The Power of Names

I just re-watched one of my favorite movies of all time, Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. All of his films are fantastic, both light-hearted and serious, full of detail, and always tackling universal issues like growing up, forming one’s identify, and conserving natural resources.

I’ll give a short synopsis for those who haven’t seen it (spoiler alert)…Spirited Away is about a little girl named Chahiro who moves to new town with her parents. During the drive to their new house, Chahiro’s dad veers off the main road to explore a bit, and they end up at the entrance to an abandoned theme park. While walking around, they smell cooking food and head towards the source. The delicious food tempts Chahiro’s parents into eating, and her parents gorge themselves, but Chahiro eats nothing. It turns out that the abandoned park is actually part of the spirit world, and the food that her parents ate was meant for the spirits. Her parents’ piggish behavior turns them into pigs, but Chahiro remains a human. However, despite the fact that she has not been turned into an animal, she has no way to get home, so must start working at the bath house in the spirit world. Over the course of the film, she goes through many trying experiences, learns to work hard, fights a demon, and gains courage and strength that didn’t posess before. She also frees the friend she has made, Haku, from the bonds of the bath house owner, turns her parents back into humans, and leaves the spirit world.

One of the underlying themes of the movie has to do with naming and identity. When Chahiro starts working at the bath house in the spirit world, she must handover her name to Ubaba, the owner of the bath house, in order to gain employment there. She is given a new name, Sen. Ubaba controls the workers at the bath house by stealing their names and giving them new ones, so if Chahiro/Sen ever forgets her real name, she can never leave the bath house, which is exactly what happened to her friend Haku. He is a river spirit who forgot his real name and has never been able to stop working for Ubaba. Part of Sen’s adventure includes helping Haku remember his real name and who he is. There is something powerful about the characters’ real names, the knowledge and ownership of which allow them to remain free and independent and avoid the grasp of Ubaba. The power that is accorded to names in the movie reminded me a little bit of the way that names are viewed in Nepali culture.

For starters, there are specific rules that dictate when it is appropriate to call someone by their first name and when it is not. It’s impolite to refer to people by first name in many circumstances, especially with elders. We have something similar in English. Children often use kinship terms like mother, father, grandmother and grandfather (or their equivalents like mommy, daddy, etc.) because not doing so is generally impolite. Growing up, I knew a few people who called their parents by their first names, but I always felt weird about doing it with my own parents.

This feeling of embarrassment about using first names with elders is multiplied a hundred times in Nepal. It’s extremely rude to call your elders by their first names, so kinship terms are used instead. Each term reveals the particular relationship between the person being referred to and the person using the term. For example, I often mention Mama and Maijiu on this blog. Mama means maternal uncle and is Tri’s mom’s brother. Maijiu means maternal uncle’s wife. Paternal uncle is said in a completely different way (kaka). There’s something about this rule that gives a certain power to first names. I guess that part of it is that uttering someone’s first name suggests that you are senior to them, so saying someone’s name in a way confirms your higher position in the hierarchy.

Wives are also not supposed to call their husbands by first names, although husbands can refer to their wives by the first name, a rule that I’m not too keen on. Once, when I was in Nepal two years ago, I was going out with Mamu to the store. Buwa was going to arrive before we got back to the house but he didn’t have the key, so she asked a neighbor to give him the key when he got there. To refer to Buwa, Mamu wouldn’t say his name; instead, she called him sir, a term the younger neighbor might have used to refer to Buwa (not the name that Mamu would have called Buwa while talking to him). I’ve also heard women refer to their husbands as uhaa or hajur, both honorific third person pronouns that can be used for men or women (the closest equivalents in English are “he,” “she,” “him,” or “her”).

There is another part of Nepali Hindu culture that accords power to names. The Nwaran ceremony is a ritual that takes place after the eleventh day in a child’s life (it might be a different day for girls; I’m not sure). During this event, the child is given a “secret name,” based on his horoscope, that he’s not supposed to disclose to anyone else. It reminds me of Christian baptism, although I don’t think the names given during baptism are supposed to be secret. If anyone else finds out about this name, they can supposedly use it to gain power over that person. When I was looking for information on this ceremony, I was able to find stuff about the rituals but not so much about the significance behind them. If anyone knows more about it, please chime in!

I’m not sure if my ramblings are really making sense. There’s no direct parallel between Spirited Away and naming practices in Nepal, but something about that movie reminded me of Nepali culture. What do you think? Is it valid to make these connections between Spirited Away and Nepali/Hindu culture?


6 thoughts on “The Power of Names

  1. I remember that you had some friends from other cultures who did not like using my first name, so they called me “Zoe’s mom”. I liked that because I was so proud to be your mom!

  2. When P and I were in Nepal in 2009 P’s mother was forever telling me to “khao khao khao” so one day I started gently teasing P at the table (it was just the two of us eating lunch, Mamu was in the kitchen cooking/serving) and said to him “khao khao khao” but P’s mom corrected me “no no…. khaonus, respect.”

    I told P later, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to use extra respectful verbage to you just because you are a man. Respect is reciprocal even if it is conveyed through language.”

    I haven’t been corrected again, but I’m also pretty bad at using Nepal around the family. Perhaps someday this will come up again.

    • I’ve never been told directly that I should use the more formal form, and I never do with Tri, but when people hear me say things like “khao” to him, they do sometimes look at me kind of funny 🙂

      The first time I met Tri’s mom, we went out to dinner and she was offering me some food, but I was full, so I said, “timi khao” to her. Tri had never taught me the polite form! So I didn’t know I was supposed to say “tapaai khanus.” She looked shocked for a second and then started laughing. I must have sounded ridiculous! haha

  3. I love Spirited Away!! Your summary of the movie was perfect! I think I am going to go home and watch it tonight. 🙂 Miyazaki is an artistic genious. My husband does not like anaimation what so ever (I do), but he enjoyed watching Whisper to the Heart. I reccomend this if you haven’t seen it. thanks for the nostalgic post

    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen Whisper to the Heart, but it sounds kind of familiar. I’ll definitely have to check it out!

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