The Equality before the “Words” in Japanese Culture


Yaegaki Shrine, the place the first Japanese poem was composed.

There has been a sense of “equality” before the “words” in the Japanese culture.  In the ancient Japan, the Japanese poems were fairly appreciated and valued regardless of the poet’s rank and social standing.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Genesis 1:1

It was almost as if the ancient Japanese also regarded the “words” to be divine as stated in the old testament. This deep reverence for spoken words is called “kotodama” in Japanese language. “Koto” means “things,” “words,” or “phenomena” and “tama” means “soul/spirit” or “treasure.”  This word signifies the concept that the “Word” in Japanese culture has spiritual essence and is something very precious.

The ancient Japanese believed that if one speaks of something, they will literally manifest what they said.  So people in the old times were extremely careful not to say bad words. This is called “Kotoage sezu” (Not say what you don’t want).  Even now, the Japanese people have tendency to be vague and not say much when they are not sure about something.

In the famous anthology of Japanese poems, “Manyoshu,” which is said to have been completed around AD 759, the poems composed by the Emperors were published side by side to the poems composed by people without ranks.  The poems composed by the Emperors, aristocrats, government officials, farmers, soldiers, traveling female dancers, hunters and fishermen were included.  Some of the poems were composed in regional dialects.

The following poem was composed by a famous poet, Kakinomoto no Hitomaro to bid farewell to someone who was going far away.

This wonderful county of Yamato (Japan) is the country that the words have power to help us. So I say to you, “Good luck!”

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro

The fact that someone such as Kakinomoto no Hitomaro whose rank was quite low was considered a legendary poet means that the poems were valued for their power to influence the reality and to move people’s hearts.

This tradition still exists in modern Japan. At the beginning of the year, the event called “Utakai hajime” (First Poetry Reading) is held at the Japanese Imperial Palace. The Emperor would give the yearly “theme” to the general public and anyone can enter. The poems are judged by professional poets.  If your poem is selected, you will be invited to the event at the Imperial Palace to discuss the poem with the Emperor.

Imperial Household Agency of Japan

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