During the Meiji Restoration, Japanese linguists were presented with one of their biggest linguistic challenges: how to translate a new word ‘love’ into Japanese. While this may sound like a simple word-to-word translation, at that time Japanese culture simply lacked the idea of romantic love as it was known in the West.
Instead love in Japan was, like most Japanese cultural words, linked with complex interplays between people. After much discussion, the word 愛 (Ai) was hastily chosen. Since then however, many commentators have since pointed out that this was a bad choice. 愛 is often considered an aesthetic love, but this is not exactly the same as the romantic love of the west.
These days, 愛 is definitely out of fashion. When men were polled by the dating site Sugoren about how they expressed their love, most considered that 愛 was too strong for anything but the most intense moments. Instead the resounding winners were the softer words such as 好き (Like) and 大好き (Like a lot).
Of course, the reasons given for this preference say a lot about the Japanese people who were questioned. In follow-up questions, many reported that 好き felt more natural; they felt too shy to say 愛する; or, bizarrely, felt that using a strong word like 愛 cost them some of their natural macho appeal!
While this may make readers concerned that the Japanese are an unromantic lot, it is worth bearing in mind that the English translations of words are at best an approximate translation of the nuances of the Japanese language. Even though ‘I like you’ is possibly the worst thing a person could hear in English, 好きだよ said with passion can be full of emotion and love. Even the queen of lovey-dovey J. pop ballads Mei ‘May J’ Hashimoto felt that ‘君が好だよ’ (I Really Like You) was an acceptible title for one of her romantic songs.
Since the Meiji, 恋 (こい) has become the closest Japanese word to what the West would consider romantic love. One of the key differences that distinguishes it from 愛 is that it is linked with the concepts of desire and wanting. Whereas 愛 could be used to describe a mother’s feeling for her beloved child, for example, 恋 would be considered creepy in this context.
However, it is not quite as simple as a direct translation from ‘love’ to 恋. The writer Itou Susumu in his book ‘Japanese Love’ noted that 恋 was likely evolved from the concepts of こ (alone) and ひ (sadness). In other words the word describes the yearning for someone to break the sorrow of living alone: very different to the concept of a romantic love.
This idea is expanded beautifully by the anthropologist Professor Ryang in her book Love in Modern Japan. ‘(恋 resides) in the attraction of the other, not in oneself…’ She writes, ‘Koi is not controlled by one’s willpower – it is inevitable, a product of fate, a power that goes beyond human capacity.’
Wow! Try telling that to your girlfriend this White Day, guys!
When two kanji both describe part of a concept, it is only a matter of time before both were put together to make the word 恋愛 (Renai). This became a useful word to distinguish between a marriage born out of love 恋愛結婚 (Renai Kekkon) and a marriage out of duty or pre-arranged by the couple’s families 見合い結婚 (Miai Kekkon).
These days of course, the closest equivalent to the English word ‘love’ is the loanword ラブ and its cute version ラブラブ. This word is often found in modern words that describe concepts that came into Japan after the Meiji as trade with other countries increased such as ラブアフェア (A love affair), ラブレター (A love letter) and ラブコール (A love call).
Ultimately, all of these different words highlight a dangerous trap that many people can fall into: assuming that love is expressed and even felt in the same way in cultures with very different histories. Love is just one of these concepts that is so uniquely linked to our own perceptions that its interpretation can vary greatly. Ultimately, the important point is not how your partner chooses to express their love in this romantic season, but the feelings behind it.
Happy White Day everyone!