by Maki Sato

Conceptual definition

The concept of good and evil originates from being pure/clean (jo, 浄) or not (fujo, 不浄). As Shinto considers all spirits (tama, 霊) as being neutral, whether a phenomena or objects turn into good or evil depends on how the spirits are treated with purity and honesty (myojoshojiki, 明浄正直) by human beings. Because of their inherent value-neutrality, invisibility, and lack of bodies, spirits can also descend on words. In other words, it is believed that words also have their own inherent spiritual power, known as kotodama (言霊). The spirituality within words is believed since around the seventh-century Heian period. Such spirituality embedded in words are given value through spoken words, through norito (祝詞). Norito can be either yogoto (寿詞, words of happiness), haraenokotoba (祓詞, words for cleansing), or juso (呪詛, words for cursing).  

Philosophical significance

Individual human beings can also be objects upon which the spirit descends. Kuchiyose (口寄せ) is performed in order to listen to what the spirits have to say through language via a person, often a woman (miko, 巫女). Words that are from god spirits are called shinchoku (神勅) and such acts are called takusen (entrusted-words託宣). Moreover, there are no sacred texts in Shinto. Because non-visible and value-neutral of thinking grounds in Shinto, human individuals are supposed to be the ones who need to be clean and honest and lead lives of diligence and self-discipline.

Historical context

The concept of value-neutrality and such understandings that it is reflected in the act of words, kotodama, can be found in Kojiki (古事記, 712). The concept of Freedom is not explicitly written or explained in Shinto. Therefore, it is almost impossible to identify when the term appeared. However, the concept of kami as freed from a) ontic object (the spirits can descend on anything, or it can appear itself through natural phenomena), b) sacred text (sacred texts do not exist in Shinto), c) the notion of good and evil, exists from the establishment of Shinto through Japanese encounters with Buddhism around the eighth century.

Related terms in historical context

Body/Embodiment and Body-Value-freed-Spirit (tama): the idea of body/embodiment in relation to invisibility and value-neutrality,the idea of tama strongly relates to kotodama.

Marebito(稀人): originally means “guest.” Origuchi Shinobu (折口信夫, 1887–1953) call the ancestral spirits as marebito that peridoically brings luck and good when the ancestral spirits are treated well. Origuchi, as an anthropologist, analysed that matsuri (festival, 祭)


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