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"
suki da yo
I like you. // I love you.
daisuki da yo
I love you.
Technically speaking, 好き (suki) and 大好き (daisuki) mean "I (really) like you":
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 (daisuki da yo).
大 (dai // big)
好き (suki // liking)
like very much; love
Personally, I like to divide 大好きだ (daisuki 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."
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.
2) Very Much Feels: "I love spending time with you."
I have a friend that, for the purposes of this article, we can call Ted.
Ted went on a couple of dates with this girl named Thousand Cranes.
(Yes, Japanese girls sometimes have names 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:
I love you! // I love spending time with you. // I really like you.
Lit. Ted + big-liking!
(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 kind of 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 (daisuki) 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."
3) Super Feels: "I love you."
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 (daisuki da yo), and it meant "I love you" as much as the English phrase could ever mean "I love you."
daisuki da yo
I love you.
(The inclusion of よ (yo) at the end strengthens the nuance that you're directing this statement toward the person. It add emphasis.)
With 大好き (daisuki), it's a bit 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 (daisuki) can never be the "love" in this English sentence, because you always like (and maybe also love) something or someone that you 大好き (daisuki).
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.
ai shiteru yo
I love you. // I'm in love with you.
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).
ai shitemasu yo
I love you. // I'm in love with you.
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 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 tothe 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 unless it's on TV or in some other highly dramatic setting.
I had a female Japanese friend who told me that she didn't see any need for a partner to ever tell her this, or for her to say it to them. She said:
"We should just be able to feel it. Words aren't necessary."
A while back, a Japanese dating site/service held a survey among Japanese males, asking them why they do not say 愛してる (ai shiteru // I love you) to their girlfriends. These were the most common answers:
- 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.
- Cool guys don't fall in love.
- What is love? I'm not sure.
- I don't want to flatter her too much. / I don't want to lower my guard.
- It would be a lie.
- There's no reason for me to say it out loud.
To me, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that in general Japanese men rarely say 愛してる (ai shiteru) because Japanese people are comparatively 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: The Japanese below 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?
How do you pronounce all of this?
Pronouncing these phrases is fairly straightforward once you learn all of the kana in Japanese, which many do within one to three weeks.
If you'd like to do that — and to keep learning after that — NativShark is the place for you. You can learn to talk about all kinds of likes and loves:
That's all I've got!
Good luck, lovers!
If you have questions, head over to our Japanese learners' community on Discord.