Sensei, how do you say I love you in Japanese?
This is one of the common questions that I receive from my students almost every semester. I usually answer that there is not only one way. There are several ways to say “I love you” in Japanese and it would differ depending on the context and what kind of feeling you are trying to convey.
- 愛してます（あいしてます）[aishite masu] (literally) love … Polite speech
- 愛してる（あいしてる）[aishiteru] love … Casual speech
- 好きです（すきです）[suki desu] like … Polite speech
- 好き（すき）[suki] like … Casual speech
- 大好きです（だいすきです）[daisuki desu] like very much … Polite speech
- 大好き（だいすき）[daisuki] like very much … Casual speech
If a young child wants to say “I love you, mom!” he or she would pick #6 (like very much) and say ママ、大好き！ [Mama, daisuki!]. Japanese children first learn casual speech at home as they grow up. We do not use polite speech to our direct family members, hence we learn casual speech first.
If a teenage girl wants to confess her feelings to a boy, she would pick either #3 (like – Polite) or #4 (like – Casual). It will depend on her personality and also the relationship/friendship she possesses with the boy.
Due to the word 愛（あい）[ai], #1 (love – Polite) and #2 (love – Casual) convey deeper and more mature feelings. This is why you cannot use them when you want to say “I love ice cream!” You will have to use #6 (like very much) and say アイスクリーム大好き！ [aisu kuriimu daisuki!]
The feeling of love is diverse and quite complicated. The way Japanese perceive love seems to be a little different from the English-speaking world and it shows in the language. This is what I noticed after I left Japan and moved to the States.
Two Different Nouns for “Love” in Japanese
In English, there is only one Noun that represents your affectionate feeling toward another person, which is “love.”
In Japanese, we have two different nouns. They are こい（恋）[koi] and あい（愛）[ai].
Many of my students watch Japanese anime and drama. Because of this, they are usually familiar with the vocabulary like [koi] or [ai]. However, very few know the difference between the two. They represent two distinct kinds of love.
The first one, こい（恋）[koi] refers to the exciting and romantic feeling that you feel for someone whom you do not know well yet and wish to know him/her better. When you have a crush on someone, [koi] is the word that expresses the feeling you are experiencing. You can say [Johnny Depp ni KOI shiteru] “I am in the state of KOI toward Johnny Depp” meaning “I have a crush on Johnny Depp” The exciting and longing feeling that makes your heart race is the key here.
When you are still in an early stage of a relationship and feel fresh and excited about seeing the person, you are still in the state of [koi] too.
In the same respect, the phrase “love at the first sight” or “fall in love” refers to the feeling of KOI in Japanese. When we fall in love, we say “fall in KOI” [KOI ni ochiru], and not “fall in AI.” We never say [AI ni ochiru].
The word あい（愛）[AI] refers to much deeper feeling in Japanese. In many cases, it grows over time. So, it is very unlikely that you feel [AI] toward someone who you just met yesterday. Loving someone in the sense of [AI] also requires maturity on the person’s side. It often involves other essential feelings such as respect, trust and endearing feelings toward the target.
Because of this, a parent can あいする[AI-suru] (love) his/her child but they would never こいする [KOI-suru] his/her child.
Husband and wife of many years will develop the feeling of [AI] toward each other. It is based on the bonds, trust, and history they share together. Sometimes, you may hear a Japanese husband says “I am still in the state of [KOI] toward my wife.” It is him saying that he still possesses the fresh and exciting feelings toward his wife as well as deep love.
Why Different Ways to Say “Love”?
To me, it makes perfect sense to have different ways to say “love” because the feelings I feel within me toward my mother, my partner, or things I love like sushi are totally different. In fact, I was quite surprised when I learned that in English, there is only one word to express all those different feelings.
You say “I love you” in English when you:
- Confess your feeling to someone.
- Express loving feelings towards family members like your mother, father, or siblings.
- State your likings such as “I love Jonny Depp,” “I love my dog” or even “I love scary movies!”
To me, these are completely different feelings. Hence, it makes perfect sense that they are expressed differently in my language.
Below are some different situations where we may (or may not) say “I love you” in Japanese.
When You Confess Your Feelings
As I mentioned earlier, if you wish to reveal your feelings toward someone, you will have to say either すきです [suki desu] (like – Polite) or すき [suki] (like – Casual) depending on the relationship you already have with the person.
If your target is a co-worker who you have interacted only at work, as a grown-up, you would want to stick to the polite speech and say すきです [suki desu].
たなかさんが すきです。[Tanaka-san ga suki desu] … I have a feeling for you, Tanaka-san.
On the contrary, if you are going to confess your feelings toward a childhood friend, you would choose casual speech and say すき [suki].
けんが すき。[Ken ga suki] … I have a feeling for you, Ken.
すきです [suki desu] or すき [suki] literally mean “I like you.” However, in this particular context, it means more like “I have a feeling for you” or “I love you” in English and is most appropriate at this stage where you have not established a solid relationship as a couple.
By the way, if you had held the loving feeling toward the target for many years without confessing and the feeling is already very deep within you, you may choose the word [AI] and say あいしてます [AI shite masu]. Again, it depends on the feelings you possess toward the person.
On a side note, because [AI] is such a serious and heavy word, if you use it to confess your feeling, it may scare the person or make him/her feel somewhat burdened without a solid foundation between the two. Be careful.
I Love You to Your Partner
If the relationship with your partner is long and mature, like a married couple, it is appropriate to say あいしてる [AI shiteru] to the person and it actually shows the depth of the feeling you have toward your significant other.
Some couples, even though they are in the relationship for a long time, may still feel shy to say [AI shiteru] and simply say すき [suki] (I like you) or だいすき[dai suki] (I like you very much) on a daily basis. Again, this is due to the serious and heavy tone that the word [AI] possesses.
Being married to an American husband, I’ve realized the phrase “I love you” or “Love you” in English is used more as a greeting between husband and wife.
“Ok, I’m off to work now. See you later. I love you”
The “I love you” here in this context is not [AI shiteru] traditionally, although I have noticed that young couples nowadays in Japan began using the phrase rather frankly on a daily basis. (but never in public)
To me, [AI shiteru] is the expression that would come out when I am in the special moment with my partner. I would most likely be in his arms or looking at his eyes, and acknowledging the deep feeling that I possess towards him. Then and only then, [AI shiteru] feels totally natural to me.
I Love You to Your Family Members
This is a bit difficult to explain because we normally do not express our love with words among family members.
Yes, as I said earlier, a young child would say “I love you mommy (or daddy)!” ママ、大好き！ [Mama, daisuki!]
A mother/father would say to their child “I love you Miki” [Miki-chan, daisuki (dayo)]. However, this exchange will quickly disappear when the child passes a certain age. (I would say 6-8 years old maybe?)
Believe it or not, I don’t recall my parents ever said “I love you” to me in my entire life. They may have said “Yuko, daisuki (dayo)” when I was very, very young but I don’t remember it. Nonetheless, I know 100% that they love me. How do I know, you ask?
I think it is what I sensed as living with them and growing up under their care. Perhaps it is due to things that they have taught me, things that they have done for me, or the way they look at me, etc. They have done countless things for me and my sister, and I know what they did are all based on love. I felt it. So, they didn’t have to tell me they love me with words. I knew it and I still know.
Same goes for me not saying “I love you” to my family in Japan. If I have to pick one phrase that would express the deep love I have for my family, it would be ありがとう [arigato] “Thank you.” I say [arigato] a lot to my parents and sister, even for small things they do for me, and that is my way of expressing love and appreciation towards them.
How Do You Say I Love You in Japanese?
The answer to that question, as you now understand, varies depending on the situation. Therefore, if you have a need to say “I love you” to someone in Japanese, be sure to pick the right phrase from what I have listed at the beginning of this post.
Don’t just ask your Japanese friend “How do you say I love you in Japanese?” Give him/her the context where you wish to say “I love you” to someone like this:
“I have a big crush on this guy at work. Since I was hired only three weeks ago, I don’t know much about him. The only time I have spoken to him is in the elevator just saying Hi. How do I say I love you to this guy?”
I hope you enjoyed this article and it helped you understand how Japanese people perceive and express love. I believe the feeling of love is universal. However, it indeed is interesting that different cultures express it differently, isn’t it?
How do you express love in your native language (if you speak other than English)? Feel free to leave examples or comments below, I would love to know!