Love is one of the most powerful motivators to start learning a foreign language. Knowing how to say I love you in Japanese is often among the first things beginner Japanese learners look for. Though a short but mighty phrase can say it all in English, expressing your affection is trickier in Japanese. So read our guide to learn the vocabulary for love and how to properly say I love you in Japanese.
Cultural Difference of How to Say I Love You
Before you master how to translate your romantic emotions in Japanese, let’s take a quick look at how love is differently expressed in the West and in Japan. If love is a universal signal for humans, our cultural mindset defines how we share our feelings.
Love in the West
For better or for worse, Western cultures are obsessed with love and all what the notion entails, a deep emotional involvement with others, the endless search for the soulmate and the constant reaffirmation of our feelings.
We have this idea ingrained from an early age that declaring our flame is healthy, that public grand gestures, as crazy as they may be, are romantic. And when it comes to saying “I love you”, we do so more time than we can count. We say I love you over the phone, on sticky notes and emails. The phrase is used so much that we can sometimes wonder if the feeling is real or if it’s just a habit.
But in Japan, however, love ain’t that straightforward.
Love in Japan
When you learn Japanese, you quickly realize that Japanese communication is very indirect and far less verbose than what the West is familiar with. Generally speaking, Japanese people are much more discreet, keeping their feelings bottled up inside, as a way to preserve themselves and others from loud emotions.
It doesn’t mean Japanese do not love passionately, they do very much so! But they express their feelings indirectly, with such a subtlety that reading through the lines ain’t easy for foreigners. They have a strong belief that love is better expressed through actions rather than words.
So keep this perspective in the back of your mind as we take a closer look at the vocabulary for love in Japanese.
Vocabulary for Love in Japanese
The first thing you discover when you look up the word “love” in a dictionary, is that Japanese has not one, but two kanji to express the notion of love.
At first glance, the words koi (恋) from ai (愛) feel similar. After all their English translation is the same and both have for radical the kanji 心, the “emotional” heart. However, as you can imagine, they each have nuances that clearly set them apart.
The word 恋 expresses an intense, passionate and uncontrollable love we feel for someone. While its translation is “love”, we’re talking about the almost painful attraction and desire that makes us long for the object of our affection. When you feel butterflies in the stomach, when you ache for your one-sided love to finally move on to something more, that’s 恋. In that spirit, 恋 is probably close to what we label romantic love in the West. No wonder then that you find the kanji used in phrases such as “to fall in love”, “first love”, “lover” and “love letter”.
- 恋に落ちる : to fall in love
- 初恋 : first love
- 恋文 : love letter
- 恋人 : lover
However, because 恋 expresses our own personal desire with no actual care for what the object of our affection is feeling towards us, it isn’t always such a positive feeling. In fact, Japanese people consider that 恋 is a selfish way of loving. Hence, 恋 appears in sorrowful words too.
- 失恋 : disappointed love
- 悲恋 : tragic love
Contrary to 恋, the word 愛 expresses a long lasting love, with the expectation of reciprocity. Japanese people view 愛 as a mature love, one that isn’t about passion anymore, but a deep care for someone. The kanji has a larger meaning too. 愛 shows our love for a significant other but also the profound affection we have for family members, pets, and more.
- 愛の告白: Love confession
- 愛情: Affection
- 愛娘: Beloved daughter
- 愛犬 : beloved dog
The wonderful thing about Japanese language is that kanji can be combined in compound words, bringing their nuances into the mix.
The word 恋愛 is the combination of passion (恋) and long-lasting love (愛). Such a beautiful mix of concept expresses the deep feelings two people in a relationship have for one another. 恋愛 is used in numerous expressions related to romantic involvement.
- 恋愛結婚 : the marriage of love
- 恋愛詩: love poem
- 恋愛事件: an illicit love affair
The word 好き means to “like” as in “I like sport” or “I like curry”. But depending on the context, especially if two people are alone together, it can actually mean “love”. Because Japanese people consider both 恋 and 愛 are loaded words, too intense and abstract to be used lightly, they find 好き is more friendly and easy to use.
Finally, the introduction of loanwords from English, in particular, ラブ for “love”, opened the door to new concepts to talk about love imported from the West. ラブ isn’t used in love confession, but introduces a wide range of modern expressions.
- ラブアフェア : a love affair
- ラブレター : a love letter
- ラブコール : a love call
- ラブラブ: head over heels in love
You have learned some keywords to talk about love, time to see how to confess your feelings the proper way.
How to Say I Love You in Japanese in Different Way
We’ve seen the words 恋, 愛 and 好き, but which one should you pick to say I love you in Japanese?
How to Say I Love You When Confessing Your Feelings
We can quickly move the word 恋 out of the way.
While it expresses that you are uncontrollably, madly even, in love with someone, you can’t say “I love you” with 恋 because conceptually, the word expresses a one-sided desire. It doesn’t expect reciprocity. The expression built with 恋 is intransitive.
You can say:
- “I am in love with him”.
But you cannot say:
- “I’m in love with you”
The phrase 愛している certainly translates “I love you” in Japanese and has been heavily used in the translation.
- “I love you”
- “I love her”
But while that may be technically accurate, should you really use 愛している? The short answer is “not really”.
Surely, the phrase has been used a lot by translators for convenience and you can also hear it often in movies and shows for a dramatic impact. But in reality 愛している doesn’t exactly translate the romantic love as we understand it in the West and 愛 which refers to an aesthetic love, has fallen out of fashion because of its strong connotation. To give you a little more insight, native speakers consider that 愛している is the type of expression you can maybe use once in a lifetime – or not at all, because such an absolute love is rare.
That leads us to the very popular phrase 好き “like/love” and it’s stronger version 大好き “like/love a lot”.
好きです & 大好きです
If you’re a Japanese popular culture aficionado, then you know well how characters confess their feelings with a heartfelt 好きです. Japanese men tend to use 好きだよ and women 好きよ for its soft tone. The adjunction of 大 (big) deepens the meaning of your love declaration, rendering your intention clearer.
- “I love him”.
- “I love you a lot !” or “I really love you”
While 好き is easier said, it doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. That’s often a way to take a friendship to another level or to remind your partner how you feel about them.
Fun Fact: How to Say I Love You in Japanese Dialect
So far, we’ve focused our attention on the Japanese you learn in books and apps which is called standard Japanese. The vocabulary and grammar you learn is roughly based on how Japanese is spoken in the Kanto region.
But there are many regional dialects in Japan, the most popular being the Kansai dialect, which is spoken in the western part of the country. When it comes to declaring their flame, Kansei folks use a goofy “好きやねん”. A phrase so popular across Japan that it even became the name of a cup noodle brand!
You may feel that Japanese people aren’t very romantic because they’d rather use the word “like” to open their heart, if they even express it at all.
But in fact, this has more to do with the incredible difficulty to translate concepts in another language. Luckily, the more you learn Japanese, the more you get a peak at how people in Japan think. Looking back at historical translations, you can see that Japanese authors were very much romantic people!
Famous Quotes of How to Say I Love You in Japanese
Back when Japan opened itself to the West and foreign literature found its way to Japanese bookshelves, Japanese authors got seriously lost in translation with the expression “I love you”.
The concept of romantic love was so foreign and far away from Japanese existing vocabulary that they were greatly confused as to how they could convey the nuance to Japanese speakers.
Natsume Soseki, probably one of the most famous Japanese authors from the Meiji Era, transcribed “I love you” with 今夜は月がきれいですね, “the moon is so beautiful tonight”.
If you’re wondering how it can make sense to a Japanese speaker, try to place yourself in time when people were taught not to speak for nothing. You wouldn’t tell someone you dislike or feel nothing particular about, how beautiful the moon is, on purpose, would you?
Very much like the previous quote from Natsume Soseki, 私死んでもいいわ, “I can die for you” has been chosen by Futabatei Shimei, an author and translator from the late 19th century, to translate the English “I love you”.
With a more dramatic twist, telling someone that you can die for them certainly conveys strong feelings of attachment!
Other Ways to Express Your Love in Japanese
We focused our attention on the word “love”, but there is more than one way to confess our feelings to the object of our affection. Very much like in English, other expressions can tell much about what’s in our hearts.
The word 大事 means “important”, “great thing” can be used towards people, emphasizing how significant they are for us.
- I will cherish you.
- You are my most important one.
Soba ni iru (そばにいる)
The word そば which translate “side” as in “by my side” (physically) can be used to tell the person you love that you’re with them (figuratively).
- I will always be with you.
Japanese men are said to be particularly shy when it comes to confessing their feelings. So some of them avoid entirely saying the scary words love (愛) or like (好き) and opt for a cryptic love confession.
- “I don’t dislike you”
Yes, you’re reading right! Saying they don’t dislike someone is a way to tell that in fact, they like that person very much. While this indirect love confession is certainly far less embarrassing for both parties, there’s always a risk the object of their affection does not get the point…
Alright, this expression or rather, invitation to make “someone’s miso soup everyday”, is a little bit outdated and sexist. But it used to be another way for Japanese men to declare their love to someone, basically letting them know that they’d like to have them making their soup everyday, for the rest of their life.
- “Could you make me miso soup everyday?”
The expression has often been translated as a “would you marry me”.
Surprisingly, while we explained that Japanese people are rather short on words, when they open their hearts they can be pretty serious. Believe it or not, this phrase, which basically means “go out with me until we get married”, can be used to declare your flame for the very first time. Talk about pressure!
- “Would you go out with me until marriage?”
How to talk about your boyfriend or your girlfriend in Japanese?
Now that you’re dating, you need to know how to talk about your partner. You can use the word 彼女 to speak about your girlfriend, while you have the choice of using 彼 or 彼氏 to refer to your boyfriend.
Mind that both 彼女 and 彼 also translate “she” and “he”, but the context is usually clear enough that you can tell what the speaker meant.
Going out with someone also means that you can drop the formality when addressing your loved one. Instead of the honorific suffix さん, which can be used for both men and women, women use ~くん with their boyfriends’ name, while men use ~ちゃん for their girlfriends.
- まことさん becomes まことくん
- かおりさん becomes かおりちゃん
Apart from romantic love, how do Japanese people share their feelings towards family members?
How to Say I love you in Japanese: to Family Members
While in the West we’re not shy of telling how much we care for our parents, siblings and children, in Japan, you’ll be surprised to learn that’s not natural at all. Family members rarely if not at all, share how they feel about one another and their emotions are left unspoken.
So if you’d ask a Japanese person how they say I love you to their parents, they’d be at loss and wouldn’t really be able to answer you.
Japanese children are more likely to tell how much they love their parents. They are not yet trained to hold back what they feel. Young ones, in particular, do not hesitate to use 好き and 大好き energetically.
- I love you dad
- I love you so much mum!
Words of love are rarely exchanged between adults, but children can express their feeling of gratitude towards their parents by thanking them for giving them life.
- 産んでくれてありがとう = Thank you for giving birth to me
Do Japanese parents tell their kids how much they love them? Yes, but only when they’re little. Once they become adults, children become part of the family and you’re not supposed to feel anything special within this intimate social circle.
So to a young one, a mother or a father will simply use 好き as well.
- “I (mother) love you Kotaro”
Japanese grandparents tend to cherish their grandchildren very much and they’ll express their love towards them by saying how “precious” they are.
- “Satoru is my treasure”
How to Respond to I Love You in Japanese
Whether the feeling is mutual or you’re definitely not interested, here’s some key expressions to know how to respond to a love confession in Japanese.
The feeling is 100% mutual
You’re overwhelmed with happiness and excitement. Yes, this is happening! You simply can simply make their day with a simple “me too”, eventually repeating the words they told you for emphasis.
- Marie, I love you
- I love you too (literally, “me too (love)”)
- John, I love you.
- I love you too (literally, “me too (love)”)
Note that women tend to use 私, while men refer to themselves with 俺.
You, or you now significant other, can follow up with a “let’s have a date” or “let’s go out”. It’s the beginning of a new story!
- Let’s have a date
- Will you go out with me?
You’re not quite sure yet
Someone told you how deeply they care for you, but you haven’t made up your mind yet. Well, in that case, you can simply ask for some time to think, with or without a deadline.
- Please give me some time to think.
- I need to think.
- Please give me until tomorrow.
You do not love them back
Turning down a love confession when the feelings aren’t mutual is hard, even more so in a foreign language, where you’re at loss with finding the right word. Here are a few expressions to reject someone honestly but as kindly as possible.
- I decline
- Sorry, that’s not possible…
- There’s someone else I love…
You’ve learned all there is to know about confessing your feelings in Japanese. As a final note, remember that sometimes, it is just the meaningful silence that fills the gaps where “I love you” might fit. To the Japanese, love is better expressed through acts rather than words.