Meaning and Origin
月が綺麗ですね (tsuki ga kirei desu ne) literarily means “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?” in Japanese. Surprisingly, however, it could also contain the hidden meaning — “I love you”. It is widely believed that this meaning was coined by Sōseki Natsume (夏目漱石), a renowned Japanese novelist in the 19-20th century who was portrayed on the former 1000 yen banknote. Its alleged origin traces back to when he worked as an English teacher: when he saw his student translating “I love you” as it is into Japanese, he supposedly said, “Japanese people never say things like that shamelessly. You’d better translate it as 月が綺麗ですね (‘The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?’) or something”. Note that, however, you should take this story with a grain of salt, as there is no record left that validates it. In fact, this Japanese website (which I’ll also cite in the next section as a reference) scrupulously searched for its authoritative source, to no avail, and found out that the details of this story were a little different in some old publications from the 1970s, which said it was “月がとっても青いなあ” (“The moon is very blue”), not 月が綺麗ですね (“the moon is beautiful, isn’t it”).
Another thing you should keep in mind is that the ulterior meaning of this phrase is recognised only among those who love Japanese slang or trivia. Therefore, even if you act as a romanticist and confess your love to a Japanese person using this phrase, he/she may not fathom your intention, unfortunately.
Misinformation on the “Correct Response”
(TL;DR) It is totally wrong to say that the “correct” or “appropriate” response to “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it? is “死んでもいいわ (shindemo ii wa)”, meaning “I can die (happy)”. In fact, there is NO such thing as a “correct response”, no matter how many people/websites elaborate and insist on its existence.
If you google (either in Japanese or English) how to respond to “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it” in Japanese, you’ll find a plethora of websites spreading the wrong information that the “correct” or “appropriate” answer to say “I love you, too” is “死んでもいいわ (shindemo ii wa)”, which literally means “I can die (happy)” (or “I can die (for you)”, depending on how you interpret the context.)
First and foremost, it is NOT Sōseki Natsume who came up with the phrase “shindmo ii wa”; it is Futabatei Shimei (二葉亭四迷), another famous Japanese novelist/translator who lived in the same period as Sōseki (and thus it ended up being mixed with Sōseki’s story). Secondly, “shindemo ii wa” is NOT the translation of the English phrase “I love you, too”; it is of the Russian term “Ваша”, which means “yours” in English in the following context:
Я забыл все, я потянул ее к себе – покорно повиновалась ее рука, все тело ее повлеклось вслед за рукою, шаль покатилась с плеч, и голова ее тихо легла на мою грудь, легла под мои загоревшиеся губы…
– Ваша… – прошептала она чуть слышно.
I forgot everything, I drew her to me, her hand yielded unresistingly, her whole body followed her hand, the shawl fell from her shoulders, and her head lay softly on my breast, lay under my burning lips.
“Yours“. . . she murmured, hardly above a breath.
This is an excerpt of the Russian book “Ася” (and its English translation), written by the Russian novelist Ивáн Серге́евич (Ivan Turgenev). Although this woman shows her deep affection for the man by saying “Ваша (Yours)”, it does not explicitly mean “I love you, too”, nor does it mean 死んでもいいわ (“I can die happy”). Therefore, this Japanese translation is actually very controversial, to the point that you may say it’s an inaccurate translation. Refer to this Japanese website for more details.
In conclusion, it is doubly wrong to say that “I can die happy” is the “correct” response to “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it”: “shindemo ii wa (I can die happy)” has nothing to do with the (alleged) origin of the phrase “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?”; and it is not even the translation of “I love you, too”. Clearly, this misinformation has been spread by a myriad of websites and social media posts that blindly copy and paste the contents of the other websites without fact-checking, which tells us the importance of always taking information online with a grain of salt.
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Response Examples to “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?”
Although, as I mentioned, there is no “correct” response to “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?”, here are a couple of witty and funny replies which are found on the internet, as well as a realistic response.
You: The moon is beautiful, isn’t it’? [“I love you.”]
Response-1 [a witty and unrealistic response meaning “I love you, too”]
Yes, I wish I could watch it with you for good.
Response-2 [a witty and unrealistic response meaning “I’m sorry”]
(You) may think so because (you) cannot touch it.
Response-3 [a realistic response]
Yep. By the way, you said you had something important to tell me, right? What is it?
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PS: How to Translate “I love you” in Japanese
After having read this post, now you may wonder what is a real translation of “I love you” in Japanese. Probably, the most common and direct one is “私はあなたを愛しています (watashi wa anata o aishite imasu)”. However, it does not sound natural, as we usually omit a subject and/or object of a sentence whenever they are obvious. It is also unlikely that we use a polite form (desu/masu form) when talking with our partner, so the more natural translations would be “愛してる(よ)”, “aishiteru (yo)”, or alternatively “大好きだよ” (daisuki dayo), which means “(I) like (you) so much”.
Having said that, there is no equivalent phrase to “I love you” in Japanese. First of all, 愛してる (aishiteru) is used only among couples/partners, and the meaning of 大好き (dausuki) can be much lighter than “I love you”. Also, as Sōseki supposedly mentioned, some Japanese people may feel too shy to say such a lovely line directly to their partner.
Even so, you may have been baffled to hear some Japanese people saying “I love you” very casually in English. In fact, some Japanese people misinterpret the meaning of “I love you” as much lighter than it actually is. This is largely because the English phrase is used ubiquitously in Japanese music lyrics, and they don’t think that its meaning can be very heavy/serious. Therefore, don’t be surprised if your Japanese friends or partner say “I love you” to you at an early stage.