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

“Losers” have been equally respected as “Winners” in Japan


Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 7.17.40 PM.png

The drawing of the first recorded Sumo wrestling match by Nomi no Sukune and Taima no Kehaya.

There are lots of uniquely Japanese customs and practices that surprise people from other cultures. One of them may be the fact that the Japanese people have loved and paid respect to those who publicly recognized as “losers” along with the “winners.”  From the ancient time, people were not just judged by the result.

An excellent example of this is the fact that the man who lost Japan’s first official recorded Sumo wrestling match is still loved and respected in Japan after 2000 years. His name was Taima no Kehaya (Taemak Ehaya) who excelled in kicking technique.

The first Sumo wrestling match in Japan was inspired by Emperor Nintoku who reigned BC97 to BC30.  Nomi no Sukune who was originally from Izumo region and Taima no Kehaya fought in front of the Emperor.  According to the ancient Japanese history publication “Kojiki,” Nomi no Sukune is the 14th descendant of Amenohohi who was the second son of Amaterasu (Amaterasu Omikami) .  Kehaya is said to have broken his back because of this match and lost.  Nomi no Sukune was given the land Kehaya owned as a result.  The land is still called Taima town in Nara.

Nomi no Sukune is still revered and respected at numerous shrines in Japan as the originator of Sumo wrestling.   However,  this part is uniquely Japanese phenomena.   Kehaya who lost the match has been even more loved and respected by the people of Japan.  Kehaya is revered and respected at the Sumo shrine along with Nomi no Sukune.  The winner and the loser have been respected at the same location.

The Sumo stadium in the town of Taima in Nara is has been called “Kehaya-za” after Taima no Kehaya.  “Kehaya-zuka,” the mound (tomb) of Kehaya is still preserved in Nara.  Even if he lost quite publicly, he was never disgraced and people continued to loved and respect him.

Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 7.34.35 PM.png

Kehayazuka, the tomb of Taima no Kehaya in Nara, Japan

At the site of the ancient “Kehaya-zuka (Kehaya mound),”  it says the following;

The winners are not necessarily always superior.
One may become a loser by chance or the lack of fortune.

It’s good to give applause to the winners.
However, the losers also deserve a drop of our tears.

Words engraved in Kehaya-zuka, the tomb of Taima no Kehaya

敗者とな ることもある。


It has been said in the Western world, “History is written by the winners” as Winston Churchill has said “History is written by the victors” and Dan Brown also said “History is always written by the winners.”

True. But not in Japan.

It has been the tradition to honor both parties after conflicts or battles. People did not believe in just deleting the existence of the parties who have lost.  The fact that the Japanese people preserved the names, graves and shrines in honor of people who were “losers” show the Japanese mentality of “wa” or unity.  It is based on the Japanese philosophy that both the losers and the winners are 2 sides of coins.  Without remembering the other side of the story, you will never retain the whole story.