to the species and that it did not develop through so-called evolution, but comes from some other source, a source I call Spirit-Mind. The brief biblical story of “Babel” (which would become Babylon in later years) demonstrates how important language was once upon a time and how much was lost when people lost their original language and it de-evolved into a multitude of lesser languages no longer able to convey the greatest knowledge and truths, until even its use as communication was further reduced to serve only local tribes or groups. Just throwing that in…

  3. Apparently you bought into the Tower of Babel fable – that nonsense was based on the Mesopotamian ziggurat:

    — the little room on the top was for whichever god to whom the ziggurat was dedicated, to kick off his sandals and relax on his visits to earth.

    The ridiculous part of such a nonsense tale, is that since the object of building the tower (at least according to the Bible) was to reach heaven, since an omniscient god who created the universe would KNOW that oxygen thins with altitude, would have sat back with a plate of nachos and cackled as the stone layers passed out from lack of air. But then the priests who wrote Genesis knew nothing about altitudes, and so the story of a god, angry about a physical impossibility, magically altered the language centers in everyone’s brains and teleported them to different parts of the earth. OR, some priests were contemplating why there are so many different nationalities and languages, and concocted the story to explain it.

    Language most likely began in Africa, about 2 million years ago, and since most tribes of hominids ranged from 30 to 50 members, there were likely many such tribes and many such languages. Some, of course, went extinct, but the remainder evolved into some of what we speak today. Some evolutionary scientists feel that humankind’s decision to leave the forests for the grasslands, forced humans to adopt a more upright stance in order to see over the tall grasses, and that over time, this resulted in the skull repositioning itself on the spinal column, making it easier for the larynx to develop and for the lower jaw to form sounds that ultimately became accepted as words.

    Given an option between natural evolution and a Spirit-Mind, I’m afraid I have to go the science route.

  4. Since there is no solid evidence either way, one can choose to go along with something romantic rather than pedantic. Based on my choice of explanation, here’s what happened: whether through bad translation or deliberately, the biblical account of “Babel” was twisted. The “tower” that was meant to reach the heavens was, according to some sources, a launching tower for rockets. Naturally the “gods” who were as much flesh and blood as their “creations” would not be too pleased to realize the Earthians had learned how to use the secret of rocket launching and space travel and were bound and determined to find the original world of their “creators.” So they put an end to it, at least for the time being.
    It’s an alternative explanation that starts to make sense of a whole lot of ancient constructs and megaliths all over this world, and also explains man’s sudden appearance, his sudden civilizations and brings together a whole lot of old stories (myths) that bear incredible similarities though found from one continent to another when ostensibly the people holding to these tales would know nothing of each other. More importantly it explains male-centered and dominated totalitarian religions; the relentless belief in God or gods; racism and misogyny along with a host of other negative traits which Earthians are saddled with and are simply unable to free themselves from, however much they make no sense and could never have come about through “natural evolution.”
    Ultimately, since no solid and irrefutable scientific evidence is available to prove me wrong, I see it as my right to freedom of choice: I choose to hunt down a trail that has remained cold for many centuries but is now warming up – and I don’t mean due to climate change.
    So, my choice in how I reason man’s place on this world is a point of view I prefer over others. I love science fiction!

  5. Uh, yeah – let’s say that’s what happened — they DO keep you away from sharp objects one would hope —

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