Kokuhaku: Japan's "Love Confessing" Culture If you're going to say I Love You, do it right!

    As I mentioned in a previous article, I ran into a bit of trouble when I said 'I love you' at the very beginning of my relationship with my boyfriend (now husband). In Western culture, if someone suddenly and unexpectedly confessed this to you so quickly you would start running, I think. In English, the word "Love" is a big one, and some would say it should not be used so freely or haphazardly. It's possible to date and like somebody while not being in love with them, just as it is possible to be in love with someone you aren't dating. I'm sure we all know that feeling (Ah hemm! …Brad Pitt…Excuse me!).

    However, things are quite different in Japan. Everything starts from the act of kokuhaku 告白, which is confessing your love and asking them to go out with you. Now, let's learn more about kokuhaku!

    The Art Of Kokuhaku

    japanese confession love

    kokuhaku 告白こくはく, literally means "confession", and it is done when a man or a woman declares their love to another, and hopes to begin dating that person. The most basic way of confessing this is to say:

    • 好きです。付き合ってください。
    • I love you. Can we start seeing each other?

    The tsukiau 付き合うつきあう part means "dating", "seeing each other", or "having a relationship" in English. This is a very common phrase used for this kind of confession and you may have heard it, or a phrase similar to it, once or twice in Japanese movies or anime. If accepted, it marks the beginning of a "serious" boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. Like real grown-up stuff.

    You may go out with the person a few times or go out on a group date, but your relationship hasn't technically started until this love confession, aka kokuhaku, occurs. The prospect of entering into this kind of relationship is sometimes so overwhelming that people even "confess their love" before the first date, followed by a sheepish invitation to an event with just the two of you. As you might guess, professing your love to someone as a precursor to saying hello for the first time might not be the most logical way of getting hitched, but as you'll see, it often appears to some men as be the best overall option.

    And after this confession, if you go out with another woman or man, it may be called "cheating" because after the kokuhaku you two have officially started being exclusive. At this point, it's the same as any serious boyfriend/girlfriend relationship in Western culture. So, when I started seeing my Canadian husband, I met some other girls who were also dating foreigners. One of them warned me that I should be aware of their cheating. She even told me 'Mami, you know, they are all cheaters!'. Maybe some of them are but I doubt that all of them are cheating. I believe that she thought so because she misunderstood the differences in the initial stages of dating between the two cultures.

    Speaking of misunderstanding foreigners often say that they don't understand what Japanese girls or boys are thinking because when they go out on dates they aren't even allowed to touch their hands. But, when the foreigner asks about the possibility of another date and they answer: "Sure! What is it?" … in that case they may be waiting for your kokuhaku. The love confession is like a switch. Once the switch is flipped, they can get into relationship mode. In other words, they usually don't act like a boyfriend or a girlfriend when they are not officially dating, although it is not very common to touch, hug, or kiss in public in Japan anyway.

    Is It Like Or Is It Love?

    city art love park
    Source: Matt Harris

    The concept of "like" and "love" in Japanese may be a little difficult for you to gauge because the word "suki" could mean both/either "like" or "love."

    Although we have a word for "to love" or "I love you" aishiteru 愛しているあいしてる, we barely use it. Granted, if you throw enough beer into the stomachs of two dudes who have been friends since childhood, you'll inevitably hear the "I love you man!" "No way, I love you!" argument. But, aishiteru is just the equivalent of the words we reserve for those truly special in our lives. This is when the words aren't just said, but felt as well.

    More simply, aishiteru has a completely different weight to it than than the words suki or even daisuki (really like). In many ways, it holds more gravity than when English speakers say "I love you" because people can "love" donuts or movies or even use it the hashtag #love to describe a picture of something they took on their phones. Aishiteru, however, is used for only one purpose.

    So, I think the confusion comes from the translation and how the words are perceived in the various cultures. You might say "I love you" in English and we might say "suki" in Japanese. To us, suki can mean "love" but it isn't the same kind of love as aishiteru, which is when you're actually feeling love for another person. That's why when you're confessing your "love" for someone in Japanese, it isn't as big of a deal because you're saying you love them, but in the same way you might say you love a donut. So, you know, you say "love" and we say "suki" and you say "love" and we say "aishiteru." Keep that in mind while we talk about kokuhaku so you don't get the wrong impression.

    Anyways, a Japanese man and woman's relationship usually starts from this big "confession" event. If you were in Japan, your Japanese friends would probably ask you whether person X has confessed to you yet, even after a couple of dates. You may be wondering why Japanese people let their love interests known and that they intend to date them, in a committed way, even before the first date. Sometimes adults make their love confessions in this way:

    • 結婚を前提にお付き合いさせてください
    • I would like to have a relationship with you with the objective of an eventual marriage.

    Some people think it's a waste of time to date someone who doesn't plan on getting married at any point in the near future, if at all. Actually, it's a rather practical way of starting a relationship if you are looking to tie the knot.

    You Need Courage To Kokuhaku

    kokuhaku confession courage cartoon

    Now, if you really like a Japanese person and want to start a serious relationship with them, then the next step is to confess your love. Although you may not be afraid of telling the one you love that you love them, things are quite different in Japan. According to research about "love confessions" conducted by Unilever Japan in 2011, out of 300 Japanese women and men (high school students, university students and another group of people in their 20's), 79% of them answered that they can't perform the act of confessing. The top two reasons for it were:

    1. Because I don't know what he/she thinks of me.
    2. Because I don't have enough confidence in myself.

    25% of them also answered that they would confess if they were more than 90% certain that their kokuhaku would be accepted, 43% of them said they would take a shot with 70% odds, and 22% of them would try if the possibility is 50-50.

    However, in the same journal, people who regretted confessing was only 21% whereas people who regretted not confessing was a much larger 52%. Moreover, 55% of people answered that they may start liking someone if they were confessed to, even though they had never thought of the confessor as a girlfriend or boyfriend. So, why don't you head out there and profess how you truly feel! No regrets! 告白しよう!

    Lame Ways Men Confess Their Love To Women

    So now you've heard basically all there is to know about Japanese "love" confession culture… that is, except for its failures. According to research conducted by My-navi-woman from July 27, 2013 to August 2, 2013, 124 out of 476 women have actually turned the confessor down because of how lame, or even scary, their confession came off as. So, what kind of confessions turned them away? Let's have a look so you won't make the same mistake that these men made.

    don't confess by text
    • メールで告白された。しかも朝の5時に。(33歳/女性)
    • He confessed that he loved me via text. On top of that, it was 5am. (33 year-old female)

    Maybe there was a time difference he didn't account for? If not, it was kind of rude to send a text to people while they are probably sleeping. Although the number of people that confess their love (or even break up) by texting is increasing, I personally don't like it either. It's like you are telling them that you aren't serious about the relationship.

    • 「俺、ヒモになりたい」と言ってきた人がいた。あり得ない。(32歳/女性)
    • One guy told me, "I wanna be your string." Unbelievable! (32 year-old female)

    You may be wondering why saying "I wanna be your string" is so bad. String, aka himo ひも in Japanese is used for guys that are like pimps, mostly in that they depend on their wife or girlfriend's income. They also are often associated with abusive relationships. It's really strange and doesn't sound like a love confession at all. At least he's being honest-ish?

    • 「俺と両親を養ってくれ」と言われた。ドン引きした。(28歳/女性)
    • I was asked, "Can you financially support me and my parents?" I was totally turned off. (28 years-old female)

    Now, I have a little more faith in men than this, so I prefer to believe that this was actually a marriage proposal. Let me explain. I imagine a situation in which the woman really wanted to get married, but the guy didn't. He contemplated a nice way to break up with her for a long time and realized that this proposal would end the relationship and make her not feel so badly about splitting… And he succeeded! Yay! Good for them. I don't know, it's all just a part of my imagination, but I can't imagine anything else going on here.

    • 同じ職場の人から、長い手紙で告白された。何となく見かけたことがある程度なのに長々と文章が書かれていた。あまりにもいろんなことが書かれていて怖かった。(26歳/女性)
    • I was confessed to in a long letter from my co-worker. Although I'd never talked to him before and only knew his face, the letter was so long and mentioned so many things. It actually creeped me out. (26-years-old female)

    It's pretty scary that somebody who you don't know at all actually knows you quite well. Although you may fall in love with a girl at first sight and follow her around for a while, long enough to learn a lot about her, you would be much better off not disclosing all the things you've learned while stalking her when you talk to her (or write to her) for the first time. I'm sorry I have to state the obvious here because apparently some people need to know.

    • 電車内で見知らぬ男性から「ずっと片思いしてました、友達からでいいのでお付き合いしてください!」と、車両中に響く声で告白された。怖くて、結婚しているとうそをついて断ってしまったが、当分その電車に一人で乗れなかった。(31歳/女性)
    • On the train, I was confessed to by a stranger who very loudly said, "I've unrequitedly loved you for a long time. It's okay for me to start being friends, but could we start our relationship, instead?" I was scared and lied to him that I was married. I stopped riding the train for a while. (31-year-old female)

    This isn't the only public blunder as it seems that many other public confessions fail in their attempts as well.

    • 告白と同時にいきなり後ろから抱きつかれた。告白だと理解する前に恐怖を感じてしまった。(29歳/女性)
    • He hugged me from behind my back and then confessed his love. Before realizing that it was his confession, I felt really threatened. (29-year-old female)

    Maybe he couldn't restrain his feelings, but it's seriously scary, especially for Japanese people who don't have a hugging culture. He definitely jumped the gun.

    shall I compare thee to an anime girl?
    • 漫画のキャラクターの名前を挙げて、それよりもかわいいから付き合ってと言われた。(25歳/女性)
    • He listed off some female anime characters names and told me that I'm cuter than they are and that's why he wanted to date me. (25-year-old female)

    Although he probably just thought it was an adorable way to tell her that she was attractive, it sounds kind of nerdy and I assume most women would be turned off from hearing a confession of that sort.

    • 相手の人が履歴書を持参して、延々と説明をして、すでに結婚モードになっていたことが昔あります。(40歳/女性)
    • He gave me his resume and explained what kind of person he is and that he was thinking about marrying me. This happened a long time ago though. (40-year-old female)

    Like I mentioned above, some Japanese people want to start a relationship when marriage is the goal. He may have done it this way just to show that he is serious about marriage and would be faithful, but I think it was a bit too much.

    • 高校生のとき、朝学校にいったら黒板に私宛てに愛の告白文が書かれていた。他の友達にもバレて、恥ずかしかった。(29歳/女性)
    • When I was a high school student, there was a confession written on the blackboard when I arrived at school one morning. It was embarrassing because it was revealed to all my friends. (29-year-old woman)

    This happens sometimes when you're young. Your feelings overcome reason and you don't realize that this potentially embarrassing event will be known to everyone in school. I think this also happened once when I was in junior high, although I was just an onlooker wearing a huge grin.

    • 年賀状で告白された。親にも見られて恥ずかしかった。(31歳/女性)
    • I was confessed to on a New Years card. It was embarrassing because my parents saw it. (31-year-old woman)

    One tradition in Japan is to exchange Happy New Year cards, but those postcards are not enclosed in envelopes like Western Christmas cards, so his confession was right there for anyone to see.

    • いきなり小さなバラの花束を持ってきての告白。同じ学校の人でしたが、話したことはなく、一度目が合っただけだそうです。(32歳/女性)
    • He suddenly approached me with a bouquet of roses and confessed his love for me. He went to the same school as me, but I'd never talked to him before. In fact, I had only ever seen him one time before this. (32-year-old woman)

    Women like flowers but not from strangers. Although, this might be different if you are a foreigner. If a foreigner approached me with flowers, I'd accept it as it his culture.

    impress her with his income
    • いきなり給与明細を見せてきた。(26歳/女性)
    • He suddenly showed me his pay slip. (26 years old woman)

    Whether his payment was a little or a lot, this would definitely turn most women away, not just Japanese women.


    All in all, you may have found this system of "love confessions" to be a bit weird compared to your culture, but I personally think that this system helps to make relationships clear from the beginning and also makes it easier to start dating. Because of this, we don't usually need to have that awkward moment of asking "Are we serious about each other?" or "Are we exclusive?" or even "Do you love me?" Men know what is to be expected of them upon doing their kokuhaku and women know what is expected of them upon accepting.