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The Word "is" The Thing: The "Kotodama" Belief in Japanese Communication.

Kazuya Hara (*)


In interpersonal communication studies, the bywords are relationship and messages (Knapp, Miller, & Fudge, 1994). Zarefsky (1993) emphasizes that the concern in the discipline of communication is to explore "the relationship between messages and people." In the semantic-oriented viewpoint, communication is seen as the process of transmitting messages to another person, who then interprets those messages by attributing meanings to them. These messages may be sent intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously, and they include information about the content of the message and the relationship among the people communicating (Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jackson, 1967).

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.

The purposes of this paper are to (1) review how kotodama has been viewed historically in the Japanese mind, (2) define and conceptualize the kotodama belief in communication activities, (3) argue and exemplify how modern Japanese people are influenced by the kotodama belief, and (4) discuss the problems that the kotodama belief brings about.

Historical Review of Kotodama

The term kotodama appeared for the first time in classical literature compiled in the Nara Period (710-784 A.D.). Origuchi (1927, 1935, 1943) presented well-organized accounts of changes in the meaning of kotodama over the course of Japanese history. Origuchi argued that the meaning of kotodama has changed three times. The oldest meaning of kotodama was the power of Kami (gods) lying in norito (a ritual prayer offered to Shinto Kami), and it was received by people along with the belief in souls. Then its meaning changed to the souls or spirits in norito, and finally it came to be seen as the souls or spirits in word fragments, words, or languages.

Kindaichi (1944) also categorized kotodama into three types from a linguistic viewpoint: kotodama of verbal action, which means that what people say would be realized; kotodama in some particular kinds of expressions or poems; and kotodama lying in each word inherited from ancestors. Toyoda's (1980) view is that two meanings of the word koto ([meaning.sub.1] = words; [meaning.sub.2] = things), were indistinguishable for ancient Japanese people. Consequently, the belief in kotodama meant that the name and its reality were the same, and the content of people's utterances would actually take place.

This word-is-the-thing superstition also relates to imina. Imi means taboo, and its verb form, imu, means to avoid uttering or doing something because it is taboo. Imina is defined as a person's real name that was disclosed after his or her death (Shinmura, 1991). In ancient Japanese society, it was taboo to let a person's name be known to strangers because his or her name was regarded as the person himself or herself. People feared that someone would control them by a message sent to his or her true name, with the power of kotodama. Even in the Heian Period (794-1191 A.D.), some female writers' true names were not disclosed. Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon were pseudonyms. Fujiwara-no Michitsuna no haha (Fujiwara Michitsuna's mother) or Fujiwara Takasue-no musume (Fujiwara Takesue's daughter) are also examples of when real names were not revealed. In these cases, the fear was that someone's ill kotoage would go toward the lady's true name. The ancient Japanese people thought that nobody could control a per son with the power of kotodama, unless his or her true name had been revealed. Overall, since it was believed that the magical power of words could have control over people whose names had been revealed, people tried to have their true names concealed from others (Umegaki, 1973).

Historical studies on kotodama by non-Japanese scholars indicate that kotodama has been one of the unique characteristics of the Japanese language (Miller, 1982), and is not seen in any other language (Wehmeyer, 1997). In the field of human communication studies, Ishii (1984) points out that kotodama belief is one of the factors of historical and sociocultural background in his enryo-sasshi (reserved demeanor/sharp guess work) communication model. (1) Ishii argues that the fear of kotodama's magical power, internalized in Japanese culture, has created the common belief that silence is a virtue and speech is a vice.

Prior studies analyzing how Japanese people in the past perceived kotodama were based mainly on the analysis of classical literature. (2) In order to understand the concept of kotodama as it relates to modern Japanese people, it is useful to conceptualize kotodama from the viewpoint of message processing in communication, with Japanese people's psychological aspects, and examples of kotodama-based language use.

Conceptualizing the Kotodama Belief

The kotodama belief which the ancient Japanese held in their minds was derived from the concept of animism, the belief in the existence of supernatural spirits in natural objects or phenomena. In this section, the author will conceptualize the primitive sense of kotodama belief (that what is said would be realized), which is seen to be common to both the ancient Japanese and the modern Japanese. First, kotodama will be conceptualized from the semantic viewpoints to clarify its original idea. Then the author will define the kotodama belief in terms of communication activities. Finally, the author will construct a model of the kotodama belief.

Conceptualizing Kotodama from the Semantic Viewpoint

The Semantic Triangle and Kotodama. The basis of kotodama originates from identifying words as things. Ogden and Richards (1923) created a semantic triangle to show the indirect relationship between symbols and their supposed reference (thought) (Figure 1). Reference and referent (things) are linked with a solid line, as are reference and symbols. This means that thought, at the top of the triangle, occurs when we see the referent. Once we see things, we will hit upon some thought in our mind. Therefore, there is a direct or causal relationship between the referent and the reference. Thought is also directly linked with symbols on the other side of the triangle, meaning that symbols can be used to represent thoughts, while thoughts can evoke images of symbols in an individualized way. However, in the concept of kotodama, symbols and referents are confused (Figure 2). Therefore, symbols and referents are also connected by a solid line. In kotodama belief, symbols are seen as if they had a spirit or magical pow er to have the content reference realized.

General Semantics and Kotodama. General semantics studies the relationships between language, thought and behavior, and human beings' reactions to symbols. Korzybski (1994) claimed that words are attempts to map reality, but a verbal map is not the territory, nor can a verbal map ever depict all of the territory. Korzybski maintained that, in order to avoid confusion in communication, we should not identify the symbol with what is symbolized. Hayakawa (1978) contends that "the symbol is not the thing symbolized; the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory it stands for" (p. 25). However, under the influence of kotodama, these relationships are confused.

According to Hayakawa (1978), meanings of words can be categorized as "extensional" or "intensional." Extensional refers to the relatively objective meaning that is found in the physical world - for example, the meaning of "a wife" is determined by observing what a particular wife does in daily life. In contrast, intensional refers to the subjective meaning that is connoted or suggested in our mind - for example, some people believe that "a wife" should do certain things for her husband and children because it is traditional or because it is what men want and expect, etc. Furthermore, intensional meaning is classified into informative connotation, referring to an impersonal connotation that includes its definition and denotation (a wife is a female who is married), and the affective connotation, defined as "the aura of personal feelings it arouses" (p. 64). Reflection on these issues will make it clear that the kotodama belief occurs when people are governed by the intensional, affective connotation of words that arouse superstitious feelings.

Defining the Kotodama Belief

Here are two types of definitions of the kotodama belief, based on the viewpoint of message processing. The first definition is sender-centered, in the process of kotoage (saying something in order to realize it through the power of kotodama):

In phonetically or literally verbalizing what a person thinks or feels, he or she is controlled by the illusion that his or her verbalized intentions will be actualized.

The second definition is receiver-centered, that is, depending on the receiver's perception of spoken or written language:

The illusion that the phonetically or literally verbalized messages will be actualized governs a person's communication activities.

Constructing a Model of the Kotodama Belief

The concept of kotodama occurs on the level of intrapersonal communication. The author's conceptualized kotodama belief model (Figure 3) shows the process of doing kotoage.

This model clarifies the whole process of one's belief that what is uttered would be actualized. Person A consciously has his or her thoughts, ideas, and feelings; and immediately, Internalized Message A is created from them. Before encoding Internalized Message A, Person A asks himself or herself whether this message should be encoded or not, at the stage of internal self-feedback. After Person A has decided to encode the Internalized Message A, a verbalized externalized Message A is produced. The words included in this verbalized Message A are believed to have the power to make the verbalized issues happen or be actualized, whether the message is intentional or unintentional. Internal self-feedback therefore plays an important role in choosing which messages will be verbalized, in order to avoid doing ill or undesirable kotoage.

The Kotodama Belief in Modern Japanese Communication

Modern Japanese people still have a primitive sense of kotodama belief. In this section, first, the author will analyze how the kotodama belief is internally generated in the human brain. Then, examples of verbal and nonverbal messages produced by the kotodama belief will be presented. Finally, the author will attempt to describe how messages are interpersonally processed under the influence of kotodama by using his own model.

The Internal Process of Generating the Kotodama Belief in Japanese Minds

Brain Function and the Perception of Words. Japanese people are sensitive to the arbitrary relationship between sounds and meanings of words. For example, they do not bring shikuramen (cyclamens, which are plants of the primrose family) when they visit a patient in the hospital because shikuramen contains the sounds "shi" (death) and "ku" (hardship). They also avoid bringing saineria (cineraria plants) to the hospital because the plant name sounds like saineru, which means to lie in bed again. Such types of sound-based perception can be explained by Tsunoda's (1985) theory as follows:

The auditory dominance patterns of Japanese and Westerners suggest that the Japanese brain handles logical processes, emotional functions, and even perceptual affinity with nature, all in the left hemisphere, while processing only harmonic and mechanical sounds in the right hemisphere. In the Western brain, the left brain specializes in the processing of linguistic and logical functions, while all other auditory information and functions are handled in the right brain (pp. 76-77).

Based on Tsunoda's (1985) theory, Kamata (1990) demonstrates that this type of perception of sounds was also seen among the ancient Japanese. Kamata's analysis of classical myths and literature shows a common pattern indicating that the ancient Japanese sensed the violent sounds in nature as the voice of Kami or nature, which they consequently smoothed over by kotomuke (persuasion with the power of kotodama). Likewise, the abundance of onomatopoeia in modern Japanese language, such as the sound sarasara (rustling in the wind) or gorogoro (rumble of thunder) seems to reflect Japanese people's sensitivity toward sounds of words caused by kotodama belief in which they feel some kind of spirituality.

Other-oriented Logic and Kotodama. The concept of kotodama is also caused by Japanese people's view of interpersonal relationships, which emphasizes caring for others' feelings. For example, awase logic proposed by Mushakoji (1976), which represents the Japanese thought-pattern of adjusting to others without respect to verbalized messages, enables Japanese people to escape careless kotoage of what they feel hesitant to say directly. In a society of awase logic, people do not rely on standardized word meaning; they read multifarious nuances behind the words and signals.

Japanese people's interpersonal view is also represented by Hamaguchi's (1985) kanjin-shugi (contextualism), which emphasizes mutual dependence, mutual reliance, and regard of interpersonal relations as ends in themselves. Hamaguchi insists that since affectionate mutual aid is essential, people should read mutual true intention, and the relationship once established must be respected as valuable. Hamaguchi's views are supported by Barnlund's (1975) observation that Japanese people try to avoid offending each other, and conflict tends to be averted. In fact, not infrequently, Japanese people use unclear expressions as a display of caring for others' feelings, which stems from the psychology of bokashi (ambiguity or obscurity) (Nakayama, 1986). Nakayama claims that such verbal use is caused by over-thoughtful consideration for others as seen in Japanese people. As these attributes exemplify, Japanese people's interpersonal sensitivity leads them to be careful of their word choice in verbal interactions.

Externally Reflected Aspects of Japanese People's Kotodama Belief

E. T. Hall (1976) proposes two types of cultures, high-context cultures and low-context cultures. In a high-context culture or message, information is either in physical context or is internalized in a person, and very little is in the coded part of the message. Low-context culture, on the other hand, expresses most information in the explicit code. Japan is categorized as a high-context culture, where people read the atmosphere of the context and then thoughtfully verbalize their messages accordingly. Reading the context enables people to avoid carelessly uttering what is impolite or inappropriate.

The Kotodama Belief Reflected in Verbal Messages

Verbal messages stemming from kotodama belief are often seen in daily Japanese interaction. Basically, the fact that Japanese people continue to use words that aim to actualize certain desires, or that they feel a certain aura of some kinds of words indicates that they are influenced by kotodama belief. For example, in New Year's cards, people write "Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu" (A Happy New Year!) praying for others' happiness with the power of kotodama (Higuchi, 1994). Similarly, norito is recited by the priests at shrines, jichinsai (a Shinto ceremony for purifying a building site), and wedding ceremonies even today. On the other hand, the influence of kotodama can also be seen when people do not directly verbalize some messages that they feel hesitant to say. In such cases, people generally use ambiguous or euphemistic expressions. Sometimes, they give messages of tatemae (opinions for the public) to others instead of honne (statements of true intention). Let us look at several examples in which the kot odama belief has remained.

Imikotoba. Taboo words associated with evil are called imikotoba, and people avoid using them so as not to be inauspicious or bring on bad luck (Umegaki, 1973). For example, in a wedding speech in Japan, the word owaru (to be over) is avoided, and instead, the word ohiraki (to bring up to a close) is used. Another example is that some merchants and gamblers do not call dried squid surume, because they associate suru with the verb suru (to lose money). Instead of surume, they use the word atarime because atari means to hit or to succeed. These quaint examples show Japanese people's sense that a word is not simply a sign, but rather a being which arouses supernatural feelings.

Kotodama Belief in Imina. Until the Meiji Era, there was the custom of imina in Japan, when people did not call each other by their first name. However, the remnants of this custom still remain in Japanese people's system of addressing others (Umegaki, 1973; Izawa, 1991). For example, one male adult will be called anata (darling), papa or otosan (father) by his wife, and papa, otosan, or oyaji (daddy) by his children. He will also be addressed by the title of his position such as bucho (the general manager) by his subordinates, or he may be called by his family name with "san" attached (e.g., Nakamura-san) by his fellow workers in the company. Whether people are called by their names or by their positions is decided on the basis of the relationship between superiors and inferiors (Suzuki, 1978). These examples imply that Japanese people feel inexplicable awkwardness in calling each other by their first name, except in relationships such as close friends or married couples, who might make an exception.

Naming. When naming babies, Japanese people are careful to choose characters based on their meaning. For example, the author's name, Kazuya, consists of two Chinese characters that convey the hope that he would be an amiable person. Literally, the first character means amiable or peaceful, and the second character means being so. If a person is far from the meaning of his or her name in a negative sense, some people will say, "He is not worthy of his name." For Japanese people, a name is seen as the figure of a person himself or herself rather than as a sign.

Honorific Expressions. Honorific expressions are thought to have been generated originally from the words used to admire Kami, and they are based on kotodama belief in which people wished for happiness by using beautiful and round-about expressions (Tsujimura, 1992). Kindaichi (1959), on the other hand, states that Japanese honorific expressions seem to have stemmed from fear of the taboo sense of careless words. Honorific expressions also function to express respect and humility. Respectful forms are used when people address or talk with people whose status is higher than theirs. Humble forms are used in reference to the speaker's own feelings or action when talking to his or her superiors. These two types of expressions are used to express the speaker's politeness and social deference to superiors, elders, or others.

Preferences for Words Associated with Fortune. Like the English "lucky number" 7, Japanese also feel some kind of power in words that connote fortune. For example, in Hokkaido (Northern Japan), a pair of tickets from two stations was popular. This pair was from the "Station of Happiness" to the "Station of the Country of Love" (Sengoku, 1996). People kept these tickets as a good luck charm for happiness and love.

Perceptual Issues in Japanese Language. Japanese people feel that there is some kind of aura to words that have a strong visual impact. Since Japanese kanji characters ("picture" characters derived from Chinese) are ideographic, they visually appeal to the eye. For example, when someone tries to stop smoking, it has more impact on his or her visual perception to write the declaration to stop smoking as "quit smoking!" in kanji, rather than to write something in sentence style, such as "I will stop smoking." On the other hand, some Japanese might feel more strongly if hiragana (syllabic, non-ideographic) characters were used to describe the image. For example, to emphasize the warmth of a person's personality, using the adjective, "ho-no-bo-no," written by using one hiragana character for each syllable, sometimes appeals to the Japanese mind more than the same idea written in kanji. For some Japanese people, the former (more colloquial) expression evokes a feeling of that person's fine character, while the lat ter (more literal) provides merely an intellectual understanding of his or her personality. Expressions in hiragana (especially in Yamato language) tend to appeal to Japanese people's emotions (Watanabe, 1974).

Also, Japanese people tend to be moved when they read or hear expressions such as those in the rhythm of a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, based on which waka is read with the power of kotodama. For example, when we attempt to tell others not to dash into the road because cars cannot stop suddenly, it is emphasized by saying "tobidasuna kurumahakyuni tomarenai." In normal conversational style, we might say something like "Before crossing the street, one should carefully determine that no cars are coming," but the 5-7-5 style gives it more impact: "Look both ways before crossing!"

(*.) 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.

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 (c/o 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.) Other historical and sociocultural backgrounds of enryo-sasshi communication suggested by Ishii (1984) are Japanese society's ethnic homogeneity, the autonomous rice-growing village life, Zen philosophy, and Confucianism.

(2.) For more information on kotodama in classical literature, see the original version of this article that was published in the Dokkyo University journal.


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Author:Hara, Kazuya
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Date:Sep 22, 2001
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