Four meanings of life (inochi)

In modern Japanese, inochi basically has four meanings.

The first meaning is the mysterious power or energy that keeps creatures and humans alive. For example, there are such expressions as ‘wash one’s inochi’ (14), which means the recovery of power that keeps us alive; ‘at the height of inochi’ (15), which means the peak of a creature’s life; and ‘burn up one’s inochi’ (16), which means to burn up one’s energy of living (and die). There is also the expression ‘to take over inochi from one’s ancestors’. This phrase means the succession of the dynamic power of living from generation to generation, rather than the succession of a living state. These meanings have a close relationship to the meaning of inochi as the energy of breath. On the one hand, breath makes an individual creature alive inside its body, but on the other hand, breath flows out of [87/88] an individual and then slips into another individual’s body. In this way, inochi, in the form of breath, incessantly interconnects all living creatures on the earth synchronically and diachronically.

The second meaning of inochi points to the period between birth and death, or the state of being alive. There are some expressions which stand for dying such as ‘inochi ends’, ‘lose one’s inochi’, and ‘drop one’s inochi’ (17). There are other interesting expressions such as ‘inochi shrinks’ (18), which means to encounter a danger; ‘one’s inochi is short’ (19), which means that there remains a short time until one’s death; ‘deposit one’s inochi with somebody’ (20), which means to leave one’s destiny under somebody’s control; and ‘pick up one’s inochi’ (21), which means to escape death accidentally. There are many more expressions that fall under this category in modern Japanese. At the root of all of these expressions there is an understanding that inochi is limited in time and space. In other words, inochi has its beginning and end, and thus an ‘inochi being (inochi arumono)’ must die sooner or later; at the same time, one’s inochi is completely different from another inochi in its existence and its death. Therefore, one can never die with another, only die one’s own death. The first meaning of life energy and the second of being alive seem to contradict each other. We shall discuss this point further later on.

The third meaning is ‘the most essential part’ of an object. For example, ‘to take away something’s inochi’(22) does not mean to kill it, but to take away its most important and essential quality … that is, for example, the function of bodily movement in a dancer, or the beautiful song of a canary. This word is sometimes applied to non-living things, such as ‘the inochi of a doll’ (23).

The last meaning of inochi is eternal life. The phrase ‘eternal inochi’ is to be found in religious materials written in Japanese. For example, Christianity in Japan preaches that we obtain eternal inochi through belief in God, and the Jodo sects of Buddhism preach that we obtain eternal inochi in Sukhavati (Jodo, the pure Land) in the next world (24). There is a great variety of usages for the word inochi in modern Japanese, but these are basically variations on a theme which can be classified under one of the four categories mentioned above.

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The Concept of Inochi (life) (1991)
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