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Valentine’s Day celebrations in Japan are structurally different from other countries, but the basic concept is the same: Couples go out on dates, and those who are still unattached hint at their interest in each other with gifts and messages.

Japan splits the gift-giving into two separate days. On Feb. 14, women give men gifts, often chocolate, and men reciprocate a month later on March 14, known as White Day.

Of course, there is some strategy involved. It’s still customary for women to give out 義理チョコ (giri choco, obligatory chocolate) to their male colleagues (although the tradition is increasingly becoming a thing of the past), and some may prepare a special gift for a coworker they have a crush on. If the crush responds with an equally special gift, or asks them out on a date, this opens the door to a romantic connection.

However, these structures have their limitations. At some point, we all need to use our words to communicate our feelings about someone directly. Fortunately, Japanese has set phrases and practices that make this easier; collectively, this is known as a 告白 (kokuhaku, confession).

Until you properly confess, a relationship will never be truly official, so this is a critical part of dating in Japan. The good news is that the basic protocols for a 告白 are extremely straightforward. It’s just two short sentences.

First, you declare your love: 田中さんのことが好きです (Tanaka-san no koto ga suki desu, I like/love [you], the “you” here being Tanaka). Obviously this phrase is for a man or a woman named Tanaka. Substitute your love interest’s name as appropriate. You can also substitute a second-person pronoun such as あなた (anata, you) or 君 (kimi, you) for your crush’s name here.

Once you’ve expressed your love, you ask the person to date you: 付き合ってください (Tsukiatte kudasai, Please date me).

Obviously, this is a big “love bomb” to drop on someone out of the blue. One useful phrase to use in advance of a 告白 to let the person know you have something to tell them is 伝えたいことがあるんだけど… (Tsutaetai koto ga aru-n da kedo, There’s something I’d like to tell you …). This leads naturally to the confession itself.

Knowing what to say is only half the battle in these situations. The other half is gearing yourself up to ask the question and knowing when the timing and setting are both just right.

As one commenter on a Yahoo! Chiebukuro message board about dating notes, 告白ってふられる可能性があるから一大決心が必要です (Kokuhaku-tte furareru kanōsei ga aru kara ichidai kesshin ga hitsuyō desu, There’s a chance of being rejected with a confession, so you need to go all in).

Social media and text messages have made it easier to communicate without meeting face-to-face, so it might be tempting to tap your confession into your smartphone and wait for a response in the privacy of your home. The Japanese website Love Hacks says, however, that confessing in person is still best. The only situation where you’d want to confess over a messaging app like Line would be if your object of affection isn’t comfortable going on a date before the 告白.

In every other case, the general rule is to confess after 3回以上のデート (san-kai ijō no dēto, three dates or more) or when you’ve gotten to the point that you’re messaging each other frequently.

Love Hacks also ranks the best date locations for a 告白, basing it on four criteria: 静けさ (shizukesa, calmness/quiet), 2人きり度 (futari-kiri do, privacy [literally “how much it’s just the two of you”]), 薄暗さ/ムード (urugurasa/mūdo, lighting [literally “dimness”]/mood) and 特別感 (tokubetsukan, how special it feels).

These criteria all make sense! You’d want a moment like this to be relatively quiet, for the two of you to be on your own, for the mood to be right and for it to feel like a special event you’ve put some thought into. High on the recommended list of confession locations are 観覧車 (kanransha, a Ferris wheel), オシャレなレストラン (osharena resutoran, a fancy restaurant) and 夜景の見える場所 (yakei no mieru basho, a place where you can see the night sky).

But no matter how, where or when, you still have to ask the all-important question. As another Yahoo! Chiebukuro commenter says, 綺麗な言葉じゃなくていい、上手く言えなくても大丈夫。伝えるだけですごいんです (Kireina kotoba ja nakute ii, umaku ienakute mo daijōbu. Tsutaeru dake de sugoi-n desu, It doesn’t matter if you have beautiful words, it’s fine if you can’t say it well. Just being able to communicate [your love] is incredible).

Also critical is knowing how to respond to a 告白. While 付き合ってください is technically a 命令文 (meireibun, imperative), the person being confessed to still has a choice.

The simplest and most straightforward way to accept is はい、お願いします (Hai, onegaishimasu, Yes, I’d like to) or よろしくお願いします (Yoroshiku onegaishimasu, I’d like to).

Saying no might require being a little more indirect, depending on how sympathetic you’re feeling. You can start with a gentle phrase thanking them: 気持ちは嬉しいけど… (Kimochi wa ureshii kedo, I appreciate the sentiment, but …).

Or you can start your response more directly with ごめんなさい (Gomen nasai, I’m sorry).

From there you have options. You could say you just want to be friends: 友だちでいたい (tomodachi de itai, I’d like to be friends). Or you could fudge the truth if necessary and say 好きな人がいる (sukina hito ga iru, there’s someone else I like). You can also be incredibly blunt and say タイプじゃない (taipu ja nai, you’re not my type) or 正直、好きではない (shōjiki, suki de wa nai, to be honest, I don’t love/like you).

However you ask, and however you choose to respond when asked, I hope you find some of the language here helpful and that you have no 後悔 (kōkai, regrets). Life is short and challenging, so when you have the chance, don’t miss your shot: 思い切って告白しよう! (Omoikitte kokuhaku shiyō, Confess your love with abandon!)

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