Meaning and Origin of “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?” in Japanese
月が綺麗ですね (つきがきれいですね, 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 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 directly translating “I love you” 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 — they said it was not 月が綺麗ですね (“the moon is beautiful, isn’t it”), but “月がとっても青いなあ”, meaning “The moon is very blue”.
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 “Correct Response” to “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it”?
(TL;DR) It is utterly 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 could die (for you)” (or “I can die happy”, an unorthodox translation used in some websites). In fact, there is NOT such a 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” response to say “I love you, too” is “死んでもいいわ (shindemo ii wa)”, which literally means “I could die (for you)” (or “I can die happy” as translated by some websites).
First and foremost, it is NOT Sōseki Natsume who came up with the phrase “死んでもいいわ”; it is Futabatei Shimei (二葉亭四迷), another renowned Japanese novelist/translator who lived in the same period as Sōseki (and thus it ended up being confused with Sōseki’s story). Secondly, “死んでもいいわ” 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 could die for you”), of course. Therefore, this translation is actually very controversial, to the extent that you could say it’s an inaccurate translation. Refer to this Japanese website for more details.
In conclusion, it is doubly wrong to say that “I could die for you/I can die happy” is the “correct” response to “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it”: 死んでもいいわ (shindemo ii wa, “I could die for you”) has nothing to do with the (alleged) origin of 月が綺麗ですね (tsuki ga kirei desu ne, “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 how important it is to always take the information on the internet with a grain of salt.
Response Examples to “The moon is beautiful, isn’t it?”
Although 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 reading this post, now you may wonder what is a bona fide 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”. 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/愛しているよ”, or alternatively “大好きだよ”, which means ‘(I) like (you) so much’.
Having said that, there is no exactly equivalent phrase to “I love you” in Japanese. First of all, 愛してる is used only among couples, and the tone of 大好き can be much lighter than “I love you”. Also, as Sōseki supposedly mentioned, some Japanese people may feel too shy to say such a line directly to their partner.
On the other hand, you might be baffled to hear some Japanese people saying “I love you” very casually in English. In fact, some Japanese people misinterpret the tone 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 tone 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.