Why Japanese People Don’t Say 'I Love You'

It's more than a love language allergy.

Japanese couple in front of cherry blossoms Bagus Pangestu via Canva |  Oneinchpunch via Canva

With the cherry blossoms unfurling throughout the city, Tokyo basks in the most romantic season of the year. Yet this city is a world away from Paris, where couples have no hesitation about displaying their love in public.

Beneath the ubiquitous masks, Tokyoites’ language of love is surprisingly subtle, and it often lacks the universal message — I love you.

According to a survey, only 45 percent of Japanese men in their 20s and 30s have ever said "I love you," which means more than half of men haven’t used the Japanese phrase, aishiteru.


An even more staggering survey result is that 64 percent of Japanese women in their 20s and early 30s said they prefer the word suki (like) to aishiteru (love) in communication with their partners. They claim that "I love you" is too serious and one shouldn’t proclaim it lightly.

In fact, Japan’s royal family started a controversy over this word in 2021. At a press conference after the wedding of former Princess Mako and her husband Kei Komuro, he declared, "I love Princess Mako."


Surprisingly, his display of affection shocked Japanese citizens. Although some applauded his candid attitude, Japanese mainstream media reported that the majority of citizens found his comments bizarre and cheap. People on social media stated it felt scripted and melodramatic. This incident underlined how this country lacks a comfortable way to say "I love you." 

So why do Japanese people have this love language allergy?

RELATED: 20 Ways To Say I Love You (Without Saying I Love You)

Here are 3 reasons why Japanese people don't say 'I love you':

1. People’s preference for nuanced language

You may conclude that Japanese people are too shy or aren’t used to public expressions of love, but these assumptions miss the point.


It’s considered common sense in Japan that the beauty of language is in indirect expressions. This explains why you receive a wishy-washy text that says "Let’s meet again sometime," and then never hear from your date again. Just as rejections are subtle, signs of fondness are also highly nuanced.

The widespread preference for subtle language is deeply rooted in traditional poetry. People once believed that souls lived in the sleeves of the kimono. When men and women swung their kimono sleeves, it was a gesture of courtship. Over time, the meaning has reversed and today the verb furu literally means to dump one’s partner, in addition to its literal meaning of shaking and swinging.

If a man says, "Please cook miso soup for me every day" to his partner, it’s an official proposal in Japan, though that’s quickly becoming obsolete. If your girlfriend texts, "The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?" you can assume she’s saying "I love you." 

Although it may confuse Japanese learners, expressions that are too direct are considered unsophisticated.


RELATED: 7 Japanese Concepts That Will Drastically Change Your Life

2. "If you love me, you know I love you" 

Another reason falls into the high context of Japanese language and culture. People believe that if there is good chemistry between two people, they don’t require words. 

While that’s undeniably a risky assumption, many believe that you must be able to read your partner’s mind if you’re in love.

There have also been a lot of TV commercials and advertisements that tout how men speak through their gestures, which encourages men to focus on their actions rather than words. Eloquent expressions of love are likely to make the speaker seem less trustworthy, which is how people reacted to Kei Komuro’s very public proclamation.


3. The weight of love in Japanese

The vocabulary of love varies depending on age, gender, and cultural background, but the term ai (love) generally connotes commitment and selflessness.

In English, we say, "I love ice cream" in a casual manner. But if you say the same thing in Japanese — 私はアイスクリームを愛しています ― your friends will think your life is devoted to ice cream. They may assume you run your own ice cream business or you work at Baskin Robbins. Eating ice cream every weekend? That’s like, not love, in Japanese.

This is why Japanese people avoid the term love, especially in the early phases of relationships. The stronger version of the word for like, daisuki, usually plays the same role as love instead of ai.

RELATED: 3 Phrases Vastly More Important Than Saying "I Love You"


It seems that many Japanese men use these reasons as an excuse to avoid confessions of love. They may not realize their gestures are not as talkative as they think.

Some fashion magazines marketed to Japanese women frequently feature headlines like "How to encourage your boyfriend to express his love."

If your Japanese partner fails to say I love you and doesn’t mention the beautiful moon, you may want to nudge your loved one under a beautiful cherry tree in full bloom. This is the perfect season to create a secret language that means "I love you" only between the two of you.


RELATED: How To Say 'I Love You' In More Than 100 Different Languages

Yuko Tamura is a writer, cultural translator, and editor-in-chief of Japonica based in Tokyo. Her articles have been featured in The Japan Times, Unseen Japan, The Good Men Project, BBC Radio, and more.