Japanese men are incapable of saying “I love you.” There are a couple of cultural reasons behind it and they are both absurdly unromantic and romantic. The key lies in the Japanese language and Japanese history.

Show host Kyota Ko gives an explanation to the indirectness of Japanese love.


The curse of the Japanese language

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. I’m here today to discuss with you a very true stereotype about Japanese people and their inability to express love openly. It’s so true it’s not even a stereotype. It’s just a rock solid fact. Most of us really never say the phrase “I love you” to anyone. To anyone. 

Not to our dates, not to our spouses, not even to our children. But this doesn’t mean Japanese people grow up without knowing what love is. We express love very subtly and indirectly through every activity but saying the phrase “I love you.” 

So why do we have a problem with verbally expressing love? Do we explode when we say “I love you”? Are we cursed? Do we turn into frogs when we say “I love you?”

Kinda yes. We are actually cursed by the Japanese language. The way Japanese is set up as a linguistic system prevents us from saying “I love you.” 

So first of all you’ve got to understand how the Japanese language works. I’m sure you’ll find this interesting. The goal of communication in Japanese is very different from the goal of communication in English. 

Consider a conversation between a dad and his son. Dad knows his son has homework everyday. His son is usually up until around 11PM doing his homework. 

So today at 7PM, he sees his son playing a video game. And so this conversation starts.

“Did you do your homework?”
“Yeah.”
“Already?”
“Yeah.”

This exact conversation probably happens everyday in all parts of the world in exactly the same way. 

“Did you do your homework?”
“Yeah.”
“Already?”
“Yeah.”

Now here what I’d like to direct your attention towards is that the sentences are abbreviated. They just say “Yeah” and “Already.” They’re not full sentences. 

I don’t know about other languages but one of the biggest differences between English and Japanese is that in English, you can unabbreviate this kind of conversation and it would sound totally natural, but in Japanese, you can’t. 

So in English, the conversation can go like this:

“Did you do your homework?”
“Yeah I did it.”
“You did it already?”
“Yeah. I did it.”

Sounds totally natural.

Now it’s very clear that this is a conversation between two people and two people only. There should be an established understanding that “I” am taking to “you.” But did you notice how many times you heard the words “you” and “I”? Twice each. 

In English, you persistently restate the obvious!! Speaking in complete sentences with a subject, verb and object is expected and encouraged. All the information you need to understand the message will be there in each sentence. The goal of English conversations, sometimes, seems to be to make yourself clear. 

But in Japanese, it’s the complete opposite. Speaking in complete sentences is not expected and is rather discouraged. The goal of Japanese conversations is to build on and grow the shared understanding between you and your counterpart. It’s like there’s a thought bubble between you and the other person and every time something is mentioned, that bubble grows a bit bigger.

So any piece of information you’ve already established as a common understanding with the other person is redundant. We rarely use the words “I” or “you” in Japanese because you don’t really have to verbalize them to understand who we are talking about. It’s obvious through context. 

So to Japanese ears, when we hear English, it sounds like people are always “Me me me me me me me me I I I I I I I I I” OK we get how fiercely you like talking about yourself. 

And then if you’re learning Japanese and you hear a real Japanese conversation, you’d be like “Full sentences PLEASE EVERYONE. Let us speak in FULL SENTENCES for once!!! Stop omitting subjects and objects and even verbs for Christ’s sake!!”

You know when we learn English, the silent “k” in knife and knight and know throws us off and we complain about it, but we really shouldn’t because Japanese learners would need to deal with silent words and entirely unsaid sentences. There is so much reading between lines in Japanese it is safe to say there is more information passed around through context than actual words.

So anyway my point is, the goal of Japanese conversations is to update the shared understanding between you and the other person. 

Love is expressed in every way but saying “I love you”

We do in fact confess our love verbally in order to start dating a person by saying something close to “I love you”, and we might say it a few times during the first few years dating each other, but I bet the average number of times “I love you” is ever said between Japanese couples is no more than the number of new frappuccino drinks Starbucks releases in a couple of years. 

We just don’t say it! Only really occasionally. Why? Because it’s redundant info. We have already verbally confirmed that we love each other once, and we don’t have to repeat the process again – how inefficient is that. Let’s not waste resources here, namely our voice. I’m exaggerating. But it’s true that we as people who grew up in Japanese culture feel it’s lame to point out what’s circumstantially obvious. 

Japanese people traditionally understood that they cared for each other through other means, for example working hard to earn a good living for the family, cooking tasty and nutritious meals for the family, and generally spending time together. 

“The moon’s pretty tonight” = “I love you”

Natsume Soseki - the moon's pretty tonight

Now men. The common idea of a respectable and reliable Japanese man had been a guy who just shut up and did his job, fulfilled his responsibilities as a breadwinner and nothing else, until towards the end of the 20th century. Perhaps this preference for quiet and masculine men was a product of male-domination in Japan though. It was convenient for Japanese men to not have to be so expressive in love, because we obviously suck at it.

Nowadays our female counterparts would like to hear words too. Probably they always did. So nowadays Japanese men feel pressured to say “I love you” from time to time, but we still suck at it.

There’s a historical episode that suggests that Japanese men were never competent in saying “I love you”. If you grew up in Japan, everyone knows who NATSUME Soseki is. He’s basically the Charles Dickens of Japan. He’s a Japanese novelist of the 19th and 20th century. An extremely handsome and intelligent person. Everyone reads his novels in school. He has even become the face on 1000 yen bills at one point.

So NATSUME Soseki was an English literature teacher and he was actually one of the very very few Japanese people who studied abroad in England in the early 1900s. And an anecdotal episode of his goes like this. 

When Soseki was teaching English literature one day, the class was looking at a line in an English novel of a male character that said “I love you” and a student directly translated it into “I love you” in Japanese. And then NATSUME Soseki goes “Pfffft. Who says that? Give me something more realistic. Let’s translate it into something like ‘The moon’s pretty tonight, isn’t it?’” 

So if a Japanese man comments on the moon, apparently it can mean that he’s confessing his love to you. In order to convey our feeling towards a person who’s right next us, we gaze into outer space and bounce our words off a crater of the moon, and hope that they would come down and strike the heart of the person that  message was intended for. That’s how indirect Japanese communication is. It’s like texting an encrypted love letter to a person sitting next to you. And that’s supposed to be romantic in Japanese culture. At least once upon a time.

The Japanese history of texting encrypted love letters

Texting encrypted love letters was actually standard practice in Japan in the 8th to 12th century. So let me talk about that absurdity now. In those times, girls of royal families were not supposed to show their faces to any males except their fathers and siblings until marriage. And their parents, namely their mothers, would decide which man of which other royal family was worthy of matching with their daughters. 

Men were always on the look out for rumors about pretty girls in the neighborhood. After finding out about a girl they’re interested in, the only way for a man to have a chance to see that girl was by sending a letter to her. And this was not just a letter. It had to be a poem, like a haiku. 

In this time in Japanese history called the Heian Era, poetry seems to have been something everyone just did like how almost everyone does SNS nowadays. So creating beautiful and witty improv poetry was what got you laid for both men and women. If someone wrote to you in poetry, answering in poetry was the social norm. 

Now there was no SNS or personal e-mail accounts at this time of course, so all their letters – their poems – went through inspection by the girl’s parents. Can you believe how embarrassing that would be? Your poem about love is going to be inspected by the girl’s mom and dad! 

So it was really important for men to be darn good at poetry and handwriting to get passed the parental screening. If they would have written something as simple as “I have never met you but I love you. Please meet me.” Like how nowadays creepy men message women on SNS, the letter would literally be deleted. Parents were the junk mail filter for girls of royal families. 

There was a rule to these poems in which they basically had to come in 31 syllables consisting of 5 lines, and the 5 lines had to conform to this syllabic pattern: 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 That’s the number of syllables each line had to have. So your words had to be much more elaborate than just “I love you” but they also had to be efficient in communicating very elaborate versions of “I love you.”

For example here’s a Japanese poem sent by a man to a woman after their first date. 

君がため 惜しからざりし 命さへ 長くもがなと 思ひ(い)ぬるかな

Which translates to: I was willing to give up my life if I could only meet you, but now that I’ve met you, I wish for that life to last long.

So all he is saying is “I need you I want you” but he’s casting his feeling onto this fluid and rhythmic verse. It’s much like how in Japanese cuisine, there’s a lot of thought put into what plate or bowl the food should be served on. It does affect your perception of the food. A regular dish becomes an Instagramable dish by selecting the perfect plate for it. 

So in traditional Japanese culture, the message “I love you” needed to be presented in a psychologically Instagramable manner. Therefore, NATSUME Soseki would translate “I love you” in English to “The moon’s pretty tonight” in Japanese.

So for both unromantic and romantic reasons, Japanese men just cannot tell their ladies “I love you.” Except maybe while having sex because at that point nothing’s really indirect anymore. 

So thank you for listening to the Metro-classic Japanese Podcast. My aim is to understand my own culture really well through trying to explain it to you. This is a really exciting journey for me, finding a convincing explanation to why people in Japan behave and think the way they do, why we value safety and health over many other things, why do Japanese companies operate so slowly but still stay in business, why’s there so much porn in Japan. There is always a cultural reason behind each mystery. 

It will be a great pleasure if you can allow me to share my findings with you. Please check out my blog too if you’re more of a reader than a listener. Google Metro-classic Japanese and you should be able to find it.

So thank you again, and I’ll see you in the next episode. それではまた次回、お会いしましょう。