Recently, I was talking about relationships with a Japanese friend who is studying here in the UK, and she asked me: “you don’t have kokuhaku here, do you?”
I knew what kokuhaku is – it’s the declaration that marks the beginning of a relationship, the point where one person says to the other “I really like you, will you go out with me?” So at first, I thought it was a bit of a funny question. I mean, we do that in western countries too, right? Declare our feelings, ask and get asked out? Well…yes. But maybe it’s not quite the same.
I did a bit of digging, and found a bunch of Japanese articles online with titles like, ‘Saying “Let’s go out!” is just a Japanese thing!?’ and ‘Japanese people are the only ones to confess their love?!’ It seems the idea that kokuhaku is unique to Japan is pretty prevalent. But why? In other cultures, it’s also fairly common for one person to ask the other out, isn’t it?
First, let’s take a look at the meaning of kokuhaku (告白). The first kanji is 告, meaning “to announce, to reveal”; the second is 白, meaning “white”.
▼ “…announce white?” WHY JAPANESE PEOPLE, WHY?!
…Just kidding. 白 does mean “white”, but in this context it’s more like “make clear”. Put the two together, and kokuhaku means “confession” or “profession (of love)”. That’s what you’ll get if you look it up in the dictionary, anyway. Of course in English we don’t go around saying things like “OMG he totally professed his love to me on Sunday” (well…I don’t anyway, but there you go).
In Japanese, however, kokuhaku is a common word as well as an important concept, and can be used in casual speech:
すきな こ に こくはく した。
suki-na ko ni kokuhaku shita
I confessed my feelings to the girl I like.
すき じゃない ひと から は なぜか こくはく されたんだ。
suki janai hito kara wa naze-ka kokuhaku sareta-n-da
For some reason, the person I’m not interested in told me they like me.
So what do people actually say when they kokuhaku? If you watch anime or J-drama, you might have come across this line before:
すき です。つきあって ください。
suki desu. tsukiatte kudasai
I like you. Will you go out with (just) me?
▼ Or, you could write it on a coke bottle like this clever person did.
The verb 付き合う (tsukiau) means to go out with someone – usually mutually exclusively – and is commonly used in kokuhaku. It’s also used in the form 付き合ってる (tsukiatteru) to mean “dating” or “going out”:
あの ふたり、つきあってる でしょう。
ano futari, tsukiatteru deshou
Those two? I think they’re a couple.
▼ It’s a bit like “going steady”. Dang, why don’t we have a word for that in English any more?
But is confessing your feelings or asking someone to date just you and no one else really a Japan-only thing? A survey by Japanese website MyNavi News attempted to get to the bottom of this question, asking non-Japanese people the question: “In your country, do you kokuhaku (confess your feelings, tell someone you like them) before going out with someone?” Only around half of respondents said they did, which left some Japanese netizens surprised – what about the other 50 percent?
Let’s take a look at some of the comments made by people who said they don’t usually kokuhaku:
“Sometimes, when you both know where you stand, it’s not necessary to make a declaration.” (male, Italy, early 30s)
“We don’t really have kokuhaku. It just kind of happens naturally.” (female, Poland, late 20s)
“I don’t really say anything, you just have to work out if the pair of you are a couple or not by trying to read the situation. It’s really difficult.” (female, France, late 20s)
So it seems that some people surveyed felt strongly that kokuhaku is not necessary. It’s worth pointing out that this is personal, as well as cultural – the survey respondents weren’t claiming to speak for everyone in their country. But one advantage of a kokuhaku-style declaration, however, is that it removes the ambiguity that can otherwise plague the early stages of relationships: once said, and agreed to, the two of you are officially “a couple.”
▼ “Will you be my It’s Complicated?” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it somehow.
Whether you think it’s an unnecessary formality, a useful clarification, or just plain darn adorable, kokuhaku is here to stay. But are those headlines right when they say, “Saying ‘Let’s not see other people!’ is just a Japanese thing!”? Well, I don’t think so, not really. We might have to add kokuhaku to our list of words with no (good) English equivalent, though.