Author and Journalist

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

Friday, 15 February, 2008· Last Updated on: Friday, 15 February, 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?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Rayne February 15, 2008 at 3:11 pm

Wow! Very interesting indeed! A dozen or so thoughts and stories are running through my mind right now, I can’t write them all. I guess I’ll just say thanks for sharing that information with us. 🙂

Zack February 17, 2008 at 8:15 am

That’s interesting. Can’t say I can completely believe that western society didn’t have any concept of romantic love before the middle ages… The bible has many stories of love in different forms, greek playwrights and philosophers wrote of love, roman’s had the god cupid.

I feel pretty strongly that it’s human nature, even if it’s repressed in one culture or another. There are plenty of things that are human nature that some societies try and deny or cover up… (not giving a proper name to a concept would seem to me to be a denial)

Lesley February 18, 2008 at 10:14 am

Rayne: Thank you. Zack: That’s a good point. But in the middle ages love was blown up into a huge thing – the ‘be all and end all’ of our culture. Because western culture at this point is so dominant, we like to assume that our way is ‘the norm’ and that everything different is somehow an aberration. But I think it’s worth looking at different ways of looking at the world if only to get a new perspective on our own way of thinking.
In Japan, for example, as in many Mediterranean countries, the family is very important – people will often put the good of the family before the well being of the individual.
We put a big premium on falling in love. We wait for it to happen, hope for it to happen and wouldn’t want to get married unless we were sure we were in love. But in many cultures there are arranged marriages – which doesn’t mean necessarily that anyone’s arm is twisted.
I’m just rereading The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (who could be rather roughly described as the Dickens of Japan). It’s fascinating to see how marriages were arranged in early twentieth century Japan. The assumption was that one individual, particularly under the influence of passion, would be unlikely to make a good decision. It was better to have a considered decision made by the whole family. The point being, of course, that love is blind. If we rely on love to choose our partner, we may wake up one day and discover that blind passion has tied us to someone totally incompatible.
Not that I’m advocating arranged marriages – just to say that there are different ways of looking at the world and different ways of doing things.

Rus February 19, 2008 at 11:26 pm

Highly abstract concepts such as ‘love’ could be seen as anything but natural and as such it’s not too suprising that it doesn’t translate well. The western preoccupation with it is something difficult to alienate yourself from but if you do some research you’ll find that in the vast majority of cultures finding a partner has nothing to do with ‘love’, and it has absolutely nothing to do with marriage. Instead you often find marriages are determined within a larger social structure (Levi-Strauss, Alliance theory) which once formed will develop a sexual element however there is no concept of ‘love’ involved. Alternativly in more sexually permissive environment numerous sexual partners may be had, as well as a ‘spouse’ who’s obligation is in the shared raising of children, but little else in terms of a ‘relationship’.

Kaylynn February 20, 2008 at 2:59 am

Granted suki desu is used, but what about aishteiru?

Lesley February 20, 2008 at 10:59 am

Rus: That’s precisely what I want to say. Kaylynn: Good point …
One key point is that in pre-modern Japan – which was a society much as Rus describes – people did fall in love; but to do so was nearly always seen as a disaster. Japanese stories and kabuki plays concerning love do not end ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after’, because the man was by definition married and the woman probably a courtesan or a geisha (viz Snow Country for a start.).
I remember being somewhere on the Japan Sea coast, near Kanazawa. For some reason the people I was with asked me how many love suicides a year there were in England; I think we were near a ‘lovers’ leap’. I said, ‘None’. They said, ‘That can’t be possible. There must be love suicides.’ Another view of ‘human nature’?

preston moore February 23, 2008 at 11:23 am

Well the whole concept for the Japanese to have one word with one meaning is impossible. I am studying Japanese right know and I have discovered right off the bat that that most Japanese words have two or three meanings, for example there word for legal wife is “seisai” however this is also the word for punishment. What varies these two meanings is the kanji ( Chinese cheracters that the Japanese use ) the kanji for legal wife is: 正妻 however the kanji for punishment is: 制裁 however this also means sanction so its a very twisted web of meaning alot more complex than English. ALOT MORE COMPLEX!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

Misch February 25, 2008 at 7:09 am

I’m from Luxembourg (Europe) and the language spoken here (Luxembourgian) is a sort of German dialect but closer to dutch. Anyway. As you say in your 2 second bullet. In my language there is no real difference between the word “like” and “love” either. Just as you said in Luxembourgian you would also say “I love you” just like you would say “I like toast”
I’m sure there are more languages around the world where “it just didn’t come to” having two words for love and like.

Just my two cents. ^

Volt February 25, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Is there really no word for love? Isn’t there also the word koi? Of course I wouldn’t dare to say what you said was wrong, rather the opposite, as I think there are different ways you can look at something, but 恋”koi” and 愛”Ai” are, as I see them, definitely words for love. If they aren’t please correct me.

Lesley February 25, 2008 at 5:15 pm

Thank you all for your comments.
There are plenty of words for love in modern Japanese – all with different nuances. I was talking about Japan up to the mid-nineteenth century – which is when my novel is set. At that point there were words for sexual passion and for love of one’s parents and one’s children and for affection – but no precise word for the romantic concept of falling in love. Japanese translators translating English novels into Japanese in the later nineteenth century had a lot of trouble finding a word what would translate the western concept of love with all its overtones and nuances.
Incidentally they also had trouble with the word kiss which – when it cropped up in Victorian novels that Japanese translators were translating – was initially transliterated as kissu. Kissing was considered a very private erotic activity indeed. When The Kiss, Rodin’s statue of two lovers kissing, was erected in Tokyo in the 1930s, the kissing heads had to be wrapped in a scarf (there was no problem with the naked bodies). And the first western-style screen kiss occurred in a Japanese movie after World War II (under American pressure).
So it was very interesting for me to try and evoke a society which was so different from our own! I think western attitudes also were very different a hundred years ago; it’s one of the challenges of a historical novelist to try to make the characters sympathetic yet to recognise that they are not necessarily driven by exactly the same impulses as we are. There’s no reason why we should consider ourselves some kind of norm.

Savagemike January 14, 2009 at 6:42 pm

I may be wrong here, but there are actually 2 Japanese words for love: Ai and Koi.
You can say “ai shite iru” to someone in Japanese and that means “I love you”.
Also, you can call your boyfriend/girlfriend “Koibito” (literally love-person).

Maybe I misunderstand the point of the post?

Asa April 6, 2009 at 8:18 pm

There are literal ways of saying “I have a feeling of love for you”, but the sentence would be confusing and come across in an awkward way.

I think that the Japanese have always accepted love, though they may be to proud/embarrassed to express it vocally. Their actions show their affection.

Japanese words April 7, 2009 at 2:52 am

Another that is somewhat similar is the lack of a way to say “I missed you” in Japanese.

Moji December 8, 2009 at 12:37 pm

One need look no further than Homer’s Iliad to see a famous ancient world example of love. Furthermore, as Zack mentioned, the bible (and virtually all Western mythologies) are full of love stories.

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