Japanese famously has two ways to say “I love you,” but how different are they?

In learning a foreign language, one of the first phrases many people retain is how to say “I love you.” For Japanese, the most common way to do this is to say “Suki desu,” or, if you want to sound more masculine, “Suki da.”

But that’s not the only way to tell someone you love them. There’s also ai shiteiru, which also means “I love you.” Some textbooks try to differentiate the two by translating suki desu as “like” and ai shiteiru as “love,” since you can use suki desu to express a fondness for things such as sports, sushi, or anime. However, if you tell a Japanese person suki desu, they’re definitely not going to take it as an affirmation of platonic friendship or admiration, but as a declaration of romantic attraction.

It’s true that ai shiteiru is generally reserved for a more substantial, and stable, love. Even for Japanese speakers, though, the distinction between the two phrases can be hard to draw a definitive line between, which brings us to this tweet from Japanese Twitter user @TEMUNO_KOTO.

@TEMUNO_KOTO was recently looking over the results of a survey (originally done in 2012) asking Japanese high school students the reason they lost their virginity. Multiple answers were allowed, and when asked about the circumstances that culminated in their first sexual encounter, the teens replied with:
● I loved [ai shiteiru] him/her
Boys: 33.5 percent, girls 27 percent
● I loved [suki desu)] him/her
Boys: 68.1 percent, girls 67.8 percent

While most of the high school students whose relationships crossed the sexual threshold were ready to say suki desu, far, far fewer were willing to classify their feelings as ai shiteiru. Also, despite their image in popular media as being uncomfortable directly expressing romantic feelings, the boys were more likely to say it was love, called by either term, that led to their first coupling.

The other reasons listed in the survey were:
● I was curious about how it felt
Boys: 44.1 percent, girls 20.4 percent
● It was an experience I wanted to have
Boys: 33.5 percent, girls 17 percent
● For fun or because we were drunk
Boys: 1.1 percent, girls 1.4 percent
● My partner said he/she really wanted me to do it with him/her
Boys: 5.3 percent, girls 1.4 percent
● It just sort of happened
Boys: 5.9 percent, girls 15.6 percent

Suki and ai shiteiru are listed as different categories…that’s deep,” mused @TEMUNO_KOTO. Commenters chimed in to voice their surprise at how few admitted to their first time being the result of drunkenly lusty urges, as well as more boys than girls saying they lost their virginity by the strong request of their partner.

Getting back to the topic of ai shiteiru vs. suki desu, some commenters felt that high school might be the most difficult age at which to say ai shiteiru. A few years younger, and you’re still naive enough to mistake puppy love for something that will definitely be forever. A few years older, and you’ve got a better sense of your defining values and beliefs, which can give you the confidence to say ai shiteiru when you find someone you know is what you want in a life partner.

In high school, though, you might be just old enough to know that sometimes relationships don’t work out, but not really understand why. Suki desu feels, comparatively, like less than a life-long pledge of your heart than ai shiteiru, and since Japanese society tends to err on the side of caution in most things (including declarations of love), it makes sense that suki desu, while a powerful emotion in and of itself, it the less committal phrase, and therefore more often-used, phrase.

Of course, even if you’ve decided that suki desu is the best way to convey your feelings, you’ve still got dozens of variations (like the abovementioned suki da) to choose from, but that’s the topic of another article.

Source: Twitter/@TEMUNO_KOTO via Hachima Kiko
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert image: Pakutaso

Follow Casey on Twitter, where he often goes with suki da ze.