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Japanese Symbols for Love: Meaning and Origins

Sophie Simons
December 8, 2023

You might have heard some people say that love emanates through the heart and does not need to be expressed for it to be felt. The truth is no matter how deep the love, it needs to be expressed and validated. The more the love is expressed, the more it is felt. The more it is felt, the stronger it gets. People express their love through a variety of mediums. Love letters, gifts, eye contact, gestures, vocalization, and even body language. 

Over time, many symbols of love have originated in varying cultures and ethnicities. After all, one can never have enough words or symbols to express something as ubiquitous as love!

What is the Japanese symbol of love?

Like many languages, Japanese has two famous symbols of love in Kanji. Found yourself in a quandary? Let’s clear the fog around this word. 

Origin and History

Kanji is one of the three scripts that are used in the Japanese language. It was first introduced to Japan somewhere in the first century by Chinese immigrants. The literal meaning of this word is “Han characters”. It consists of hundreds and thousands of symbols that were taken from the Chinese script. 

Kanjis are ideograms used for writing content words, but they can not be used to write the entire Japanese language. On the other hand, the remaining two Japanese alphabets, hiragana and katakana, are used to phonetically express Japanese syllables. 

In Japan, the English word “love” is described by several symbols, each with different denotations, which makes it difficult for Japanese people to break down the expression of love into simplicity. But isn’t love always supposed to be complex?

Kanji, for some reason, has two symbols for love. While love is always hard to fathom or converse, the people of Japan have an added labor of understanding and differentiating between the two kanji for love. The question should be, “Why does Japanese have two kanji for “love”?

What is the difference between the two Japanese symbols for love, Ai and Koi?

The Japanese symbols for love are “愛” (ai) and “恋” (koi). Both symbols are widely used to kindle the magic of love. For convenience and better comprehension, we will be discussing both symbols separately.

愛 Ai

For people who do not understand Japanese inscriptions, the semi-cursive style of “Ai” appears as a simple symbol. But if we are to look at it closely, we would find three discernable components. Moreover, the seal script of the “Ai” instantly allows us to recognize the three parts. In the symbol of “Ai,” the center is invaded by the heart; above the heart is a hand, and below the heart is a symbol for going slowly.

The symbol “Ai” holds an overwhelming significance in its middle, where the heart is cocooned, an emphatic reference to love. How interesting?! We would like to believe this is not by chance, and the symbol Ai was devised to cover the essence of love in all its glory. What could describe love better than a heart?

It is the most common Japanese symbol of love and is considered the counterpart to the English word ‘love’ as it implies all kinds of love. Universal, familial, platonic, or romantic. You just found a beautiful way of expressing your love to your loved ones, which shows the strength of love. It might not look very expressive, but hidden inside, it has the deepest meaning of love. If you are a weeb or an otaku, you might have heard the line “Aishiteru” many times, which translates to “I love you.”

While “Ai” is used as an umbrella term for love, it is commonly not used very straightforwardly in spoken Japanese because of its intensity. The Japanese language has a quality of being indirect and suave. Japanese people do not go around casually flinging around intense love expressions. Most Japanese believe in expressing their love through actions and gestures rather than saying it out loud. When they do express themselves, it is more common to say Suki desu – 好きです, which translates to “I like you”.

“恋” Koi

Koi is used to describe the first ciphers of love. To describe the warm yet fidgety attraction towards someone, the youth of love, the first fall you take for and in love. One interesting thing about “Koi” is its explicit reference to romantic love. You can not use “Koi” to describe your love for your family, your friends, your pets, nature, or anything you love for that matter.

When 恋 “Koi” is used, the intent is to express a love that’s immersed with feelings of desire and passion. One more way of using “koi” is when you want to express a fervent yearning. A palpable yearning where the beloved is missed, and one is unable to resist the temptation. Or a sorrowful longing where the object of the longing can never be acquired.

Surprisingly enough, the compound renai used for romantic love is made up of both Ai and koi. To talk about the intricacies of the Japanese language!

Koi, in the Japanese language, also refers to “carp” fish. Since they are widely celebrated for their ability to swim against the current, the word koi also symbolizes power, valor, and success through perseverance. 

Which symbol to use?

Now that both symbols are reasonably explained, this should make it easier for us to use the symbols in sync with their context. 

“Ai” can be used to express love in general. If you want to express your love to your best friend or your parent, you would want to go for “ Ai” rather than “Koi”. In short, it is the closest symbol in Japanese which explains the word “love”. You can love your cat or even nature! People often opt for the Japanese symbol of love as a tattoo. They can get it tattooed anywhere, but the most popular places are at the center of the chest or right on top of where the heart resides.

They predominantly make use of the symbol “Ai” rather than “Koi” to signify the elusive meaning of the symbol “Ai”. Since the word “koi” refers to romantic feelings, if you want to express your love to your partner, koi is the symbol you are looking for.

Both these symbols can be used to express your love profoundly and extraordinarily. If you ever decide to use the symbols to express your love, we hope you use them sincerely.  

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Sophie Simons

Sophie Simons is a leading psychologist with a passion for enriching relationships. Through empathetic counseling and insightful guidance, she empowers couples and individuals to foster deeper connections, resolve conflicts, and create lasting harmony. Sophie's expertise in relationship advice has touched countless lives, making her a trusted source for building fulfilling partnerships.

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