Saying 'I love you' is never easy, regardless of whether it’s in one’s mother tongue or not. With Japanese, however, things can get a bit tricky unless you know quite what to say when.
I love you in English
Picture this: You spot an attractive guy or girl at a party and work up the guts to approach him or her. You hit it off with an engaging conversation that goes on all night, and before parting ways, you exchange phone numbers.
A couple of days later, you call and ask your new acquaintance out on a date. The two of you enjoy dinner and a movie and feel even more attracted to each other. You continue to go on dates regularly, and after a while you feel sure that this person is really someone special.
So one evening after yet another amazing dinner together, you look your sweetie in the eye and say those three magic words: 'I love you.' The words are returned and you’re in heaven.
Now the two of you start talking on the phone every day, and every time before you hang up you say ‘I love you.’ You continue to go on dates, and you always say ‘I love you’ before you part ways for the evening. Sometimes you say it just because you want to say it and you want to hear it. I love you, I love you, I love you...
And that right there is a pretty typical description of how a romantic relationship tends to develop between two Westerners. Between two Japanese people, though, the scenario tends to go quite differently.
Photo by Stuck in Customs
I like you in Japanese
So now picture this: You spot an attractive guy or girl at a party and work up the guts to approach him or her. You hit it off with an engaging conversation that goes on all night, and before parting ways you say:
Sore jā, tsugi no pātī de mata aimashō.
Well, maybe we’ll meet again at the next party.
The parties don’t happen that often, but you make sure to go to every one just so you can have the chance to meet that intriguing person again.
After several such parties during which the two of you spend most of the time talking together, one night, you nervously suggest going somewhere else for a cup of coffee.
Tonight’s the night you’re going to do it: you’re going to confess your feelings. Barely able to contain your nerves, you look down at your coffee cup and stammer:
Ano sa, chotto iitai koto ga aru n dakedo...
So um, there’s something I want to say...
You can feel your friend’s eyes on you from across the table, but you don’t dare look up. You have to just say it! Finally, you blurt it out:
Suki desu! Tsukiatte kudasai!
I like you! Please go out with me!
Whoah, whoah, wait a minute...Cut! 'I like you?' Is that it, really?! Well no—it’s not. Not exactly. Let’s stop and explain before our love story gets lost in translation.
Photo by pjan vandaele
So how do you say ‘love’ in japanese?
You may have learned that 好き means ‘like,’ and that the Japanese word for ‘love’ is 愛. This is what your dictionary will probably tell you, but it’s important to understand that some Japanese words simply have no precise English equivalent, and vice-versa.
The same word can also have several different nuances depending on the context in which it is used, and it’s rare that all the possible nuances of a Japanese word directly correspond with those of any English word.
The Japanese words for ‘love’ and ‘like’, 愛 and 好き, are two such examples. Even though my Japanese boyfriend of two years spoke English impeccably, he liked speaking to me in Japanese and that was the only language we spoke together. At one point I started feeling hurt because he never said ‘I love you’—or at least what I thought was the Japanese equivalent.
I thought that ‘I love you’ translated to Japanese was 愛している. When I told my boyfriend this, he replied that most Japanese people had probably never said 愛している to anyone in their lives, or at least not in the same way we say ‘I love you’ in English.
The kanji character for love, 愛, is used in a lot of compound words, such as 愛情 (‘love’ as a noun, not a verb) and 愛犬 (‘beloved dog’). The verb 愛する, however, is generally only used in an exaggerated, almost silly sort of way (like fans shouting 愛してるよー！ to their favorite singer on stage) in everyday contexts.
How to write ‘love’ in Japanese: Calligraphy stroke order.
If used in a serious way to describe affection for someone, though, it’s seen as describing a feeling so strong that it’s almost abstract. In fact, when I asked my Japanese boyfriend if he ‘loved’ me (私を愛してるの？), his response was ‘What is love?’ (愛って何？) I was confused and hurt by this at first, but later I learned to understand.
The word 好き can be translated as ‘like,’ such as when I say 「私は緑茶が好きです」 (I like green tea), or 「猫が好きです」 (I like cats). It can, however, also mean ‘love.’ To express feelings of affection for someone, a Japanese person will usually use 好き.
I had to learn to understand that for my Japanese boyfriend, 「好きだよ」 was just as meaningful as my ‘I love you’—but even so, he didn’t feel the need to say it or to hear it all the time.
Japanese people tend to express their emotions in less obvious ways, like through considerate actions or words of thanks. 好き only needs to be said once in a while, because most of the time it’s just understood.
Natsume Soseki once taught his students that the correct Japanese translation for “I love you” is “Tsuki ga tottemo aoi naa” (The moon is so blue tonight) — from Sato Kenji’s “More Animated than Life: A Critical Overview of Japanese Animated Films,” Japan Echo, 12/97
And now I think we can get back to our interrupted love story. You’ve just blurted out 「好きです！付き合ってください！」 Your heart is beating a million miles an hour, but you finally manage to lift your eyes and look across the table to see the object of your affections looking embarrassed, but grinning from ear to ear. Your loved one says just one word: はい (Okay). And that’s all you need to hear.
Profess your love across Japan
Sounds easy so far? Now try the same in all 47 of Japan's prefectures!
As is the case with many basic words and expressions, there is a considerable difference in how you say ‘I love you’ from one region to another.
Fortunately, Japanese cosmetics maker Shiseido stepped up to the challenge and compiled the Kokuhaku Makeup Collection (Declaration of Love Makeup Collection), a video series of the many different ways to say ‘I love you’ in Japanese, expressed by regional beauties.
Each starts with a brief message in their local dialects, before declaring, “I love you.” While most address their boyfriend or husband, others mention relatives, pets and even belly dancing classmates.
The original videos have unfortunately been removed, so we instead include screen captures.
Toyama: Suki ya cha
Yamagata: Honten daisuki da kan na
Fukushima: Suki da
Aomori: Tange da ba daisuki da yo
Fukui: Daisuki ya za
Hokkaido: Namara suki dassho
Iwate: Zutto daisugi da sukai
Akita: Suttage suki da
Ishikawa: Suki ya yo
Miyagi: Suki desu
Nagano: Daisuki da yo
Niigata: Daisuki da kan na
Saitama: Eree suki nan yo
Gunma: Nakkara daisuki nan sa ne
Ibaraki: Daisuki de shaanme
Tochigi: Honto daisuki da yo
Aichi: Dera suki ya ni
Shizuoka: Bakka suki da
Hyogo: Meccha suki ya de
Osaka: Meccha daisuki ya de
Nara: Honma ni suki ya de
Shiga: Daisuki ya de
Gifu: Meccha suki ya yo
Kyoto: Honma ni suki ya de
Mie: Meccha suki ya de
Wakayama: Meccha suki ya de
Hiroshima: Bari daisuki jake
Tottori: Meccha suki
Tokushima: Honma ni daisuki ya ken
Kochi: Kojanto suki yaki
Ehime: Daisuki yakken
Kagawa: Suitoru ken
Shimane: Daisuki da ken
Yamaguchi: Buchi suki jakee
Okayama: Deeree suki jaken
Kumamoto: Daisuki bai
Okinawa: Deeji daisuki saa
Fukuoka: Bari suitoo yo
Miyazaki: Tege suki yaccha ken
Kagoshima: Wazzee sujjadoo
Nagasaki: Suki bai
Saga: Gabai suitoo yo
Oita: Zutto zutto daisuki bai