The Japanese language and the thing called ‘love’

*Sighs* just three more posts and I’d have been able to hold on to my resolution to post more regularly. Ah well…here’s a little interlude. I’d intended to publish it after another post, since it was relevant to the series in question…but I’ll get back to that one in another two weeks.

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In the quaint district of Montmartre in Paris lies that which is known as the ‘Wall of Love’. It’s a wall covered with words meaning ‘I love you’ in well over a hundred languages. Some languages are even represented twice – Japanese being one of them.

…though I only just noticed: where’s the て??


The way people use the world ‘love’, in whatever language, is actually quite interesting. Most of us probably say it quite often…but it’s not always about real emotional investment. For example, I can say that I love Sakku, and You-kyan, even though I don’t even know them in person. Similarly, I love anime, photography and travel, even though they’re things that can never love me back.

But even when we’re talking love for other living beings close to you, people have long recognised that there are several forms of love. The Ancient Greeks alone defined no less than four: agápē, érōs, philía and storgē. As that wiki article shows, the distinctions between them can be expressed in English through the use of adjectives such as ‘unconditional’, ‘erotic/romantic’ and ‘familial’, or with slightly more unwieldy descriptions.

I first learned that the Japanese language also had more than one word for ‘love’ a few years ago. It all started with me trying to find out the difference in the uses of 「(dai) suki」 and 「aishiteru」 as ways of saying “I love you”, which involved reading a fair number of analyses by English speakers, with contributions by some Japanese people. The consensus seemed to be that you could use either expression for all kinds of love, including the ‘romantic’ and ‘familial’ kinds. However, 「aishiteru」 is hardly ever used. As an illustration, if you could rate the extent to which you love someone on a scale of 1 (least) to 10 (most), in Japanese, you’d only ever use 「aishiteru」 for the 10, whilst you might use it from 7 upwards in the case of the English “I love you”.

In the course of that research, however, I also realised that Japanese had a specific word for ‘erotic/romantic love’: 「koi」(恋). You can also use 「ai」(愛) in the context of a romantic relationship, but if you ask a Japanese person to explain how they are different, the most widely made response seems to be that 「koi」 is a selfish kind of love that one seeks from others, whereas 「ai」 is about accepting the other for who he/she is, and doing everything you can to make him/her happy. To put it another way, 「koi」 is about receiving, whilst 「ai」 is about giving. However, it is also important to note that 「ai」 is used not just for romantic love, but for the platonic, filial, familial etc forms of love too.

Of course, not knowing this difference probably wouldn’t have much of an impact in most cases. Most relationships in Japanese shows, novels, manga etc are straightforward enough that it’s clear as crystal which kind of ‘love’ exists between any two characters, even without either term being explicitly used. However, you do get the occasional series where knowing the difference can be important, Macross Frontier being one of the best examples.

The clue in this case lies in the way Klan talks about love. When talking to Michel about where his heart lies, Klan uses 「koi」. But guess which term she uses at the end of episode 23, when talking to Alto about his ‘love’…

In my humble opinion, I think that little difference speaks volumes. Wish I’d realised it even one year ago.

p.s. There is also another term used for the early stage in a romantic relationship, the time when the two people involved are still giddy for each other, so-to-speak: 「ren’ai」(恋愛). It’s meaning is very similar to that of 「koi」, and the astute (or Japanese-literate) observer will notice that 「ren’ai」 is in fact made by combining the characters for 「koi」 and 「ai」…

About karice
MAG fan, amateur translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

4 Responses to The Japanese language and the thing called ‘love’

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  4. Pingback: Kubo Mitsurou on “love and figure skating” | HOT CHOCOLATE IN A BOWL

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