With Christmas and New Year’s right around the corner (though some of us are still in denial about that), it’s a great time to learn about how to speak with your loved ones in Japanese. In Japan, Christmas is far from a religious holiday. Instead, Christmas Eve is one of the biggest date nights of the year. Couples spend the evening together, walking around decorated shopping centers, eating Christmas Cake (yes, it’s literally called that), and crunching away on some delicious, extra crispy fried chicken. Christmas is a fun holiday in Japan.
New Year’s is a more family-centered holiday, and it’s definitely the biggest holiday of the year in Japan. Most people spend several days with family, making mochi and praying at the local shrine.
So, with all this time to be with family and loved ones, how can you express your love for them in Japanese? It’s a lot different from what we do in English.
“I Like You.”
The first thing to note when learning how to say “I love you,” is that Japanese people don’t say that. Love is a very strong emotion, and Japanese culture is more indirect than that. Telling someone that you love them is a pretty bold declaration, and no one really does that. If you’re curious, the way to say “I love you” is “Ai shiteimasu,” (愛しています) but please don’t say that to people. First off, this phrase is very formal. Just using the word ai (愛) makes it sound really stiff. Second, it will probably make Japanese people a little uncomfortable, especially if you’re trying to do it in a platonic way.
This goes against the culture of a lot of foreigners, especially if you come from a background of showing love very openly and to everyone. I know it’s hard to keep it all in when you’re so used to showing love all the time (it drove my Brazilian friends nuts in Japan), but this an important part of Japanese culture to respect.
But if you can’t say “I love you,” how do you tell someone that you really like them? You just… tell them you like them. If you’ve ever seen a romance anime or drama, you’ve probably seen an incredibly nervous girl walk up to her crush, stutter a lot, blush, and finally say, “Suki desu,” (好きです). The word suki (好き) is the same word you use when you say you like dogs. Or candy. Or sleeping. It just means you like something. We might see this as the softest love confession in the history of ever, and maybe we’ll be worried that the guy will totally miss it. But in Japanese, this is actually a really direct way to tell someone you like them. Or as some elementary school kids say, you “like like” them.
If you wanna get a little crazy, you can say “Daisuki” (大好き) instead. If you can read kanji, you can see that this word just means “big like.” You won’t really go any further than this. Suki will be strong enough for all your love confession needs, and you’ll probably only ever use it with your significant other.
In English, we say “I love you” to everyone. But that’s not the case in Japan. Even though you love your family, you wouldn’t really tell them you do in Japanese. Saying “Suki desu” to your mother would just be weird. With your family, you show them love more through your actions than your words.
Sometimes even saying “I like you,” can be a little too direct with Japanese. In some books and movies there are times when, instead of confessing their love directly, the characters will say “Tsuki ga kirei desu ne,” (月がキレイですね) or “The moon is very beautiful.” This supposedly comes from the famous author Natsume Soseki who insisted on translating books with “I love you” to say this instead, as he thought a Japanese man would never say something so forward. He’s right, they probably wouldn’t. But this phrase ended up becoming kind of a code for “I love you,” and it can still be seen in media today. A lot of times it is used when two characters of the same gender are confessing their love, which would normally not be socially acceptable in Japan. It’s indirect enough that it can usually slip by without people getting too upset. It’s actually so indirect that you would have to know all of this information just to catch the reference.
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Terms of Affection
In English, we have a lot of terms of affection. There’s a lot of ways to refer to our significant other, and some of them we just make up as couples. You can go with generic things like “dear” or “honey,” or you can creative and call them literally whatever you want. As long as you say it with affection and they know you’re talking to them, it counts.
There aren’t really a lot of words like this in Japanese. The only one I can think of is “Anata” (あなた), and it’s only really used between married couples.
You might be thinking, “But that just means ‘you.’” And you’re right. Anata is the Japanese word for “you.” But the thing about this word is that you rarely (if ever) use it in normal Japanese conversation. Generally, when speaking to someone, you use their name or just omit the word “you.” You can also refer to them by titles if you don’t know their name (like calling your boss shachou 社長).
Anata is definitely the most formal of the words for “you.” There are other words like kimi (君), which is really only used by males speakers or when speaking down to someone, like a child, and omae (お前), which tends to be a bit harsher, and plenty of other, even more offensive ways to refer to someone. Anata isn’t harsh or rude, but it is a little weird to use in normal conversation. When you use anata it kind of implies there is a close relationship there, which is why it works to call your husband that, but not your boss.
Other terms of endearment can come in the form of honorifics. With most people you can address them by their name and the honorific -san. When you get closer to someone (and they are the same age as you or younger) you can start referring to them as -kun for boys or -chan for girls. If you drop honorifics completely, this means you are really close to them. Like, REALLY close. Be really careful on knowing what your relationship is, or dropping honorifics could really offend your friend.
If you want to be gushy with your significant other in public, there are some thing you should know. First off, no is going to yell at you (probably), but you are going to get a lot of dirty looks. Especially from the older generation.
PDA isn’t really a thing that people do in Japan. Of course, younger couples tend to not really care and do it anyways, but it’s kind of looked down upon. After spending a year in Japan, I saw a couple holding hands approximately once. They were young college kids, and I saw them from the train, so they probably didn’t think anyone could see them. I spent more of my time in rural areas, so PDA was definitely not common. In the bigger cities, young couples have less of a problem cuddling, holding hands, and even (gasp!) kissing in public.
It’s becoming a lot more common now, and people seem to be getting over it, but it’s still not as accepted as it is in other countries. I knew several couples who had been married for years, and I never saw them even come close to touching each other in public. There were no arms over shoulders, hand holding, or knee touches to be seen. If you’re paying attention to this, it might actually be a little unsettling if you come from a culture where physical contact is so important in showing people you love them. Japanese people just tend to be more private about their personal lives.
Showing Platonic Love
In a lot of countries that aren’t Japan, showing love to your friends can be just as touchy as showing love to your significant other. Hugging is a really common thing. People from some cultures will kiss to greet each other. Some people will even hold hands with really good friends, though many other cultures would consider that a romantic gesture.
Japanese people will not do any of these things platonically. Even hugging. After spending over a year in Japan, I remember how weird it was to come home and have my mother hug me. Sure, I had American friends in Japan that would give friend hugs occasionally, but it had been so long since I had such a forward display of affection like that.
That being said, it’s okay to teach your Japanese friends to hug. They might be really awkward at it, but everyone can use a hug in their life, right?
Generally, you can show your friends that you care for them and love them in other ways that make them less uncomfortable. Spending time with people is a great way to show love, and Japanese people are just like everyone else in their willingness to party. You can even become good friends with people from work by going drinking with everyone after work is over (this is actually a big part of work culture in Japan).
You can also engage in the Japanese culture of gift-giving. Giving gifts is a really common thing in Japan. When Japanese people go somewhere, they almost always bring back omiyage (お土産) or gifts for friends and family. The gifts are generally foods specific to wherever they traveled. Doing this for your friends is a great way to show you care. You can also give gifts and use pretty much any large or small occasion as an excuse. I remember once it was mikan (clementine) season, and a lot of my friends grew mikan. I received so many mikan I literally had a drawer in my fridge completely dedicated to them. People wanted to show me they cared about me, and giving me little tiny oranges was how they did that.
Why Is This Important?
Japanese culture can be really different from other cultures, and it can be really hard for a foreigner to get used to it. But really, it’s the little things you do that can show Japanese people how much you want to communicate with them and understand how they see the world. We’re always flattered when someone tries their best to make sure we’re comfortable, so why would they be different?
Knowing how to express love in Japanese gives you insight to a big part of their culture. Learning about new cultures and customs can help you develop empathy and broaden your worldview.
Also, if you intend to date a Japanese person, you really need to know how to talk to them and their family.
But overall, knowing how to express love can help us really connect as people and make friends across all sorts of borders.