The Japanese symbol for love – Read this before you get the tattoo!


Ai (Love)

The concept of love, as abstract, vague and open to interpretation as it is, is one of the most wide spread, and widely supported, human ideas.

The word 愛 ai actually matches up pretty well with the English word, in that it can imply either a universal, platonic kind of love, or a personal romantic love. 

How to read the Japanese kanji for love?

Baring mind that there are several options for writing Japanese love symbols in Japanese culture, let’s take a look at how the most popular one is 愛 read or pronounced.

The On-reading (which is the name for the reading of the character that comes from Chinese) for the Kanji for love is ai .

The Kun-reading (which is the native Japanese reading of the characters) is to, and can be combined with the ending shii to make the word “lovable”. 

What words is the Kanji for “love” 愛 used in in Japan?

There are a lot of words that the kanji for love is used in.

These include 可愛い (kawaii) cute; adorable; lovely.

愛称 (aisho) pet name; term of endearment, name used to indicate affection, intimacy, informality, etc.

愛人 (aijin) lover; mistress

Japanese symbol for love stroke order

The order in which Kanji Chinese characters are written in Japan are considered very important. The Japanese symbol for love is written as illustrated below:

Other kanji symbols that get used for love in Japan

In Japan, there are actually several words that get used as an equivalent of the English word “love”. It’s kinda confusing for us gaikokujin. 

But then what is love, if not confusing?

好き Suki

Anyone that has watched any amount of Japanese dramas, romance movies, or anime in the original Japanese will have noticed that when people say they love each other, the most common way they do it is to say:

好きです (suki desu).

The word suki is familiar to anyone who has done even a little study of the Japanese language. It is a very common word, used in everyday language to mean “like”. As in “I like cheese”, or “I like studying Chinese characters because there are thousands of them and it’s a sisyphean task”. 

So it is confusing that it is also so commonly used to express the feeling of romantic “love”. If someone says they “suki” does that mean they like you, love you, they like the cut of your jib? 

Well, a lot of the meaning is in the intonation, delivery and context in which the word is delivered. Two people sitting side by side on a river bank, watching the sunset at the end of a great date? Well, that suki is firmly down the “love” end of the continuum.

The confusion is only increased by the fact that the word 大 dai is often put in front 好き to make 大好き dai suki, meaning to really love someone or something.

When you think about it, in English, we often say things like “I love chocolate”, or “I love Bruce Lee movies” or “I love linguistic ambiguity” (which, of course, makes the eternally hilarious joke “well why don’t you marry it?” possible).

In big font, for clarity, suki looks like this:


A famous example of both suki and daisuki being used to mean “love” can be heard in Jun Togawa’s iconic song “Suki suki daisuki”.

It is worth noting that the character 好, by itself is the word for “good” in Chinese.

Words that use the character “Suki”

友好 (yuko) friendship

好意 (koui), good will; favor; favour; courtesy

愛好 (aikou) love; adoration

恋 Koi

Another word that is used for love is “恋” koi (no, no relation to Japan’s world famous carp-fish).

Koi is different from 愛 ai in that it specifically refers to romantic love. So you wouldn’t (hopefully) describe your love for your parents as “koi”. Nor would you describe your universal love for nature, the earth and all the living things that inhabit as “koi” (once again, hopefully).

One way we can illustrate Koi is with the Japanese TBS drama called 

恋する母たち (Ai suru haha tachi)

A beginner Japanese translator could potentially render this title as “The Loving Mothers”. Which, as a title, I think we can all agree fails to inspire any great intrigue.

But contrast that with the real meaning of the title “The mothers who fell in love”, and you get something altogether more capable of piquing interest.

The Japanese can get the message across by the use of the word koi, which everyone knows is all about romance and little about long-haired hippies strumming their guitars.

Writ large, the romantic character for love looks like:

Words that use the kanji 恋 koi

恋愛 (renai) Love

失恋 (shitsuren) To have your heartbroken

恋人 (koibito) Sweetheart, boyfriend/girlfriend

恋しい (koi shii) To miss someone or something

How popular is the Japanese symbol for love as a tattoo?

The kanji 愛 ai is the number 1 most popular Chinese character for people to get as a tattoo worldwide. 

So if you’re thinking about getting some good love-ink, you’re in good company!

Are the Chinese characters for “Love” written the same in Japanese and Chinese?

No, the Chinese characters for love are written differently in modern Japanese and Chinese. This is because the Chinese have massively simplified their character writing system in modern times.

The Chinese version of the word for dream looks like:

 in contrast to the Japanese one that looks like:

Interestingly, if you compare the Japanese and simplified Chinese versions of the two characters above, the part that has been removed from the Character for “love” is the part that means “Heart”. 

Taking the heart of love? What a truly heartless thing to do.

What do the primitive forms of the Chinese character for love look like?

Chinese characters have evolved over a long period. Sometimes, people like to use Chinese and Japanese words in their primitive form for aesthetic reasons. The historical forms of “love” look like:

Other forms for the character for love:

Japanese symbol for love stroke order

The order in which Kanji Chinese characters are written in Japan are considered very important. The Japanese symbol for love is written as illustrated below:

Examples of the Japanese symbol for love in tattoos

Chest Japanese kanji tattoo for love

With the love being so associated with the heart in Western culture, it is not surprising that many people choose to put the Japanese symbol for love on their chest when getting it tattooed.

Quite often, people put the tattoo right at the center of the chest. This lends the symbol the sense of “being at the center” of everything.

Some people choose to put it to the side of the chest or directly over the heart.

Arm kanji tattoo for love

Behind The Ear Japanese kanji tattoo for love

If you want something visible, but subtle, you could put some love behind your ear.

Back of Japanese neck kanji tattoo for love

Putting the kanji for love has an interesting effect in that it can look quite bold and intimidating. But the meaning is so, well, loving…

Leg Japanese kanji tattoo for love

Head Japanese kanji tattoo for love

The head is a popular spot to put a Japanese love tattoo. It is especially popular with hardcore fans of the Japanese anime Naruto, because the character Gaara has this tattoo on his head.

Gaara from Naruto sporting a love tat

Arm Japanese kanji tattoo for love

The classic tattoo home, the arm. Love goes there too.

Finger Japanese kanji tattoo for love

An alternative way to say “I love you” Japanese

Japanese people are renowned for finding novel, indirect ways of saying things. Here’s a case in point.

Instead of saying, “I love you” there is a poetic tradition of saying 月が綺麗ですね tsuki ga kirei desune which literally means “Doesn’t the moon look beautiful” to express your deep effections. This line is attributed to writer Natsume Soseke, but there is no solid evidence to conclusively prove that he really said it…

“Don’t you think the moon is beautiful” as a tattoo. img: boxcat138

An example of a “love” kanji tattoo gone wrong

Here’s an example of a love tattoo that has gone awry. This jumbled mix of strokes looks, um, decidedly un-loved.