Settling into a chair at a barbershop in Japan, one enters into the same kind of preliminary conversation one does in the United States (or, I imagine, anywhere else in the world). In my case, I usually tell the barber to cut it “very short, just shy of looking like I’m joining the Marines”—and am always grateful when he laughs at my silly joke. Then I ask him to thin out my hair: “Suite kudasai.”
The last time I got my hair cut, it struck me that “suku,” the root of the imperative “suite,” is a word with many meanings. As I drifted into that peculiar barbershop-lull, scissors working and trimmers humming in the capable hands of a veteran professional, I considered some of them: When you are hungry you say your stomach is “empty” (suku). And when you comb your hair, the same word, “suku,” describes the pulling of the comb through the tangles. Paper made out of pulp is “spread thin” (suku) on a screen. A watermark is a “sukashi,” a variation of another meaning of “suku,” namely, to be see-through.
“Suku” is also used to form a word with which many outside of Japan will be familiar: “suki.” “Suki” is Japanese for “to like,” and is perhaps best known as part of the name of the dish made by “cooking what you like”: sukiyaki. “Suki,” as its relationship with other “suku”-based words implies, suggests the state of being in need of something, or of having part of oneself missing or dependent on something (or someone) else.
To “suki” someone is akin to the English “like,” in that “liking” is sharing an affinity, being sympathetic or harmonized with another. But whereas in English “love” is seen as the superlative of “like,” in Japanese “suki” is more versatile. “Ai,” the word usually used to translate “love,” is a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes used to connote selfless agape, it can also shade into what is expressed in Japanese by “koi,” the rosy-colored love that two people experience when they are head over heels for one another.
“Suki,” which also has strong connotations of what in English would be described as “love,” is more encompassing than either “ai” or “koi.” In fact, at a certain angle of approach, “suki” looks very much like Augustinian love—the love that is restless until it finds what it is looking for. To be sure, in modern parlance one can say “suki” about one’s favorite brand of potato chips. But “suki” should not be written off as shallow just because our age has dumbed down its meaning (as it has in English). Etymologically considered, “suki” reveals a deep unsettling of the human person, a recognition that there is something lacking within me, some hole in my being that cries out to be filled.
Seen in this light, it should not be surprising that “suki” can be used to say, for example, “I like watching baseball games” (Yakyū no shiai wo miru no ga suki). A pastime, after all, is a kind of tacit confession of Augustinian inclination. To be human is to live with the suspicion, nestled way down deep, that nothing in this universe, no diversion we can turn to, will ever satisfy the hunger of the heart. We cast about endlessly—potato chips, baseball games, wine, romance, and song—trying to find that which will satisfy our longing for an unnamed end and bring us peace.
Many get stuck along the “suki” road, opting for something or someone that seems an acceptable compromise between seeking and settling. But “suki” carries within it the possibility of an even greater trajectory. Taken all the way, “suki” embraces more than feelings, more than fleeting moments of passion followed by regret. When we truly love another person, we come to see that there is something outside our understanding—a Love, without which our human love would be reduced to mere material process and chemical rush.
The corollary of “suki” is “suku,” a multi-purpose verb always indicating a diminished state. To love someone is to look for something outside of yourself, while at the same time, paradoxically, to lose something of yourself. This sacrifice of self can yield an abundant reward, but the complex give-and-take true love requires evens out far beyond our earthly ken. We intuit this, and cast out into the deep. “Suki” is not just “like,” nor is it just “love”—it is the human condition, right there in everyday conversation. Because we lack something, Someone, we hope with all our hearts that we will find it, find Him, someday.