Love is special. Being able to say it in Japanese makes it more special. You look up the phrase, fire away, and now you are married. Except you probably just used it completely wrong, and are heart-broken. A little bit of web research will show you that “You don’t say I love you in Japanese” or “This is the real way to say I love you in Japanese.”
What’s going on? Does love not exist in Japan?
The Big Three “I love you” Phrases
There are many ways to phrase “I love you,” but the most common you’ll be introduced to are:
- 好き (suki) – literally “like”
- 大好き (daisuki) – literally “big like”
- 愛している (aishiteiru) – literally “I love you”
Now all you need to do is choose one, play around with the grammar a bit (ex. add in a です-desu) to sound a little more impressive, and your love will be transmitted fast and efficiently!
Not so fast, it’s time to flip everything you think you know.
愛している (Aishiteiru) is not said. Or is it?
It’s weird to hear that of the three phrases above, the one that is actually “I love you” isn’t used to say, well… “I love you.” However, this isn’t entirely correct.
Love must pre-date a few hundred years though, right? Yes, Japan also took the kanji for love 愛 (ai) many centuries before they gained an official “I love you.” The Japanese never foresaw that it would become a popular tattoo for non-Japanese, otherwise they would have thought twice.
The original love borrowed from China isn’t what it seems though. The kanji was borrowed for the word 愛しい (itoshii), which is what love meant to the Japanese. 愛しい is an adjective that means someone endearing that you want to protect.
The easiest visual example of this is Gollum from Lord of the Rings. This is why in the dub of the movie, Gollum screams out 愛しい人(itoshii hito) to the One Ring a hundred times. This was Japanese love.
Besides Gollum, it’s not easy to say to tell someone that you are “my precious.” So they took the kanij 愛, used a verb power up, and all of a sudden “I love you” exists in Japan. You’re lucky they didn’t just decide to take the English word and make it アイ・ラブ・ユー(ai rabu yuu), but these kind of direct foreign pronunciations weren’t popular then.
Now there’s love in Japan. And what do you do with love? Use it death.
So every song…
and every TV show…
and every variety show:
will shower the world with 愛している love.
Modern culture ignored the warning of 19th century legendary author Souseki Natsume. The author said Japanese people don’t say “I love you” and it should be translated as “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?” instead. People didn’t listen. The fantasy of “I love you” persisted, and here is how its history has briefly played out.
1. Let’s make up the phrase “I love you” because people from the West use it, and they’re cool.
2. Japanese people take notice, but don’t use it.
3. Because people don’t use it, it has a stronger impact when used in art, literature, and TV.
4. Because people see it in all forms of media, it has a certain magical appeal. They consider using it but, but most likely don’t. Because no one actually uses it.
5. But then some people will purposefully use it since no one actually uses it. It becomes a “I bet you didn’t expect me to say that!” attention grabber.
- Saying 愛している(aishiteiru) isn’t used is incorrect. Because reality imitates art.
- Saying 愛している(aishiteiru) isn’t used like the English “I love you” that you’re familiar with, is correct.
好き (Suki) and 大好き (Daisuki)
Why not just skip the massive confusion of 愛している (aishiteiru). You have 好き (like) and 大好き (big like) which are often translated to love. These are real. If there is a confession of love there is a suki in there somewhere, guaranteed. Or if you are too shy to tell someone 好き, then just text it to them, like the Line Social Network demands you to do through its commercials.
You think you’re safe with these words. But you’re still in Japan, and this isn’t the love you know and want. They are definitely versatile enough. You can love your classmate just as easily as you can love that delicious looking sweet-potato flavored ice cream. But is it “love?”
If you reverse engineer the most common situation it is used for, the “Japanese confession of love” scene, it doesn’t exactly make sense to call it love. A teenager opens up and shares her feelings for the first time, followed by an awkward pause, and a full 好きです (suki desu). If this situation was in English, would this first encounter be translated as “I love you” or “I like you?” I get the feeling that love is usually saved for later.
Even ignoring this fine distinction, things get worse when you try to switch 好き to family love. Maybe you want to end a phone call with 好き to a sibling or tell your mother or father 好き?
Japanese family love is complex, and I am by no means an expert. But a basic rule is:
Mother/father → 好き → young child = O
Young child → 好き → mother/father = O
Any other combination = possibly… but you better know what you are doing to avoid awkwardness or a 気持ち悪い (kimochi warui – “that’s disgusting”). And you definitely don’t want to use the romantic 愛している between family members.
I just want to say I love you!
Good news for you. You can ignore everything. Because there are 2 situations when you are going to use the “I love you” and you get a free pass for both.
- Use the phrase to a non-Japanese person because Japanese is cool. They don’t know any better, and you just went out of your way to show your love in another language.
- Use the phrase to a Japanese person. The phrase is part of the Western fantasy that they see all the time in Japanese art. Whatever you use is technically correct, because you’re a Westerner, using a Western ideal, to express a Western sentiment. You specifically saying it made it correct.
So unless you get stuck in a 君の名 (Kimi no Na) body-switch situation where you are now a Japanese person, you are in the clear. And if that is you, focus on the comet over love.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.