I've seen about 38,000 posts on how to say "I love you" in foreign languages.
The thing that always bothers me about them is that they ignore the subtle differences in language that are necessary for expressing feelings.
What's the difference between "I love you" and "I'm in love with you?"
Is there more "love" expressed in the phrase "You're everything to me" or "You're the best thing that ever happened to me" or "You're the love of my life?"
There's no simple way to say "I love you" in any one language. So rather than try to say "I love you" equals [Japanese phrase], in this post I'd like to look at some of the subtle differences between the many phrases in Japanese that express love.
In particular, we'll look at...
- 好きだよ (suki da yo) ・ 大好きだよ (daisuki da yo)
- 愛してるよ (ai shiteru yo)
- 愛してます (ai shitemasu)
- Saying nothing
- 恋に落ちた (koi ni ochita)
Before we get into the detailed stuff, which is really only for serious students of Japanese, here's the simple answer that overlooks all of the subtleties and beauties of human communication:
How to Say "I Love You" in Japanese
I love you = 愛してる (ai shiteru)
If that's all you know, though, you're probably using it wrong. If you want to get the real, dicey explanation of how to say "I love you" in Japanese, then please read on...
好きだよ / 大好きだよ: "I (really) like/love you"
Technically speaking, 好きだよ (suki da yo) and 大好きだよ (dai suki da yo) mean "I (really) like you."
So you might be thinking that they don't belong in this article.
However, there are cases when these most certainly do mean "I love you."
Note: The yo at the end is used for emphasis [sort of] and is optional. The da is also optional, but leaving off da can sound a bit feminine in Japanese... except for the example I'm about to give using pizza, which has a gender-neutral ring to it.
Obviously if we say something like ピザ好き (piza daisuki) (literally, "pizza / (have a) liking (for) ) then we'd probably translate it to "I like pizza."
But if someone is saying 好きだよ (suki da yo) to a lover, then, depending on the relationship and the situation the phrase is being expressed in, then there are (maybe) cases when this could get translated to "I love you."
At least, that's certainly the case for 大好きだよ (dai suki da yo).
Putting a 大 (dai) "big" in front of 好き (suki) "liking" means "big liking," and as such it could mean "really like" or it could mean "love."
Personally, I like to divide 大好きだ (dai suki da) into three categories, which we can distinguish by using nuances of the English word "love:"
The Three Love Levels of 大好き(だ)
1) Much Feels: "I love pizza."
2) Very Much Feels: "I love spending time with you."
3) Super Feels: "I love you."
Allow me to explain...
If we're at a pizza place, and I still haven't thrown up from overeating, then I'm probably going to say:
I love pizza!
I think that we can all agree that this word "love" is not really the same as the word "love" in the phrase "I love you." It's not quite so heavy.
Don't get me wrong — Pizza Love is one of the most beautiful of human passions. Yet, it's a little different than Person Love.
So we can label it #1 - Much Feels.
Let's level up the seriousness a bit, though:
"I love spending time with you."
Let's imagine that Derp and Derpina are on their second date.
Derp is thinking "I love this girl. I am overwhelmed with feels."
But even Derp knows that the second date is probably way too early to be dropping L-Bombs, and he doesn't want to freak out Derpina.
So he settles for the slightly less intense "I love spending time with you."
Story About (Mis)Understanding 大好き as "I love you":
I have a friend that, for the purposes of this article, we can call Ted.
Well, Ted went on a couple of dates with this girl named Thousand Cranes.(Yeah, Japanese girls are sometimes named stuff like Thousand Cranes... which would actually be Chidzuru. But let's be honest, Thousand Cranes sounds way cooler.)
Anyway, Ted went on a date with Thousand Cranes. The two of them got thoroughly boozed and spent the whole night laughing.
It was an awesome date.
So they had a second date — watching a movie together at Ted's house.
Well, just before they were going to sleep, Thousand Cranes said:
teddo dai suki!
I love you
(Literally: "I really like Ted")
(Note for Japanese language nerds: This sounds feminine, because there is no だ).
Now, Ted is pretty good at Japanese. Probably not good enough to translate professionally or anything, but he can make friends and go on dates in Japanese with girls named Thousand Cranes. Probably about the same level as Tom Cruise at the end of The Last Samurai.
Well, Ted was kinda freaked out, because he thought that Thousand Cranes was dropping L-Bombs on their second date.
But I'm not totally convinced that 大好き (dai suki) qualifies for "L-Bomb" status.
Rather, I think it'd be closer to saying something like "I love spending time with you," or even just "I really like you."
And that's why I'd like to label it #2 - Very Much Feels.
It's what Derp and Derpina say to each other on a second or third date. Maybe it's a bit stronger than "I really like you," but a bit less serious than "I love you."
Last but not least, let's look at when 大好き (dai suki) does qualify for L-Bomb status.
I met my now-wife Rei in Tokyo in 2013. By the next year, we were living in Bangkok, running out of money and having a great time being unemployed. While there, Rei had to go to the hospital... on my birthday... in Bangkok.
I'm not sure that I'm allowed to be saying the mishap that befell Rei. But let's just say that there was a solid 1-hour block of time when she was hooked up to an IV getting antibiotics.
This was at Bumungrad Hospital, which is rather fancy hospital, so there was a Starbucks in the first floor lobby.
Sometimes life gives you choices:
1) You can be a Negative Nathaniel because (a) the love of your life is in pain, hospitalized and (b) you're spending your birthday in a Bangkok hospital watching medicine drip into her veins.
2) You can take advantage of the chance to have a one-of-a-kind hospital coffee date.
So I did the sensible thing. I went down to the first floor lobby, bought us delicious coffee and a wide assortment of cakes, sweets, and sugary goodness.
I then smuggled these goods into Rei's hospital room, and we had a lovely time.
I was looking at her — sitting there eating her chocolate cake, sipping on her soy latte; her pale, papery, sky blue hospital gown — and I told her 大好きだよ (dai suki da yo), and it meant "I love you" as much as the English phrase could ever mean "I love you."
This 大好きだよ (dai suki da yo) is Label #3 - Super Feels.
This is kind of like saying "I like you" and "I love you" at the same time.
You know how sometimes in English, we'll say, for example:
"I love [my mom], but I don't really like her."
(If you're reading this, Mom, we're not talking about me, of course.)
Well, 大好きだ (dai suki) can never be this the "love" in this English sentence, because you always like (and maybe also love) something or someone that you 大好き (dai suki).
If you wanted to say that you love your mom, but you don't really like her (which you're not likely to hear too often, anyways), then you'd need the following Japanese: 愛してる (ai shiteru).
愛してるよ (ai shiteru yo): "I love you"
愛してるよ (ai shiteru yo) is the standard phrase for "I love you" in Japanese.
That's probably why this phrase is pretty much all you see if you search online for "I love you in Japanese".
The phrase 愛してる (ai shiteru) is serious business.
I wouldn't say it unless you are very seriously involved with someone. Like, thinking-maybe-this-is-forever level of serious. And as you'll see below, a lot of men in particular might get married and have a family without ever saying it to their significant other.
The full version of this is actually 愛している (ai shiteiru), but the い (i) in the auxiliary verb almost always gets dropped so that it's just 愛してる (ai shiteru), "I love you."
Is 愛してるよ (ai shiteru yo) Only for "Romantic Love?"
While writing this article, I consulted with Rei, hoping to confirm that 愛してるよ (ai shiteru yo) is only used for romantic love. Her initial reaction was to say that yes, only lovers use this phrase.
But then I asked, "What if, for example, your parent was about to undertake a major surgery?" In English, this situation would definitely qualify for an "I love you," right?
Apparently even in that case, though, 大好き (daisuki) or 大好きだよ (dai suki da yo) would be more common.
So yes, 愛してる (ai shiteru) is only for lovers."
Moving forward, what's the difference between 愛してる (ai shiteru) and 愛してます (ai shitemasu)?
愛してますよ (ai shitemasu yo): "I love you?"
Put simply, this is just a more formal version of the phrase 愛してるよ (ai shiteru yo).
The concept of formality is tricky in any language.
When I first asked Rei what the difference was between 愛してる (ai shiteru) and 愛してます (ai shitemasu), she said that it was just difference of formality.
But why in the world would I be using formal language with someone I am on intimate terms with? Such intimate terms, in fact, that I'm using a super-charged L-Bomb.
"If I said 愛してますよ (ai shitemasu yo) to you, what would you think?" I asked.
"I'd think you were messing with me," she said.
So it's a super intimate term, but it's also formal, so much so that it sounds like you're messing around if you say it to your super-intimate romantic partner.
So when do we use this?!
The conclusion that we eventually arrived upon is that, for the most part, you're only going to hear 愛してますよ (ai shitemasu yo) when someone is proposing.
There are exceptions to this, of course.
In addition the nuance of messing with someone that Rei referred to, you might also hear it in some melodramatic J-Dramas, perhaps when someone is 告白してる (kokuhaku shiteru), "confessing their love" to someone that they're not yet (or perhaps ever) on intimate terms with.
Talk about limited usage. But then, that's the nature of highly expressive Japanese. For one thing, that explains the following popular notion...
"Men Don't Say 'I love you' in Japanese"
It's worth mentioning that you're not likely to hear the phrases 愛してる (ai shiteru) or 愛してます (ai shitemasu) if you're in Japan... well, unless you're watching dramas or something.
There's a pretty interesting article about this in Japan Today: 9 reasons why Japanese men hesitate to say 'I love you'.
People seem to have a lot of opinions about this, and the men surveyed for that article seem to have a lot of reasons/excuses for not saying 愛してる (ai shiteru) or 愛してます (ai shitemasu), too:
- "I don't want to use it lightly"
- "I'm too shy to say it"
- "It's too soon"
- "好きだ (suki da) feels more natural"
To me, though, it doesn't really come as much of a surprise that Japanese men aren't saying super-serious, emotion-packed phrases like 愛してる (ai shiteru), because Japanese people are often hesitant to explicitly express feelings and opinions verbally.
恋 for Third-Person "I love him/her?"
I saw some sites also mentioning phrases that use the kanji 恋. People were quoting phrases like 恋しちゃった (koi shichatta) or 恋に落ちちゃった (koi ni ochichatta).
These can certainly be used for talking about your feelings for someone, but they're not what we would classify as 愛情表現 (aijou hyougen), "expressions of love."
That is, (1) they're not things that we say to the actual person that we love, and (2) they're more so on the level of "falling for someone" or "liking someone."
Long story short, they don't mean "I love you."
You could tell your friend something like this, though...(Warning: This Japanese sounds very feminine.)
onaji kurasu no otokonoko ni koi shichatta mitai
I think I might like this boy in my class.
A possible dialogue:
koi ni ochichatta mitai
I think I've fallen for someone.
e? dare ni?
That's all I've got!
Good luck, lovers!
Also, good luck with your Japanese studies. NativShark is the best place for that.