Paula Lydon wrote:
~~Kotodama--we don't do this much in my dojo so I've been reading up on the practice in various books. Now I've confused myself greatly...HELP! Some practices have only these four sounds during 'rowing' practice, while others want you to practice an orchestra of gut sounds.
I think it is undeniable that sound plays a vital role in our lives. Think of the wind, for example, in a full force gale, or the sound of the sea crashing against the shore in a typhoon. And then there are human sounds. When I drive to and from school I like to listen to music, but I prefer opera: human voices with the music. The fact that the words are in German or Italian does not detract from the effect of the sound. There are other examples. When I was a boy, I often attended High Mass, sung in Latin with plenty of Gregorian chants. The fact that very few of the congregation understood the Latin did not, in my opinion, detract from its value as prayer, or from the haunting effects of the chanting.
Of course, with human sounds, at some point the question of meaning arises. The ancient Greek sages like Heraclitus expressed themselves in verse, usually in riddles and certain human sounds, like the oracles of the Sybil, were thought to have extraordinary power. In ancient Japan 'norito' prayers and 'waka' poetry were the first examples of kotodama (for which the normal dictionary definition is the divine power believed to lie in the words uttered. See, for example the latest edition of Gakken's Kanji-gen, p.1380, under 'gen' Œ¾). The power of the words lay in their effectiveness in summoning the kami. Now the Founder's discussions of kotodama have to be seen in relation to this tradition, which can be tapped, in my opinion, only with a detailed study of ancient Japanese texts.
But some might say, that is arid academic study and sounds are important in aikido. I also believe that John Stevens though O Sensei guilty of linguistic imperialism, when the latter said that kotodama could be expressed only in Japanese. He is right that the Founder was guilty of linguistic imperialism, but not for these reasons. The Founder was a man of his time and, like very many contemporary Japanese people, believed that the Japanese language can really be understood only by Japanese. If I said the same about English, I'd be laughed out of court. However, I think that some very important features of kotodama are based on certain aspects of the Japanese language and these features are not found in other languages, such as English.
Of course, you can read Mr Stevens' book and practise with the tapes. I suppose you could even call this kotodama, though I myself do not believe this is right. In some dojos they practise kiai regularly and we all do the He - Ho and E - Sa during funakogi undo. John Stevens' teacher was Rinjiro Shirata, whose family were Omoto-kyo believers (I think it was his association with Onisaburo deguchi that led the Founder to study kotodama). Shirata Sensei also was an Omoto believer and once talked to me about the value of kotodama for his own training.
However, the vast majority of my own aikido teachers practised and taught in comparative silence, I suspect because they did not understand the Founder's discussions, monologues rather, about kotodama and found what he said of little value for their own training. For them kotodama was definitely icing on a cake best eaten plain.
A good place to start would be William Gleason's The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido. In Gleason's book, you will find either a spur to further interesting studies of your own, or enough about kotodama to last you a lifetime.