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 origin traces back to when he worked as an English teacher: when he saw his student directly translating ‘I love you’ in 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.
The ulterior meaning of this phrase is recognised only amongst 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 is unlikely to fathom your intention, unfortunately. Well, if you are looking for a cool way to do 告白 (こくはく; confess one’s feeling), it would be probably the best to be straightforward, saying something like ‘好きです。付き合ってください！’ meaning ‘I really like you. Would you be my girlfriend/boyfriend?’, where 付(つ)き合(あ)う means ‘be in a relationship’.
How to Translate ‘I love you’ in Japanese
The most common and direct translation of ‘I love you’ 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 it’d be more natural to say ‘愛してる’ or ‘愛しているよ’, or ‘大好きだよ’ meaning ‘(I) like (you) so much’; and it would be better to call the name of a partner before saying these lines.
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 lighter than ‘I love you’. Also, as Sōseki supposedly pointed out, some Japanese people may feel too shy to say such a direct line to their partner.
On the other hand, you might be baffled that some Japanese people use ‘I love you’ very casually in English. In fact, many Japanese people misinterpret the tone of ‘I love you’ as much lighter than it actually is. This is partially because of the fact that the English phrase is ubiquitous in Japanese music lyrics. Therefore, don’t be surprised if your Japanese friends or partner say to you ‘I love you’ at an early stage.
You: The moon is beautiful, isn’t it’? [I love you.]
Ans. (1) [a witty and unrealistic response meaning ‘I love you, too’]
Yes, I wish I could watch it with you for good.
Ans. (2) [a witty and unrealistic response meaning ‘I’m sorry’]
(You) may think so because (you) cannot touch it.
Ans. (3) [a realistic response]
Yep. By the way, you said you had something important to tell me, right? What is it?
Sōseki’s Maiden Work: “吾輩は猫である (I Am a Cat)”
吾輩は猫である, which is translated as “I Am a Cat” in English, is Sōseki Natsume’s first and most famous novel published in 1905-1906. It starts from the famous line “吾輩は猫である。名前はまだない。 (I am a cat. I don’t have a name yet)”. In this work, the cat talks like a human and describes human daily lives satirically in the cat’s eyes. People often mention this book title to indicate how difficult it can be to translate the subtle meaning of Japanese words into English; the word “我輩 (わがはい)” (which contains a pompous tone), and more than 10 other synonyms are all (haplessly) translated as “I/my/me” in English. The following article/Instagram post explains how these words have different nuances in detail!
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