There are several words in Japanese that can be used for love, and knowing which one to use can be a bit tricky at first. Today I’ll go over how to say I love you in Japanese and explain the differences between them.
In addition to that we’ll take a look at the cultural differences between Japan and the West when it comes to declaring your love for another and the implications that it has for these words.
Finally, I’ll give you the phrases needed to ask someone to date you or even marry you in Japanese!
The Meaning of 愛
The Japanese word 愛 (ai) means “love” and generally refers to romantic love. If you try to look up the phrase “I love you” by using an online translator (such as Google or Bing) then this is the word that you will usually see.
Take a look at the picture below and then I’ll break it down.
Technically, this translation is correct. Unfortunately, Japanese people never really say this. The reason is because it’s way too formal and explicit.
The Japanese language and culture are huge into the concept of 曖昧 (aimai) which means “Ambiguity” or to put it a different way, Japanese people prefer an indirect method of communication over a direct one.
More on this in the cultural differences section at the end.
At any rate, the way that Japanese people would use 愛 when saying that they love someone is nearly always the following:
- ai shiteru
- I love you
Sometimes they may add on an ending particle such as よ (yo) or わ (wa) to add some additional emotional feeling to it.
While this word is the closest in meaning to the English word “love” it’s actually a pretty heavy one to use in Japanese. It’s closer to saying something like “I will love you for eternity” in English.
For you to use it would most likely mean that you are engaged to the other person and you’re about to be married with the intention of spending the rest of your life with them.
If you’re just dating and you wanted to express your feelings to them, then you would be better off using this next phrase which is a much more common expression.
The Meaning of 好き
In Japanese the word 好き (suki) means “like” and is generally used this way when talking about things that you like, or when you have special feelings for someone (when you have a crush).
- suki na hito iru?
- Is there someone you like?
That being said, when you use this word to express your feelings for someone during a 告白 (koku haku), which is a “profession of love,” then the meaning can actually change from that of “liking” to also “loving” them.
That might seem a little weird from an English speaker’s perspective, but in Japanese it’s pretty normal.
If you’re a guy then you will say 好きだよ (suki da yo) to tell someone “I love you” in Japanese.
Note that です (desu) can be used in place of だ since it has the same meaning, it’s just a more formal version of the word.
If you’re a girl then you will drop the だ part and just say 好きよ (suki yo). It means the exact same thing, it’s just more feminine to express it this way.
Normally that is all that you have to say to tell someone how you feel. That being said, you can actually intensify the meaning by explicitly saying “you” in Japanese.
- minagawa san no koto ga suki desu.
- I love you (Minagawa).
When you attach the のこと part to a person’s name, it’s like saying that you are talking about them as a person and all of their qualities, like their personality, their values, etc.
If you’re telling the other person how you feel for the first time, with the hope that you can start a romantic relationship with them, then you will want to use this last phrase as a template for officially telling them that you like / love them.
If, however, you’ve been going out with them for a while now and you just want to express your feelings for your boyfriend or girlfriend, then one of the earlier (and shorter) examples from this section will work.
The Meaning of 大好き
The Japanese word 大好き (dai suki) is created by taking the prefix for “big” 大 and adding it to the word for “like” 好き which we already covered above.
So this word means “big like,” right? Well… kind of.
It’s true that 大好き can mean things such as “I really like you” or even “I love you” in Japanese, but this word isn’t used nearly as much as 好き when expressing one’s feelings.
I actually hear the word 大好き used more often in the lyrics of pop songs, rather than in real life.
For example, in the song おねだり大作戦 (onedari dai sakusen) by BABYMETAL they say the following throughout the entire song:
- “papa dai suki!!”
- “I love you daddy!!”
So it’s not that you won’t ever hear this word, but rather that it’s just more natural to use 好き to tell someone how you feel.
Here’s a YouTube video from Dogen who lives in Japan and has a Japanese wife. He’s talking to his cousin (who lived in Japan for many years) about dating in Japan.
The clip will start at the 19:39 mark and I just want you to watch it for one minute until it reaches 20:39 to hear them talk about these different words for love and what’s actually used by Japanese people.
In the video they also mentioned the word 愛しい (itoshii). This is an i-adjective that means “beloved” in Japanese.
Cultural Differences of Expressing Love
This section may in fact be the most important one of today’s lesson because it talks about the differences between expressing one’s love from the perspective of a Western culture versus the Japanese culture.
In the West, we use the word love very liberally. Think about all the different ways that we typically say love and the differences between them.
- We love our friends
- We love our families
- We love Star Wars
- We love eating turkey
- We love our significant others
- We love sleeping in
We use the exact same word for all of these situations, but they really aren’t the same love in each case.
Most people don’t really love their hobby the same way that they love their kids or their spouse.
The reason I bring this is up is because people who are learning Japanese will probably have a tendency to overuse the word love when speaking Japanese and come across as kind of weird.
The best way to use 好き or even 愛してる when speaking Japanese is to keep it to talking about love for another person.
This brings up another point: in addition to how often we use the word love, romantic love is portrayed quite openly in the West.
Whether it’s people at the store or at school showing PDA (public display of affection) or the portrayal of a lover’s relationship in a movie, we are quite open about our feelings for one another and it’s normal to see others kissing or hugging in public.
But it’s not quite the same in Japan. On the one hand, traditionally speaking people didn’t marry for love in Japan. They married for survival and the continuation of their lineage.
More recently there has been a lot of economic and societal freedom for people to choose if they marry at all, and why they decide to do so.
So, romantic love is more common nowadays, but the on the cultural side of things in Japan it is still not something that is displayed very openly (when compared to the West).
So while young lovers will kiss and express their feelings to one another, they won’t typically do so in public. In addition to this, it is common for married couples to show their love for one another, instead of stating their love.
This means that husbands rarely (if ever) tell their wives that they love them.
Many times Japanese people remain silent instead of telling others they love them because they feel embarrassed about it, or just aren’t sure how to express it appropriately.
The topic is really too deep to fully cover in just this blog post, but I felt it was important to touch upon.
If it’s something you’re interested in learning more about, then looking for a good book on Japanese culture might be your best bet.
Confessing Your Feelings
Alright, here it goes. Let’s say that you like someone and you want to ask them to go out with you and be your girlfriend or boyfriend. The first step is to do a proper 告白 (love confession) and then ask them to date you.
Assuming that the person’s name is Yukiko, here’s are the phrases to use:
- yukiko no koto ga suki desu.
- I love you, Yukiko.
This is how you tell them what your feelings are toward them. Follow it up immediately with the following phrase asking them to enter into a romantic relationship with you:
- tsuki atte kudasai.
- Please go out with me.
Then once you have been dating for a while and you know that this is the person that you want to marry, use the following phrase which is the standard one used in Japanese:
- kekkon shite kudasai.
- Will you marry me?
This phrase literally says “please marry me” but the meaning is exactly the same as the standard English one.
Hopefully they say yes and you can have a wonderful life with one another!
If you have any questions or comments to add to this discussion, please feel free to do so down below.
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: