Best-selling author, translated into 30 languages

How do you fall in love when your society has no word for it?

Friday, February 15, 2008

in Blog

Various journalists have been phoning me up and asking me how it’s possible that in Japan up until the late nineteenth century there was no word for ‘love’. ‘Can that be true?’ they ask.

One of the most fascinating things about Japan is the way in which it makes you question everything you’ve taken for granted and assumed was human nature. Is love, for example, ‘human nature’? Or is it a cultural concept?

Three points:

1 In the west the concept of romantic love was not developed until the middle ages, when troubadours sang the stories of knights in armour fighting for the favour of a beautiful lady.

2 In Japan conversely when western novels were introduced into Japan the translators struggled to get the right word for this strange concept ‘love’. Initially they phoneticised the word: ra-bu. (Say it fast and you get ‘love’ in a Japanese accent.) Eventually they put together old words to make one new one: reai. But to this day when you say to someone in Japanese ‘I love you’, you say ‘suki desu’. The same word as if you said ‘I like … toast’, or whatever.

3 It’s not that people in old Japan never felt that feeling – that madness. But they regarded it as just that – a madness, to be avoided at all costs. They didn’t hope and yearn to fall in love or even expect to fall in love. And it certainly wasn’t a condition for marriage. It was nothing to do with marriage.

So … ‘The Last Concubine’ is a love story – but I’ve tried to write it without ever using the word ‘love’. The characters do fall in love but they don’t know what’s happened to them. They only know it’s something strange!

Writing the book in this way has made me too think about love. People talk about it so glibly. But what is it?

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