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Edging Toward Japan: Is this really how you say 'I love you' in Japanese?

Mount Fuji and a full moon are seen in this picture taken in Futtsu, Chiba Prefecture, on Feb. 26, 2013. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

By Damian Flanagan

Over 10 years ago, a complete stranger I met in a bar in Kyoto remarked to me, "Did you know that the novelist Natsume Soseki said that, in Japanese, you wouldn't express "I love you" directly but by saying "The moon is beautiful, isn't it?'"

I had never come across this little story before, though it is in wide currency in Japan. Was this episode buried in his complete works somewhere without my noticing?

It turns out that this is not something that Soseki ever wrote, nor indeed is there any written record of this anecdote before the 1970s, over 60 years after his death, though it seemed already by then to be widely believed. Soseki, so the story goes, when working as a teacher of English, had corrected a student who had translated "I love you" directly into Japanese as "kimi o aisu."

No, that was not a correct translation, Soseki is supposed to have said. The right way -- considering the Japanese cultural propensity to subtlety and intimation -- was to say something like, "The moon is beautiful, isn't it?"

Did he really say that? Or was this story just a post-war fabrication, an urban myth? Certainly, in the 1950s there was a massively best-selling song called "Because the Moon is Blue Tonight," with the moon standing as a symbol for love. Did this somehow fuse into a little story about Soseki, first rendered as "The moon is blue tonight" and then finally "The moon is beautiful tonight," gaining a gravitas as it went?

And yet, this anecdote about Soseki does somehow ring true. Soseki had little interest in translating the works of others because he felt it was antipathetic to his own quest for individual expression. Yet he was extremely opinionated and knowledgeable about the art of translation itself, once famously correcting an entry in the English dictionary when his students at Matsuyama Middle School tried to catch him out over its meaning.

He scorned much of the "direct translations" being conducted by Japanese scholars and writers at the time, pointing out that references to Greek gods and the like meant virtually nothing to Japanese readers. And when Soseki slyly inserted a "translated" phrase into one of his own writings, as he often did, it was nearly always a masterpiece translation. The most famous example of this -- on the theme of love -- is where the characters in his 1908 novel "Sanshiro" discuss the meaning of the famous phrase, "Pity's akin to love," from Aphra Behn's novel "Orinooko" (1688).

One of the characters Yojiro mischievously offers a "crude" translation -- "Kawaisodata horetatte kotoyo" which is virtually untranslatable back into English -- along the lines that pitying someone can be the beginnings of falling in love with them.

Is there anyone to whom you might feel like saying that the moon is beautiful tonight? Or anyone to whom you find within yourself stirrings of deep empathy? If so, you might find the beginnings of love are in the air.

@DamianFlanagan

(This is Part 25 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

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Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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