Cover Photo: photo of Tanabata tanzaku by Kumiko/wikimedia
photo of Tanabata tanzaku by Kumiko/wikimedia

愛してる (Aishiteru): How to Say “I Love You” When the Language Doesn’t Exist

When he asked me how to say “I love you” in Japanese, I translated linguistically, but mistranslated culturally.

This is Mistranslate, a monthly column by Nina Li Coomes about language, self-expression, and what it means to exist between cultures. 

To non-Japanese speakers, this might seem like a strange sentiment. For my friend and me, it was cause for immediate peals of laughter. Her mother was exactly right: In Japanese, there is no way to say “I love you.”

After that, when Jack wanted to express his love, sometimes he would opt for “Aishiteru.”

Instead of warmth, I felt a shiver of disgust due to the sheer awkwardness of the phrase. I knew he meant well, but as soon as he uttered the word I would either burst into laughter or shudder before returning the sentiment in English. In my bilingual mind, “like” and “love” are two ends of the same word. If you agreed to date someone, or had a crush on them, wasn’t that just a diluted feeling of love? And if that relationship persisted and flowered, wouldn’t that diluted feeling deepen? Weren’t these all titrations of the same emotion?

Lovers are not bound by emotion, but rather by an invisible “red thread of fate” or 運命の赤い糸.

We celebrate 七夕 or Tanabata on July 7th, a holiday that honors the love between two celestial beings separated by the Milky Way. The heavenly lovers’ devotion to each other is not shown by speech, but rather by their love story: Separated for eternity, they are allowed to meet only once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. Their love is remembrance, thoughtfulness, the willingness to endure on behalf of another. Paradoxically, in the same way that the unused “Aishiteru” implies action, it seems in Japanese, we do not speak love but rather act it.

He thought it was uncaring of me to continue to let Jack use the wrong term without his knowledge. “You have to tell him to stop that!” he said. “How will he ever learn the language if you won’t tell him he’s saying the wrong thing?”

These days, when his voice turns soft at the end of the phone call, or heavy with sleep after a long day, I might hear him say “Nina, daisuki.” I smile, and my voice softens to respond with the words we now share.

Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, currently living in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in EATER, The  Collapsar, and  RHINO Poetry among other places. Her debut chapbook haircut poems was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2017.