Watch any Japanese drama or anime with a romantic plot thread, and a love confession or “kokuhaku” scene will inevitably crop up. I wanted to know whether this was just an on-screen phenomenon, or if it happened in real life, too, so I set out into Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood to meet some couples and ask them about how they got together.

As a disclaimer, this article is discussing different cultural attitudes to relationships in the broadest of senses. Of course, every relationship is unique, and I don’t intend to imply that people of particular ethnicities always act, or are obliged to act, in certain ways!

Japanese people can be intensely private when it comes to their personal lives, so I was worried about approaching strangers on the street to interrogate them on their love lives. Fortunately, I found some who were eager to talk with me and share their romantic stories. To my surprise, a lot of them took kokuhaku just as seriously as I’d seen on TV, and it was eye-opening to see how much value people, especially women, placed on having a proper confession to start their relationship.

Check out the video below to get a glimpse at real Japanese couples and their approach to dating, then read on for an explanation of exactly what it means to “confess your love” to someone in Japan.

What is kokuhaku?

“Kokuhaku” is a Japanese word that means “confession”, and is often used to refer to a confession of love. An ideal kokuhaku takes place in a romantic setting and involves one person telling the object of their affection that they have feelings for them, then asking if they can start dating exclusively. The interesting thing is that this confession comes at the start of the relationship and is the incentive for two people to start dating.

But don’t we do that in the West, too?

When told that the West doesn’t have a kokuhaku culture, many Japanese people instantly assume that this means that foreigners never clearly tell each other how they feel, but, of course, that’s not the case. From my experience, in the West, or at least in the United Kingdom, relationships tend to happen more organically. There might be a big exchange of “I love yous” at some point, but this comes after the dating and getting to know each other part. On the other hand, Japanese people tend to need this confirmation of feelings via the kokuhaku before anything resembling a relationship starts.



The semantics of love

One difficult aspect when it comes to discussing feelings in Japanese is that the words for liking and loving someone are the same. It wouldn’t be strange in the West to tell someone that you like them and ask them out on a date, but to start off with a formal confession of love would most likely have them running a mile. The most common kokuhaku phrase is “Suki desu“, which can refer to varying degrees of affection between “I like you” and “I love you.”



Where does marriage come into this?

Despite rising divorce rates, marriage still plays a very important part in Japanese society. Cohabitation before marriage is still somewhat disapproved of, and some landlords are reluctant to rent to unmarried couples. This mindset filters through into the dating scene, and could be another reason why Japanese people are so eager to define their relationship in the early stages. While many Westerners are happy to date around and see what happens, a lot of Japanese people see dating as a precursor to marriage.

Of course, the video and commentary above is just a snapshot of what relationships can be like for young Japanese people, and I’m sure that dating culture in Japan will continue to evolve as times move on and attitudes change. What is dating like in your culture? Have you ever experienced a kokuhaku? Feel free to share your stories with us in the comments section below!

Video © RocketNews24
Top image: Zerochan