When you are interested in a culture and start learning a new language, for some reason, the word “love” and the phrase “I love you” are some of the first people usually want to know and remember. Maybe this is why you are now reading the article. While love may be universal, the ways to express it differ in every culture. The cultural norm regarding the expression of feelings of love in Japanese culture may be very different from what you are used to—so be sure to read this article before declaring your flame!
The Vocabulary of Love in Japanese
In Japanese, “love” is “ai” [愛], from which the word “aijou” [愛情], which means “affection,” comes from. Another word for “love” is “koi” [恋], which is more about romantic or passionate love. The two kanji for “koi” and “ai” put together are read “ren-ai” [恋愛], which is also another word for love, often used to say if you are in a romantic relationship.
In Japanese, there are many ways to say, “I love you.” The translation you will find most often is “aishiteru” [愛してる]. However, you need to know that in Japanese culture, this word conveys deep, serious feelings. It is a beautiful word that tends to be more used in written form than in spoken language. In general, Japanese people hardly say it.
Another expression to convey feelings of love is “suki” [好き], which also means “like.” “Suki” can be used to say you like football. However, when used about a person, it is a way to say you really like that person, but without the dramatic intensity of “aishiteru.” It is the preferred expression to declare your love to your special someone. (I will get back to this later.)
Derived from “suki” is the expression “daisuki” [大好き], with the kanji for “big” in front of “suki.” You can use it to say you do not just like, but love football. Used regarding a person, it means you really like them a lot, which makes it like “suki” in a way, but also a bit more straightforward. This one can be used with good friends as it does not only have a romantic relationship connotation. Still, you should be cautious about using it with members of the opposite sex.
Even though there are many ways to say, “I love you,” in Japanese, these words are not used on a frequent basis. The Japanese can be puzzled by US movies in which characters very openly and often say to their romantic partners, family, and friends, “I love you.”
When I asked her about it, a young Japanese friend told me: “Rather than telling me ‘aishiteru’ or ‘daisuki,’ my family and friends send me texts saying they often think about me. That is their way to show me they care about me even though we are far from each other. I guess Japanese people prefer indirect ways of telling their feelings.”
The Japanese consider that if the words “I love you” are said too many times or to too many people, they sort of lose value. You will even find some older couples who have never said it to each other! Even though younger generations are a bit more demonstrative, even today, the way to express one’s feelings lies somewhere else than in words. This can give the false impression that Japanese people are cold. How do they convey their feelings then? Keep reading to learn more!
The Importance of Confessing Your Feelings
Recently, one of my colleagues told me, “Something I find confusing in the Western love culture is that people start having a relationship before telling each other how they feel.” In some Western cultures, it is not rare to see people date a few times, start holding hands and kiss if they get along well, and tell their feelings to each other later.
However, an important aspect regarding love in Japanese culture is the custom of confessing your feelings before seriously dating someone. Confessing is called “kokuhaku” [告白] in Japanese. The typical sentence used to confess, that you may have seen in manga or Japanese TV series, is: “Suki desu. Tsukiattekudasai.” That can be translated as, “I love you. Please date me.”
As mentioned earlier, “suki” is a lighter, easier way to say, “I love you.” (“Aishiteru” from the start would sound over the top.) Here, “tsukiattekudasai” must be understood not just as going on a date with someone but becoming officially one’s boyfriend or girlfriend.
Japanese culture is usually very ambiguous, and my guess is the confession tradition helps both parties to know exactly what the status of the relationship is. This can be confusing for people from Western culture when dating a Japanese partner: even though you go on several dates together and get along very well, nothing concrete happens to give you a hint. As you may know, in Japanese culture, physical touch, such as hugging or holding hands, is rarer than in the West and is not considered lightly. So, the other person may be waiting for the green light before attempting to touch you or letting you touch them.
Japanese people are also quite shy and may be afraid of rejection, and from a Western perspective, you may feel like the progress in the relationship is taking ages. In that case, it may be a good idea to be the one to take the first step. If you are a girl, you can also try to make good use of the Japanese Valentine’s Day tradition.
Although people who have lived abroad and the increasing popularity of dating apps are altering the confession game a little, confessing your love for someone is still seen as a common way to proceed in Japanese dating.
“The Moon Is Beautiful, Isn’t It?”
As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, telling your feelings through words has not always been seen as a natural thing to do. Japanese people remain shy regarding the matter, especially men, and the following anecdote illustrates it very well.
There is a famous urban legend in Japan stating that famous novelist Natsume Soseki once translated “I love you” to “Tsuki wa kirei desu ne?”, which can be translated in English as “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?” However, there is no text translated by Soseki in which the sentence can be found. The theory is that when Natsume Soseki was an English teacher, one of his students translated “I love you” literally, and the writer told him to translate it as “Tsuki wa kirei desu ne?” instead.
Even though there is no written proof backing up this story, a lot of Japanese know this anecdote and consider it true. I think the main reason why the Japanese like this story so much is that they are conscious of their shyness and that their way of expressing their feelings is typical of their country’s culture. Another interpretation of the story is that Soseki was too much of a romantic to not add a bit of poetry to the love confession.
This urban legend is so popular that the phrase is apparently still in use as a clever way to confess feelings.
Expressing Love through Actions Rather Than Words
If previous generations hardly exchanged love words, and the current generation does not say them often, how do Japanese people express their love and affection? The answer is: through their actions. In Japanese culture, love words are considered empty if they are not accompanied by a behavior that reflects those feelings.
Like in other cultures, it can mean complimenting your partner, sending texts, making presents. It also means trying to anticipate your partner’s needs and what could make them happier. It is, for example, giving your significant other their favorite food or drink after a long day of work. Here are a few quotes with concrete examples I gathered from people around me:
- “More than being told nice words, I feel my partner loves me when they do nice things for me without expecting anything in return. That is true, unconditional love!”
- “After work, my girlfriend and I always wait for each other so we can take the train back home together.”
- “When I was upset, my boyfriend showed up at my place with a big chocolate cake (my favorite).”
- “I feel I am loved when my partner helps me carry heavy bags, makes time to see me even when busy, and walks on the more exposed side of the road when we walk together.”
- “I have allergies and my husband changed his diet to match mine even though I did not ask him to.”
- “I feel loved when my partner shows they care about and respect the same things I care for. For example, my family and friends, my time, or the places that are important for me. I do not want them to feel the same feelings as I do regarding these things, but to show empathy. That shows they care about me as a whole.”
- “When I got some health trouble, my husband waited for me for an hour and a half, standing outside of the ladies’ clinic (they would not let him in).”
- “My boyfriend always pretends that planning to go out together is a pain, but he always looks for a restaurant that I would like or an activity that is linked to my tastes and hobbies.”
- “More than words, I prefer when my partner shows me that they think of me first. Like, when they give me the last bite of their dessert [laughs].”
Even though the main means of expressing love in Japanese culture differ from Western culture, we share the idea that love is something built with time through everyday actions. The feelings are the same. Only, for Japanese people, actions speak louder than words.