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Why does Japanese have two kanji for “love”?

With Valentine's Day approaching, here's something to add to the romantic confusion: the two different kanji for love.

By 2 min read

While no one would ever say that defining love in any language is simple, learners of Japanese have an extra problem. If we put the word “love” into most dictionaries, it usually yields two different words:  koi and ai . While at first they may seem indistinct, each of these characters actually have subtle differences in meaning that give them both a special identity.

As I wrote in my Valentine’s Day article last year, 恋 has a number of very subtle, additional meanings that distinguish it from 愛.

恋 : koi

When Japanese speakers use the word 恋, they’re talking about a love that includes a deep longing or desire for something. In that sense,  has become the closest Japanese word to what Western cultures might consider romantic love.  It’s the kind of love where the object of your affection is making you yearn for it – that indefinable attraction that you feel for someone you simply cannot resist.

Unsurprisingly, the words that contain 恋 often include this idea. We often feel a yearning for the carefree abandonment of our first loves, so you’ll of course see the word 恋 in the Japanese word for puppy love; 初恋 hatsukoi. A similar feeling of longing is found in the word for sending a love letter to someone where you pour out your heart to them; 恋文 koibumi.

As anyone who has ever been a teenager knows, deep longing and desire isn’t always a positive emotion. 恋 can also include negative emotions and a longing for something that can never be attained. This sense of sorrow also explains the use of 恋 in words such as 失恋 shitsuren (disappointments of love) and the word 悲恋 hiren (tragic love).

愛 : ai

愛, on the other hand, is often added to words to show an affection for what’s being described. Thus, adding it to words such as jin (person), we get: 愛人 aijin (lover). The same can be done with other words, as in: 愛犬 aiken (a beloved dog), 愛国 aikoku (patriotism), 愛読 aidoku(bibliophilia), and even 愛車 aisha (one’s beloved car).

The two words don’t always have to be separated. 愛 and 恋 can be linked together to make the compound word, 恋愛 renai. Appropriately for a word made up of these two very different concepts, 恋愛 takes the nuances of both. Therefore it expresses a deep love (愛) that includes a longing for the other person (恋). A list of words that it translates to in English includes everything from feelings of adoration to uncritical attachment, and tender passion.

So whether 愛 or 恋 is closer to how you feel this Valentine’s Day, there is likely a word formed from these two fascinating kanji that you can use to translate your emotions into Japanese.

Intriguingly, by being on the surface less expressive than English, the Japanese words actually have a hidden beauty that give them depth – much like true love itself.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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