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The word "is" the thing: The "kotodama" belief in Japanese communication.



In modern-day Japanese people's attribution of meaning to their words, they sometimes feel as if a word itself has the power to make something happen. This concept is called kotodama, the superstitious folk belief that a soul dwelling in words has the supernatural power to make an idea in the human brain come true simply by verbalizing it. Kotodama literally refers to the mysterious power dwelling in words. In ancient times, it was believed that what words represented would be realized by the kotodama's supernatural power. To put it simply, koto means "the words," and dama, the origin of which is tama, means "the spirit or soul." It seems that the ancient Japanese might have marveled at the magical power of words by which they felt all things in the universe could be controlled. The belief in kotodama is the people's illusion about the words or messages, to which they give meanings superstitiously such as by praying for good fortune or for prevention of evil events. Therefore, they try to avoid verbalizing e vil words and are careful to use appropriate expressions so that undesirable events do not occur.

Kotodama Belief Reflected in Nonverbal Messages

Nonverbal messages are, in one sense, more effective than words, and help to avoid unnecessary verbal kotoage [saying something may cause it to happen through the power of kotodama]. Some Japanese proverbs reflect the Japanese cultural norm that people prefer not to be talkative. Katayama (1982) analyzed 504 proverbs that are concerned with views of Japanese verbal communication. The result showed that 125 of the proverbs had positive values, 320 had negative values, and 59 were neutral. For example, "kuchi wa wazawai no moto" (out of mouth comes evil) reflects Japanese people's negative view of verbal interaction, and "me wa kuchi hodoni mono wo iu" (eyes are as eloquent as the tongue) represents the effectiveness of nonverbal messages. In this way, it is reasonable to suppose that the ultimate communication style in kotoage senu kuni (a country where people dare not verbalize messages), is silence-based ishin-denshin (a sort of "mind-to-mind" communication without language), which was promoted by Zen philos ophy.

The habit of kotoage also can be seen in nonverbal behavior. For example, some Japanese hesitate to pick up a kushi (comb) dropped on the street because it is associated with picking up both "ku" (suffering) and "ski" (death). Another example is that children are taught by their parents not to stick their chopsticks into a bowl of steamed rice because this is the style of rice-serving generally served for the departed souls on the family Buddhist altar. This also can be associated with doing kotoage of death. A third example is that bringing to a wedding ceremony something such as a broken mirror or a kitchen knife is associated with uttering the words kiru (cut) or wareu (broken) at the ceremony Gzawa, 1991). Such behaviors associated with ominous results are regarded as the kotodama belief that things or activities have a supernatural power to make something occur.

Constructing the Interpersonal Communication

Model of Kotodama Belief

In modern Japanese interpersonal communication, the belief in kotodama constrains verbal messages if it is seen as undesirable to utter them directly. Kotodama belief also shapes Japanese people's worldview, functioning as a filter that they look through to see the world and form awareness. Modifying Ishii's (1984) enryo-sasshi communication model, the author constructed a simplified interpersonal communication model between two Japanese, both of whom are under the influence of kotodama. In this model (Figure 4), the author describes the process of verbal interaction in which messages that are thought to cause an unharmonious atmosphere are avoided. Both parties feel that straightforward messages that sound undesirable or uncomfortable to the other might have a negative effect on their relationship.

Japanese Person A has an internalized message that consists of three parts. The first is the core of Japanese A's idea, thought, or feelings, which is represented by the white part (Stage 1), and each borderline is a dotted line to show the continuity of messages. Based on the core of the message, Japanese A produces an internalized embodied message that he or she intends to encode (Stage 2). In the encoding process, Japanese A immediately examines whether this message would hurt or bother Japanese Person B's feelings through the kotodama-modifying filter (Stage 3). This filter also helps to keep Japanese A from doing kotoage of what is taboo or undesirable. Japanese A's self-feedback, as described in Figure 3, is omitted as a matter of course. Then the external taboo-free message will be sent to Japanese B (Stage 4). This message may contain indirect expressions or words that are used instead of imikotoba or messages that they feel hesitant to utter straightforwardly.

In Figure 4, the message receiver (Japanese B) is expected to receive with sensitivity the message sent by Japanese A. The message is filtered through a kotodama-sensing filter through which Japanese A's true intention is screened, scanned, and read (Stage 5). Then the embodied internalized message, the content of which is almost the same as that of Stage 2, is received by Japanese B (Stage 6). Based on the embodied internalized message in Stage 6, Japanese B has the internalized ideas or feelings in his or her mind (Stage 7), and the embodied internalized message is created (Stage 8). Then Japanese B repeats the process that Japanese A has already gone through (Stages 9, 10, 11, 12 are identical to Stages 3, 4, 5, 6). This whole process of sending and receiving messages operates under the influence of the kotodama belief. This model can be applied to the analysis of some kinds of verbal interaction styles preferred in Japanese society, such as the interaction based on honne (true intention) and tatemac (pub lic principles) in which people try to read honne hidden in the message of tatemae. Consider this example of Kyoto no bubuzuke (1):

Host A: Please have at least bubuzuke before you leave.

Guest B: I must be going. Maybe some other time.

The situation is that Guest B has been invited to Host A's home. Guest B stays a long time, and Host A hopes that Guest B will leave soon. Then, Host A suggests to Guest B that he or she should eat bubuzuke before leaving. Guest B, sensing Host A's true intention, declines the offer, saying that he or she must be going soon and would like to eat bubuzuke some other time. Looking at this example with Figure 4, Host A's true intention that guest B should leave soon (Stages 1 and 2) manifests itself in the phrase "Please have at least bubuzuke before you leave," which is made through a kotodama-modifying filter (Stages 3 to 4). From this statement, Guest B senses Host A's true intention, inferring his or her hope that Guest B would leave soon, which is implied in the external Message 4 (Stages 5 to 6). Guest B may feel awkward or a little disgruntled, but is obliged to leave and prepare an embodied message of agreement intrapersonally (Stages 7 to 8). The appropriate message is made through the kotodama-modifyin g filter (Stages 9 to 10). Host A feels that he or she may have hurt Guest B's feelings, but confirms that Guest B has understood his or her intention (Stages 11 to 12). Although it is true that this example may be somewhat exaggerated when compared with the cultural norms seen in Kyoto, these kinds of verbal interactions that require subtle nuances of "mind-reading" are essential in Japanese society, depending on the situation.

Problems of the Kotodama Belief in Verbal Communication

Kotodama has enriched verbal communication because it requires careful thinking about word choice and word use in Japanese society. However, an overly blind belief in kotodama impedes one's rational judgment of the facts behind the words, and occasionally causes misunderstanding by the receiver of the message. In this section, the author will present a model of interpersonal miscommunication, which is caused by the belief in kotodama. Then, the issues of the undesirable influence of the kotodama belief on the perceptual confusion of words and the freedom of speech will be discussed. Finally, the way to overcome the unnecessary sense of kotodama illusion will be presented.

A Model of Kotodama-Caused Interpersonal Miscommunication. If two communicators share a common background based on the kotodama belief, there will be few problems in their verbal interaction. However, if one of the communicators is not familiar with such a custom, there will be the possibility of misattribution of meaning to the verbalized messages that are affected by the kotodama belief. The author's kotodama-caused interpersonal miscommunication model (Figure 5) attempts to analyze the process in which one communicator is not from a kotodama-based culture, and consequently replies with irrelevant answers. In this model, the process of miscommunication occurs between Japanese A, who believes in the kotodama concept, and Person B who is not influenced by kotodama belief, regardless of his or her cultural background or nationality.

In Figure 5, Japanese Person A has an internalized message in his or her mind (Stage 1), and produces an embodied internalized message that is expected to be encoded (Stage 2). In the encoding process, Japanese A immediately examines, through a kotodama-modifying filter, whether the message is appropriate to encode (Stage 3). Then, the external taboo-free message will be sent to Person B (Stage 4). This message might be euphemistic or noncommital.

The message receiver (Person B) who is not influenced by the kotodama belief, is expected to decode Japanese Person A's true intention hidden in Message 4. Person B, however, does not have a filter to sense that the encoded Message 4 was affected by the kotodama belief and decodes the message directly (Stage 5). Therefore, the content of Message 4 is received literally by Person B (Stage 6). After receiving the message, Person B has the internalized message in his or her mind (Stage 7), and an embodied internalized message is created (Stage 8). Person B then encodes it through the filter of his or her own worldview (Stage 9), and the subsequent message is then sent back to Person A (Stage 10). Although Person A usually decodes the messages through a kotodama-sensing filter, it does not work appropriately in this case (Stage 11). Let us examine this model using the dialogue of Kyoto no bubuzuke again:

Japanese A: Please have at least bubuzuke before you leave.

Person B: Thanks, I will have some.

The context is that Japanese Person A wishes that Person B would leave soon. Japanese A suggests to Person B that he or she should eat bubuzuke before leaving (Stages 1, 2, 3, 4). If Person B is familiar with the custom of Kyoto no bubuzuke, he or she will understand Japanese A's true intention and leave smoothly. In this case, however, Person B does not know what Japanese A is trying to imply, and literally accepts Message 4 of Japanese A (Stages 5 and 6). Person B interprets this suggestion as Japanese A's goodwill and expresses his or her thanks (Stages 7, 8, 9, 10). Japanese A is surprised at Person B's reply (Stages 11 and 12). Overall, this model indicates that ambiguous or euphemistic expressions are not always interpreted in the way they were meant to be.

Perceptual Confusion Due to Words. Izawa (1991) maintains that Japanese people are likely to lose their sense of reality by using substitutive words because of the kotodama belief, in the sense that they do not try to see the truth behind such euphemistically modified expressions. Likewise, people can intentionally mislead others with the power of words. The basic assumption is that what does not exist in words does not exist.

The first problem is that some people try to conceal the seriousness of problems by avoiding certain kinds of expressions. The issue of discriminatory words is a typical example. For instance, the Japanese translation of The Adventures of Pinocchio (written by Carlo Collodi in 1883) was suppressed as a discriminatory work by some groups because the words mekura (blind) and bikko (lameness) were used in it (Sugio & Takahashi, 1990; Takagi, 1988). In this story, the lame fox and blind cat beggars that cheat Pinocchio are expressed as bikko no kitsune to mekura no kojiki (lame fox and blind cat). The controversial point was that some people might perceive the handicapped as if they were ill, and such perception might in turn promote discrimination against the handicapped by such discriminatory words. Later on, these expressions were revised to ashi no warui (bad legs) and me no warui (bad eyes). The misconception in this case is that the problem could be solved merely by avoiding discriminatory words. It should be noted that while replacing words is one thing, actually solving the problem is another altogether. If such a custom becomes second nature, they can change reality only by substituting words. This custom creates the illusion that what does not exist in words does not exist.

The second problem is that reality can be clouded by substitutive words. In the society of kotodama, words with negative connotations tend to be modified into ambiguous or neutral expressions. For example, a price increase is expressed as "a revision of price" in which the sense of increase is lessened. Another way is to use English or katakana (Japanese phonetic syllabary used primarily to approximate the sound of foreign words or names) instead of kanji ideographs to cloud actuality. For instance, Japanese people use katakana characters (representing the sounds o-n-bu-su-ma-n) for the term, "ombudsman system," instead of using the kanji characters for the meaning of this term, the latter having a greater impact on the Japanese people's perception of words.

Obstacles to the Freedom of Speech

The lack of a sense of reality that arises from the emotional feelings caused by kotodama belief sometimes might deprive people of the freedom of speech. Some people avoid expressing any thoughts or statements that may be viewed negatively by others because they fear being seen as doing kotoage of such an incident. Izawa (1991) emphasizes this idea, providing as an example the days of the Pacific War. In those days in Japan, even if one person insisted that the war should stop based on objective data, the person might have been irrationally accused of hoping that Japan would lose the war, and consequently labeled as unpatriotic. Stating an undesirable prediction was seen as if such an incident had been expected to occur; therefore, that statement was regarded as kotoage. Some people could not accept an opinion as just that - only an opinion, which in itself would not bring about any incidents. In such a situation, those who can analyze the situation objectively are compelled to hold their tongues. In a societ y of kotodama, there is an unspoken assumption that one individual's opinion and the reality of the situation are somehow linked together; they cannot be separated. Consequently, there is the feeling that freedom of speech is not actually guaranteed.

Ways to Overcome the Unnecessary Sense of the Kotodama Illusion

Kobayashi (1977) stated that we cannot laugh at ancient Japanese's belief in kotodama because even today we cannot scientifically disprove the power of words. However, now that we have reviewed the kotodama belief objectively, the following statement by Izawa (1991) will be helpful in overcoming an unnecessary fear of kotodama:

A kotodama-ist is possessed by the illusion that "a language synchronizes with the actual things or ideas it represents" as those who hallucinate can see ghosts. In such sense kotodama "exists" as the pathologic phenomenon of hallucination "exists." However, if an individual becomes aware that kotodama is just an illusion, its influence disappears. If only one realizes this, he or she can be free from the influence of kotodama, and can overcome it since kotodama is unsubstantiated by nature. (p.213, translated by Hara)


Kotodama belief results in the perceptual confusion that what does not exist in words does not exist in the physical world, and in the obstacles to freedom of speech because people cannot utter undesirable issues. In order to overcome an unnecessary sense of kotodama power, it is helpful to recognize that kotodama is only an illusion. The conceptualization of the kotodama belief in this paper is also useful for realizing that kotodama is a superstition.

This paper has attempted to reveal the implicit role that the kotodama belief plays in Japanese communication praxis. In conclusion, the author should note that the careful, faithful, and considerate use of words is one thing, while being excessively afraid of kotodama is another. Future studies are expected to analyze Japanese people's tendencies with regard to the various manifestations of kotodama belief, using (1) quantitative methods to see the influence of gender and generation on the degree of belief in kotodama, (2) psychological analysis of people's depths of mind, and (3) crosscultural analysis of verbal superstitions.

(*.) Kazuya Hara (M .A. in Speech, The University of Hawaii, 2000) is a part-time lecturer in the Faculty of' Languages and Cultures at Meikai University, Chiba-ken, Japan. His research interest is in intercultural and interpersonal communication. (footnote continued next page)

The full-length version of this paper originally was published (in English, with some Japanese kanji characters) in the journal, Dokkyo Working Papers in Communication, Vol. 21 (2000), PP. 125-160, which is published by the Dokkyo University Graduate School in Japan. That published version has been abridged and edited for publication in ETC by ISGS Vice President of Publications, Gregory Sawin (in consultation with the author, Mr. Kazuya Hara, and the Editor-in-Chief of ETC. Jeremy Klein). Published by permission of the author. Contact Gregory Sawin (do ISGS, or for a copy of the original article that was published in the Dokkyo University journal.

Acknowledgment: This work is part of a revision and expansion of the author's M.A. thesis, which he submitted to Dokkyo University Graduate School in 1997. The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Professor Satoshi Ishii for his invaluable and insightful advice as an academic adviser, and the author would also like to thank Professor Mitsuru Shinomiya and Professor Kiyoshi Machida for their constructive comments, and Gregory Sawin for his dedicated work in editing this article for ETC.


(1.) Kyoto no bubuzuke literally means a bowl of steamed rice over which hot tea or soup is poured, as served in Kyoto, Japan. This is a euphemism-based interaction seen in Kyoto.


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Author:Hara, Kazuya
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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