Because there are many different kinds of love.

Japan has a reputation as a traditionally stoic culture, as well as one which places great value on unspoken understanding. Some also see it as a country where displays of overt affection or statements of personal conviction are frowned upon.

But setting aside the accuracy of those perceptions, the Japanese language has no fewer than three different ways to say “love.” Each one has a different nuance and purpose, though, and since it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s take a look at each one.

1. Suki

Suki is the way to say “love” that most students of Japanese, or fans of Japanese animation, find first (though I should point out that it can’t be used as a noun). Ironically, it doesn’t always mean love, because suki can also mean “like.” For example, if you like ramen, you’d say “Ramen ga suki desu,” and no one would think you’re actually in love with ramen in a romantic sense. You can also use it to talk about people you like, such as your favorite actor or musician.

Just as with “like” in English, though, the meaning of suki is flexible, sometimes confusingly so. Ever had someone say they like you, and then find yourself wondering “Wait, do they like me, or do they like me like me?” Something similar can happen with suki, if it’s said in an off-handed or casual way.

And yet, suki desu, or it’s more masculine variant suki da, is the most popular choice for a confession of love. The exact reason why is something we’ll get to a little later, but if you’re going to express your non-platonic feelings to someone for the first time, suki desu/da is the phrase to use. Just make sure you say it with conviction in your voice, so that it doesn’t get mistaken for “like.”

It’s not like suki desu can only be used for the initial confession though. It’s also used by couples who’ve established their feeling for one another who want to re-express their love.

Oh, by the way, there’s also the variant daisuki, with the dai part meaning “a lot.” While that would technically make daisuki a stronger feeling than plain suki, “I love you a lot” doesn’t have the same weight/impact as the more succinct “I love you,” and so daisuki isn’t used that often for love confessions.

2. Koi

No, not the fish (though it’s pronounced the same way). Koi is the second way to say “love” in Japanese, and the only one that’s used strictly for talking about romantic love.

Koi especially has the connotation of a young or passionate emotion, but surprisingly, it isn’t ever used to say “I love you.” There is a verb for koi, koi suru, but the meaning is closer to “be in love with” or “be romantically involved with.” So while you might use the phrase to express an idea like, “When you’re in love with someone, food tastes better and the air smells fresher,” you wouldn’t use koi wo suru to tell someone directly how you feel about them.

That said, koi does show up as part of the Japanese word for “lovers,” koibito (literally “love people”), and as a preview to our next entry, renai (with ren written with the same kanji character as koi: 恋) is the way to say “romance.”

3. Ai

And last, we come to ai. Like koi, ai is a noun that means “love,” but it can be used for more than just romantic affection. Sure it works for that too, but just like “love” in English, you can use ai, or the variant aijo (which also means “love”), to talk about the concepts of familial love, platonic love, and even a love for all humanity. Used as a verb, it becomes ai suru.

But wait, why is suki desu the preferred way to confess your love?

Because ai is a serious, committed feeling. It’s not for puppy love or a summer fling. Ai suru is a huge jump forward if you’re only now crossing the threshold for the first step beyond being just friends, and so suki desu generally feels like the more realistic, and as a result genuine, way of saying you love someone for the first time. Coming right out of the gate with ai feels like an exaggeration, or maybe an obsession. Once you’re at the stage in your relationship where you and your beloved have built a foundation that seems like it’s going to last, though, ai suru becomes an option to express your feelings.

Ah, one last thing to remember! If you want to tell someone “I love you,” you’re supposed to change the verb suru to shiteiru. What’s the difference?

Suru just means “do,” but shiteiru means “doing.” In other words, when you tell someone ai shiteiru, you’re letting them know that it’s not some abstract notion. You’re showing that your love for them is active and ongoing (and also that Japanese can be a very romantic language).

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Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’s particularly fond of using the phrase “Suki da ze.”