0

Can someone explain the “power words” in Japanese? I remember learning that it was once thought that Japanese had reached a level of completeness beyond many other languages because of certain words with complex meaning that distinctively occurred in Japanese. What are these words, and what do they mean?

I also remember learning that this concept became less important after the mid 20th century. Do they still have relevance to modern Japanese life?

  • 2
    Is it something related to Buddhism like your previous questions? I've never heard of such a notion. Do you know what it's called in Japanese? – broken laptop Oct 7 '20 at 3:10
  • もしかして「オン・コロコロ・センダリ・マトウギ・ソワカ」みたいなアレ…? – naruto Oct 7 '20 at 4:00
  • I don’t think it was Buddhist. I saw this reading an English language book on Japanese years ago. I didn’t understand the concept then and I was hoping you guys might recognize it right away. It was described as an ultra-nationalistic propaganda method of the Japanese to express their superiority over other nations in the early 20th century. Whether this description is accurate I can’t say, and I don’t have the source text at hand. @naruto, is that a prayer? – Ragaroni Oct 7 '20 at 11:04
  • 1
    German has very specific compound words like Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, but it doesn't mean German is "more complete". – user253751 Oct 7 '20 at 11:38
  • I guessed you might mean Buddhist mantra, but looks like this is not the word you want... – naruto Oct 7 '20 at 11:51
6

I strongly suspect that the book you mention in your explanatory comment was referring (perhaps in a somewhat garbled way) to the notion of kotodama 言霊, particularly as elaborated in the writings of Motoori Norinaga(本居宣長) and other members of the Edo-period kokugaku (国学) movement (often glossed in English as the "National Learning," "Native Studies," or "Nativist" movement).

Kotodama doesn't actually mean "power words," but something more like "the soul of a word," "the spirits of words," or "the spirit of [the Japanese] language." However, the concept of kotodama does ascribe mystical power to certain Japanese words or combinations of words which, when spoken aloud in a ritual setting, were believed to have the ability to alter reality itself. The belief that this power was unique to the Japanese language and made Japan a special land dates all the way back to the ancient poetry collection known as Man'yôshû (万葉集), which was Motoori Norinaga's source for both the term and the concept. And it seems that because this notion of magical power is so central to the concept of kotodama, the term is sometimes (mis)translated into English as "power words".

Many of the nativists' ideas about Japanese uniqueness and superiority – very much including their ideas about kotodama – were quite influential among twentieth-century Japanese nationalists, who adapted them for use in official and unofficial propaganda in the period before and during World War II. (You can read a little bit about how the notion of kotodama informed propaganda and wartime government policy in this blog post by a sociolinguist at Oxford University.) After the end of the war, nativist claims about Japanese superiority were suppressed by the Occupation authorities and critiqued by Japanese intellectuals, and for the most part, these ideas fell out of favor. However, even today there are people in Japan who believe in some version of kotodama.

  • 1
    Great research! All my base are belong to you! – broken laptop Oct 8 '20 at 5:36
  • 1
    Thanks, @broccoli facemask - cloth! – Nanigashi Oct 8 '20 at 5:38
  • I think very many people in Japan (perhaps the majority) still believe in kotodama, just in a much weaker sense of the concept than what is mentioned in this post. More like in the 縁起でもないことを言うな sense of things: that saying something negative can cause it to happen. – Darius Jahandarie Oct 8 '20 at 14:42
4

Do you mean パワーワード? パワーワード in Japanese is actually a recent slangy phrase. It came into common use around 2012. It refers to a "funny/silly phrase" which is nonsensical but has a potential to become a net meme. For example "All your base are belong to us" would have been called an English パワーワード if it had been born in 2017.

I don't think the concept of "power words" was a thing before the mid 20th century. Before 2010, the term パワーワード might have been used by a few people, with various definitions such as "effective wording to convince people", "sales words" or "words with magical power", but it was never a common established phrase. Maybe you have something completely different in mind. Do you have examples of "Japanese power words" used before 2010?

EDIT: I am aware of no phrase that might be translated as "power words" and means "ultra-nationalistic propaganda method of the Japanese to express their superiority over other nations". The concept itself can be expressed like 選民思想によるプロパガンダ, 国粋主義的な洗脳, 人種主義的教育, etc...

  • I think Ragaroni is saying that the idea that the Japanese language contained "power words" was used in nationalist propaganda, not that the term "power words" (or its supposed Japanese equivalent) referred to such propaganda. – Nanigashi Oct 7 '20 at 22:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.