What is LOVE in Japan?

Many non-Japanese friends of mine always ask me, “Why Japanese men do NOT express their love?” “Are they shy?” or “Don’t they love me??”


Before going further, I would like to emphasize that I’m not a professor of Japanese sociology or Japanese literature… I’m just a normal Japanese citizen who is interested in analyzing our culture looking back the history and looking at literature or art works…  What I write here is not the TRUTH but one of many aspects and hypotheses that fit my mind and I would appreciate if these articles in my blog draw your interests, which can always be the motivations for anything in any places all through the ages.


In the last article, ‘Between Kawaii and Beautiful’ I wrote a little bit about the concept of ‘Love’ in Japan to explain the concept of ‘Kawaii’.

In Japanese, Kawaii is written as 『可愛い』in Kanji (Chinese characters). 『可』 means ‘good for~’ or ‘-able’ and 『愛』 means love.

If we look at a dictionary of archaic Japanese words, we can see that 『愛』 was not identical to the word ‘love’. I know that the definition of ‘love’ changed and there are many aspects in ‘love’ in Western culture, too.

The word 『愛』 was imported, in the first place, from Sanskrit, a standardized Indo-Aryan language, as the philosophical language in Buddhism to ancient Japan in 5th century.

The meaning of the word 『愛』 in Sanskrit was the ‘thirst’, which can be defined as the impulse or obsession for water of a man who has thirst or the unsatisfied desires which grow without limit. 『愛』 was an an egoistic drive for the obsession with someone or something and it was recognized as the source of all the suffering in Buddhism. When you 『愛』 somebody, you will be suffered if someone you 『愛』 does not respond to your expectations. This is the original 『愛』 in Japan, something you should disenchant if you want to free your mind.



The History of Buddhism & Japanese Buddha Statue
by Kumada Yumiko (Seibido-Shuppan)


In Nara period (710-794) and Heian period (794–1185), many Waka (poetry) were composed in aristocratic society and also the famous love story, The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), was written. In many ancient literary works in this period ‘love’ was a favorite theme even though the proper word for ‘love’ did not exist or was not used.

‘Love’ was not an emotion which was expressed directly or it was believed to be disgraceful to expresse it in a direct manner. Love was expressed in many sensitive ways euphemistically without using a direct words.

On the other hand, 『愛』 was used in adjectives, whose meaning was ‘beautiful’, ‘sympathetic’ or someone causing a strong desire with a sense of pathos. Interestingly enough, this side of 『愛』 has turned into a word ‘sad’ 『悲しい』.



The scenery from the Chapter Asagao (Morning Glory) Genji monogatari (from Wikipedia)
A couple inside is Genji and Murasaki-no-ue


When the Christianity was introduced by the Portuguese missionary for the first time in Sengoku period (1493-1590) the translator, who had the knowledge of Buddhism, hesitated to use the word 『愛』 for ‘love’ and he translated it as ‘important thing of Zeus’. In fact, in the Portuguese-Japanese dictionary which was published in 1603, there was no translation for the word ‘amur’ (love).


Naoe Kanetsugu, a samurai of the 16th-17th centuries is now famous for his helmet (Kabuto) with a decoration of the Kanji 『愛』. This 『愛』 does not stand for the love for his people but his dedication to the God Rāgarāja, named 『愛染明王』, the God of War. Rāgarāja is known as the God who did not deny the lust (『愛』), saying that it is too difficult to get rid of for human beings but the lust (small love) can be channeled toward the enlightenment and compassion for all living things (large love).


The helmet of Kanetsugu Naoe with the Kanji of LOVE


I would like to add a philosophy that may have had an influence on people’s mind.

‘If it is hidden, it is the Flower; if it is not hidden, it is not the Flower.’

This is a famous phrase in the book, “Fushikaden” written by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), a historical actor and playwright of Noh theater. This is not regarding to ‘love’ directly but we can assume that for ancient Japanese, all the things, people and emotions which are precious and beautiful should be kept hidden. Once you let them out, they’ll be gone.


Takigi-noh, outside noh theater held in summer night in Hamamatsu Castle


At the opening of Japan in Meiji period (1868-1912), when the religion and the literature were introduced from the Western countries, the translator finally used the word 『愛』 for ‘love’ but very reluctantly.  Now we know why.  Because 『愛』 and ‘love’ are not identical.


Now in modern Japan, we use 『愛』 for ‘love’ without hesitation.  I assume that not so many people are aware of the difference even though they speak Japanese fluently as a mother tongue.  However, we can find many traces of the evolutionary process of the word 『愛』 in everyday life in Japan.

One of the traces that I found are love songs in Japanese pop or rock music.  Even though 98% of the lyric is written in Japanese, only the part of “confession of love”, such as ‘I love you’ or ‘let’s make love’…, is expressed in English all too often!
I would be very happy if you share with me the traces you’ve found!
にほんブログ村 歴史ブログ 日本の伝統・文化へ
にほんブログ村 英語ブログ 英語の日記(和英併記)へ


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