‘Kokoro’, Harmony Between the Heart and Mind

Meaning ‘heart’, ‘mind’ and ‘essence’ alternately, this Japanese term bears a philosophical dimension unique to the country.


WordsLéa-Trâm Berrod

© Japan House

Shinzou, ha-to, kokoro… In Japanese, these three words refer to the heart, whether the physical organ or the feeling of love. However, the latter term also comprises the notion of the mind. 

Its ideogram appears in the construction of Japanese words like ‘psychology’ and ‘anxiety’. ‘Kokoro has three basic meanings: the heart and its functions; the mind and its functions; and the centre, or essence’, states Shohaku Okumura, a Soto Zen priest.


An untranslatable expression

To the Japanese, the heart and mind prove to be intrinsically linked in the definition of kokoro. Historically, it derives from the terms kogori, kogoru and koru which signify a place where something doesn’t move, or the act of standing still in itself. This ‘something’ therefore represents the soul, sentiments and thought. 

In Western languages, its translation is limited to one word, ‘mind’. ‘Kokoro is well understood in Japanese, but difficult to explain in English’, Sakiko Yoshikawa, director of Kyoto University’s Kokoro Research Centre, explained to Quartz. 

Depending on its use, kokoro can be interpreted in several ways. For example, ‘your kokoro is weak’ would refer to mental strength, while the expression ‘put your kokoro into something’ would relate more to feelings.