What's love got to do with it?

Good morning everyone,

It's not raining at the moment, but don't let that fool you into not taking an umbrella. It's going to rain again at some point today, so it's better to be safe than sorry. Luckily, they are no longer calling for rain tomorrow during President Obama's visit. But the rain will be back on Sunday and Monday.

Learning a foreign language is less about mastering the grammar, the vocabulary, and the conjugation than getting to know a culture’s heart and way of thinking, don’t you think? And what is more intriguing and exciting than to learn how to say  “I love you” in another language? 


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One of the dearest kanji of all is certainly the one that symbolizes love, affection and care: 愛, read as ai,  you will combine this tiny little word with the verb suru (to do) to say “I love you.” And most of the time, the construction, ai shite iru, will be used to translate a foreign movie or book “I love you”. This kanji expresses a strong and positive emotion of regard and affection. As it conveys committed feelings of love, the expression is used with care. 

Ex: 彼女愛している。
Ex: “I love her”

The romantic or passionate love is distinguished with another kanji, 恋, read as koi or ren. Similar to the previous construction, this little word can also be combined with suru. Koi appears in the expression “to fall in love”, “lover” and “first love.” However, you cannot say “I love you” with koi.

Ex: 彼女恋している。
Ex: “I am in love with her”.

恋に落ちる: to fall in love
恋人: lover
初恋: first love

How do I love thee…

Both kanji have the component for heart (心) but they do not convey the exact same love. One very important nuance is that ai implies a long-lasting love, mature and somehow the expectation of reciprocity. Ai is used when one finally gets the courage to declare one’s love: 愛の告白をする (ai no kokuhaku wo suru). The love in ai is not limited to romantic love, but can express the affection for one’s family, as in a parent’s love: 親の愛 (oya no ai). The word is a general expression of love.

On the other hand, koi is a passion, a longing for the object of affection. In a way, koi is said to have a selfish aspect as the focus is on the expression of your feeling, more than on the object of the affection. Koi does not expect reciprocity, leading us to stories of disappointed love: 失恋 (shitsuren).

Combined together, the kanji (恋愛) are read renai, the tender affection two people can have, leading them to a marriage of love: 恋愛結婚をする (renai kekkon wo suru). The romantic “ode” and the rather tempestuous “love affair” are both based on the word renai.

恋愛詩: love poem
恋愛事件: illicit love affair

The limits of love

Readers of manga and lovers of anime will tell you that I love you in Japanese is most often expressed by the colloquial suki desu ( 好きです/だ).

Suki means “to like” most of the time, as in “I like chocolate” or “I like baseball.” But when used with regard to another person, suki is (roughly) translated as “I love you” in Japanese—in a softer way than ai. The adjunction of dai (大) to suki emphasizes the affection for the loved one: “I love you very much.”

Don’t be fooled by Japanese popular culture, it’s not easy to tell if suki da means the affection really matters, and the translation into a romantic “I love you” depends grandly on the context.

Don’t tell me you love me

You thought you were ready to declare your love to a Japanese person? Well, that was a trap. In fact, Japanese do not express their love openly, and when they do, they do not want to say it too lightly. Some will never meet the one to whom they feel inclined to tell  “ai shite iru” or even suki da. The expressions analyzed earlier are actually rarely used in natural conversations.

The idea that action speaks more than words is particularly true when it comes to Japanese expressions of affection. A great example lies with one very famous and traditional way to ask a woman in marriage that consists of asking her “to prepare miso soup every morning.” The little things that you do every day for your lover are worth more than all the time you could say I love you. Japanese men will be even more reluctant than women to express it. If pushed to utter those words, they will wonder about what “love” really is. 

Japanese people can be cryptic when it comes to feelings and emotions. A (very) twisted way to say I love you in Japanese would be: “I do not hate you” (嫌いではない). Yes, you’ve read it right. Mainly used by men, this expression allows them to express the desire to be with someone without being too straight forward about it. Because confessing one’s feeling is way too embarrassing.

So embarrassing that, actually, when Japanese people are confronted for the first time with the translation of foreign text in their language, they got lost in translation with the expression “I love you.” In ancient times, it was uncommon for Japanese to use sweet words. Confused as how to convey the nuance and connotation, Natsume Soseki the famous Japanese writer of the Meiji era translated it as: “the moon is beautiful, isn’t it?” (月がきれいですね).

While completely missing the point in translation, it is a pretty poetic and beautiful way to declare one’s love, isn’t it?

Have a great day!

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