The other day someone asked me if there is a Japanese word for love. I immediately knew the answer “Of course” and I also knew that there is actually not just one, but several beautiful words for “love” and “I love you” in Japanese.
Ai (愛) and Koi (恋) are the most commonly used Japanese words for love. Both translate as “love” in English, but the word “Ai” implies real love that will last forever, while “Koi” refers to the romantic feelings at the beginning of a relationship. Other words for love are Aijou (愛情) and Renai (恋愛).
In total, I found 11 Japanese words for “love” or “to love“, but while they all have the same translation in English, their real meanings and the feelings they convey are very different. Especially the most famous Japanese word for love “Ai” is only used in very specific situations. Let’s take a look at all the words and also learn how to say “I love you” in Japanese.
1. Ai (愛) – Real Love, Deep Love, Profound Love
Ai (愛) is the general term for love that is most commonly used when you ask someone what the Japanese word for love is. Its translates as “love“, “affection“, and “care” (source), but it actually means “real love“, “deep love“, or “profound love“.
While in English it is common to say “I love dogs” or “I love pizza”, in Japanese you would never use the word Ai (愛) in these kinds of situations. It is only used when you have real profound feelings of love and developed them slowly and gradually over time.
Once you are able to love unselfishly in an everlasting relationship where you have complete faith in the other person and feel entirely at ease you can call it Ai (愛). However, when you have reached that point you are more likely to express your love with gestures than with words. So there is actually no need to use it.
2. Koi (恋) – Romantic Love, Passionate Love
The Japanese word Koi (恋) translates as “love” or “yearning” and is the closest Japanese word to what we consider love in western cultures.
In contrast to the profound Ai (愛) it stands for “romantic love” or “passionate love“. You can use it when you have just fallen in love with someone and your feelings are still developing or when you are head over heels and longing for someone.
Think of Koi (恋) as the first sweet feelings of love and the intense out-of-control passion that you experience at the start of a relationship or when you have a crush on someone. With time your romantic feelings of “Koi” will turn into profound feelings of “Ai”.
Another difference is that the Japanese word Koi (恋) can stand for selfish love and wanting (source), while Ai (愛) stands for unselfish love and giving. Whenever you think “I want to be loved” or silently beg your partner “give me love” the word Koi feels more appropriate.
For the phrase “to fall in love” the word “Koi” is used, too. In Japanese, you say Koi ni ochiru (恋に落ちる) and not “Ai ni ochiru”.
3. Aijou (愛情) – Feeling of Love or Affection For Someone
Aijou (愛情) is another Japanese word that translates as “love” or “affection“. It consists of 愛, ai the kanji for love, and 情, jou the kanji for feelings, emotions, compassion, sympathy, passion, affection, and love.
While Ai (愛) is the general term you can use when discussing the topic of love or when talking about love as a feeling, Aijou (愛情) is only used when talking about feelings of love for someone or from someone.
For example when you talk about the love you have received from your husband or wife or when you went to express your parental affection for your kids you would use the word “Aijou“.
As you can see from the examples the word is not only used in reference to romantic relationships. Aijou can also be used to convey affectionate feelings for family members and close friends.
4. Renai (恋愛) – Objective Word for Love or Romance
The next term Renai (恋愛) consists of the first two Japanese words for “love” we have learned Koi (恋) and Ai (愛). If you look it up in a dictionary it translates as love, love-making, passion, emotion, and affections.
Basically, it has the same meaning as the word Koi “romantic love“, but it is used as a somewhat technical or formal term in articles and the news. Since Renai is a Sino-Japanese word that originated in China it has a less romantic and more objective feeling when you use it in Japanese.
Of course, you can use the word Renai in casual situations, too. Just be aware that it will sound more formal or neutral and less lovey-dovey.
5. Omoi (想い) – Ambiguous Word That Can Mean Love
This Japanese word needs a bit of explanation so please bear with me. It is usually written as 思い (omoi) and is most commonly translated as “thought”, “imagination”, or just “feelings”. However, since the Meiji period, it has been more and more used to also express romantic feelings of “love” and “affection“.
There is an alternative version that is written as 想い (omoi). The usual version 思い is used when thinking rationally, while the alternative form 想い implies the involvement of feelings. In Japanese songs, you will find both versions, but especially 想い (omoi) used as an ambiguous word for love.
So if you don’t want to admit your love straight away but just vaguely express your feelings for someone you can use the word “Omoi“. The word’s ambiguity is probably also the reason why it is often used in lyrics.
6. Aikou (愛好) – Love or Adoration for Something
Aikou (愛好) is the Japanese word for love you should use when you are a big fan of something or when you are really into a hobby. It translates as “adoration” and “love” but in the sense of being really passionate about it.
You can use the word to say things like “I love music” (Ongaku o aikou suru, 音楽を愛好する) or more general statements such as “French people like art” (Furansujin wa geijutsu wo aikou suru, フランス人は芸術を愛好する).
When you add the suffix ka (家) to Aikou you get Aikouka (愛好家) which translates as “enthusiast“, “fan“, or “lover“. So you can talk about nature lovers which are “Shizen aikouka” (自然愛好家) in Japanese or car lovers aka “Kuruma Aikouka” (車愛好家).
7. Rabu (ラブ) – English Loanword For Love
Next on the list, we have the English loanword for love which is Rabu (ラブ). It is used in all kinds of Japanese words such as Raburetaa (love letter, ラブレター), Rabusongu (love song, ラブソング), Rabu Sutoorii (love story, ラブストーリー).
However, similar to Renai (恋愛), the Chinese loanword for love, Rabu (ラブ) doesn’t sound romantic or passionate. It is mostly used in a joking way or when no real feelings of love are involved.
There is also the word Rabu rabu (ラブラブ) which means “lovey-dovey” or “head over heels in love“. It depicts exactly what Koi (romantic love, passionate love) feels like.
8. Suki (好き) – Like, Love, I Love You
The most basic and common translation of the word suki (好き) is “like“. However, in Japan, this phrase is frequently used to tell someone that you love them. Especially when you have just started dating or when you confess your love for the first time.
Simply saying suki (好き) is enough to express that you like/love something or that you are in love with somebody. However, you can also use the expression “(person/thing) ga suki” (〜が好き) to say “I like/love (person/thing)”.
When you want to say “I love you” to a friend you should also use suki.
9. Daisuki (大好き) – Like Very Much, Love, I Love You
Daisuki (大好き) is very similar to suki, but it means “like very much” or “love“. While the soft suki is often used to confess your love before the start of a relationship, you can use the more profound daisuki (大好き) to say “I love you” once you are in a relationship with someone.
Again, simply say daisuki (大好き) to say “I love you/it” or use the expression “(person/thing) ga daisuki” (〜が大好き) to say “I really like/love (person/thing)”.
I anime and manga, the word daisuki is also frequently used to tell a friend that you love them, however, in real life this is less common.
10. Aishiteru (愛してる) – I Love You
When you ask someone for the Japanese word for love the usual answer is Ai (愛). When you ask someone “How do you say “I love you” in Japanese?” the common answer is Aishiteru (愛してる).
And indeed Aishiteru means “I love you” but just like the word “Ai”, the phrase has such a powerful meaning that it is only used to express sincere and deep love that has been developing over a long time.
So it is usually only used in a long-term relationship or between a married couple. However, even then Japanese rarely use Aishiteru to say “I love you”. You can read more about that in my post “What does “Aishiteru” mean in Japanese“
11. Koishiteru (恋してる) – I Love You
We already talked about the Japanese word Koi (恋) which means “romantic love” or “passionate love”. Just like “Aishiteru”, you can say Koishiteru or Koi shiteru (恋してる) which means “I love you” in English. However, it is rarely used.
While “Aishiteru” indicates real and profound love “Koishiteru” is used for crazy or obsessive love. So you will sometimes find it translated as “I love you so much I could die“. In anime and TV shows, it is sometimes used by characters who are in love with someone they are not dating. Personally, I don’t recommend using this phrase, though.