Koi and Ai

It took a literature class, late on a Thursday evening, for me to think for the first time in a long time about romance. That seems a strange topic, written out in black and white. And it is. But it’s that same strangeness, the peculiarity of an uncomfortable subject, that makes for a more interesting entry.

Originally, it was a student on exchange from Cambridge University, who recommended the class to me. She had gone back in May, and we kept in touch. I told Luke and Marcus about the class and managed to rope them into taking it. We all signed up during the registration period. Japanese Literature was held on Thursdays from 4:40 pm to 6:10 pm, fifth period. Since none of us had classes beforehand, it was a long wait at campus and a tiringly late end to the day each time.


On our first Thursday of the semester, we sat at a stone table near the grass outside the Ryōshinkan building. Marcus and Luke scribbled out homework for the next day. I watched red leaves drift on the wind and thought about the new people at church who had come in with the fresh batch of exchange students.

One girl I had been introduced to directly from day one of her arrival, Rebekah, had promptly joined the worship team and was so aggressively kind (read: American) she even tried to talk to me. I’d had a conversation with Luke where I summed up my irritation at her persistence. “Why is this girl trying to talk like we’re going to be friends?” I exploded, “She’s from the Southern US, she’s conservative, and that makes her boring as hell. It’s like, stop trying to make us being friends a thing. It’s not going to happen.” Luke didn’t follow. After our last one, he’d dropped church like a disaster movie extra drops his hotdog when gawking at the invading aliens.

blackandwhiteequalsartisticphotography.jpg (Doshisha University)

blackandwhiteequalsartisticphotography.jpg (Doshisha University)

The first Literature lesson began with a piece of chalk. Our teacher dragged it with such velocitous violence across the blackboard that pieces flew out like sparks behind each stroke. At the end he stood back and admired his masterpiece. One hiragana character, single and alone. 「は」. One of the most ubiquitous particles in Japanese. In the near-silence of shuffling papers and coughs, a feeling crept upon me that he was about to speak.

“What,” he asked, “is the difference between は and が?”


This had nothing to do with literature. This wasn’t a grammar class. And his question wasn’t a difficult one. Or so it seemed. When challenged, none of the students, even those at the highest level of Dōshisha’s programme, could adequately capture the answer. Finally, he rested his white-limed hands at his side, no longer pointing students out.

“You can’t, can you? How then, can you speak Japanese? Why have you been able to use these particles from a beginner level if you can’t explain? Because you have a particle sense. An innate understanding of the language.” He walked back to the blackboard to emphasise the point, writing out two words. “In fact there is a difference. は is this one – subjective. が is objective. However, there is another particle we must consider to complete this.”

I was unable to stop watching. It was the first class where I’d not made a movement at my desk for ten minutes.

“This one –も. It and は are like pairs.”

Ah. That was it. His point was one of additions and subtractions in a sentence. The implication being that も is a plus, and は—

“は is a minus.”


“Now,” he said. “We’re going to read a poem written in middle Japanese.”


Luke, Marcus and I stared at the handout page keenly, trying to divine Matsui Bashō’s literary intentions. I got nothing. We weren’t allowed to use our smartphones to look up words in the dictionary. I’d already been told off for that one. Marcus furrowed his brow slightly. “What’s shigur—”

“Shigure,” our teacher began again, “is a word you probably haven’t encountered.”

That was eerie. He couldn’t have heard us at that distance.

“It means the cold rain of autumn, sometimes coming from melted or half-formed snow in the clouds. It’s not a summer rain by any means. And when it comes, the meaning is unmistakeable. The seasons have changed.”

I looked again at the poem. With so few words on the page, its meaning began to form. When it looked as though it would arrange itself into an easy understanding, it fell back again into a heap of incomprehensible syllables. I began again. It stretched, and pushed, and suddenly broke outward. Matsui Bashō’s ink, his brush forms, his words, untangled themselves in a line of morphing letters, melding and coagulating into physical image, clear like a pealing bell. It refused to restrain itself to visual image, breaking outward further to scent, and touch, and sound.

初時雨 猿も小簔を 欲しげなり。hatsu shigure, saru mo komino wo hoshigenari.

I was there, with the first unfrozen droplets of autumn drizzling down the nape of my neck, soaking into my boots. There with the sound of trees groaning in a cold wind, the sense of shivering monkeys in the distance, wishing for their own straw raincoats drawn close. The gentle pitter-patter, drops hitting with a dull thud on the ground, throwing up the smell of rain.

His opening monologue about particles began to make sense. You could not replace the も here with anything else. Matsui Bashō angered me. How could he weave a universe out of so little? My inability to grasp Japanese well enough to write in it was a further frustration, and one which felt it would never end.

Some time later, the teacher spoke again to end the lesson. He added, as a final rejoinder, ‘my wife and I met through Matsui Bashō, as it happens. For the next two weeks we’ll be looking at the difference between the two words which both mean love in Japanese – koi and ai.’


“What do we think?” Marcus asked as we exited.

“Best class we’ve had so far,” I said, giving my judgement with enthusiasm.

“Aight,” said Luke. Laconic as always.

“I don’t—I don’t know,” said Marcus rapidly, “I mean I liked that, but say in History for example, I mean she was clear. This guy talks really quickly—”

Luke and I both looked at each other. Compared to Advanced Grammar, the class we had been warned against taking, this lecturer was as slow as anything. Advanced Grammar was one of those ‘get good or go home’ classes, and I was still treading water to understand anything.

“Not really,” I said.

“Oh come on. Don’t be all like—don’t be that, not really guy Simon.”

“No, I mean compared to Advanced Grammar– ”

“—Don’t pretend or be that guy, honestly.”

“He’s right,” Luke cut in, which is indescribably rare for him, “You should come to Advanced Grammar sometime and see.”

“Well anyway,” – Marcus had a habit of continuing a point triumphantly as though it hadn’t been soundly defeated – “History was way more interesting. This guy, I mean, do we even know who he is? Do we know who he is? That’s the question, ladies.”

“Well, no. That was our first class with him,” I said.

“That’s the questio— exactly, Simon. Exactly. We don’t. Can’t trust him.” And with a flick of his coiffed hair, Marcus led the way to both of our bicycles.


The next week, during the cancellation period, Luke and I dropped History. It was a relief on both our houses.


I messaged Anna from Cambridge in the intervening week before the next class, saying we’d all (for the most part) enjoyed it, and thanked her for the recommendation. We didn’t speak much after that.


In the interim, I was dealing with things on the periphery at church. The worship team had new people with not-so-great instrument skills. Neither Nidhi nor Rebekah, the neophytes, were comfortable with the piano. At the very least, the latter was able to sing well.


One balmy afternoon when the service was over, we sat at the piano. Somehow or other, in the diminishing warmth of September, we had started playing music together after church. I sometimes listened to Rebekah play, but her preference was for me to play and her to sing. I didn’t mind; it was nice to have an alternative to my own voice, a sound best described as someone violently strangling a cat in E minor. There was a little Classical in her tone. I asked her about it, and she’d had training, but her entire family also sang. I felt a pang of envy at that kind of family life. I’d stumbled into music by chance, and from a background of people profoundly indifferent. I never heard playing or singing growing up. When I did it myself, as a child, I was told to shut up. Envy was a rare and unusual feeling, twisting in my gut. But I didn’t dislike her for it. I relished the freedom unwinding from the piano as we played and sang together in that empty church.


Somehow, we walked together from the church to the train station where our paths separated. Instead of splitting, we ended up talking for two hours outside Gojo Station, unaware of the time slipping by. I wondered how this boring, probably conservative girl from North Carolina could be making such engaging conversation. Of course, of the two options – that this was an anomaly, or that my shallow judgements were widely off the mark – I knew it could only be the former. I’m never wrong, you see.

“Can I tell you something?” Rebekah asked, then caught herself. “N-no, maybe I shouldn’t. It’s not…”

“What?” I asked, pressing.

She gathered herself for a moment. “You know actually, I have kind of a dirty mind. And when I’m not at church, I swear a fair bit. Real swearing, like ‘fuck that’.” She laughed. “Probably shouldn’t have admitted that.”

“That’s…” I was reeling, trying to fit this glaringly inconvenient evidence into my fundamental paradigm of always being right. “Why—” I turned to the only thing which would save my pride: victim blaming. “Why did you hide the most interesting parts about yourself until now?! What the heck? Just… why would you hide that?”

I laughed, joining her. Mostly it was to cover over my previous mis-judgements, substituting the new image and pretending the old had never existed. But there was something else in there. A kind of enjoyment in the interaction.

We stood outside the station, talking with ease. It became strangely personal very quickly, and even more strangely, remained comfortable. It felt like we’d been friends for a long time.

“I like when the sky is like this,” she said, gesturing toward the cumulus clouds, whipped into pink meringues set on darkening blue. The edge of the horizon, on the basin hills around Kyoto, glowed faintly from the already descended sun.

“Mm,” I agreed. “Look at the reflection in the mirrored glass of the office buildings. You can see it all like a continuous stream of blazing orange and pink. It’s great. The sunsets are nice this time of year, I reckon.”

We both thought in silence. “It’s not going to last, though.” I said finally.

“But I like winter sunsets,” said Rebekah, rebutting my pessimism. “It’s one of the few times you see can see interesting things like green in it. You wouldn’t see those things otherwise. It’s in the dark and cold seasons you do.”

It didn’t last. Autumn soldiered onward, and it was almost frightening how quickly the temperature dropped from mid-30s Celsius to Mid-10s, with lows even colder in the evenings when late classes finished. It would have been difficult to find the motivation to come back to campus for so late a class as our literature one, if not for the subject matter or the charisma of Yamamura-sensei.

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Kurama 9 (small).jpg

Literature class began again: the second time now with Japanese dad jokes. Awful, unfunny, and non-repeatable. But we were thinking about the language in new ways, breaking out of a textbook mindset. When at last on to the subject of koi and ai, our teacher really began to become animated. He shredded chalk against the blackboard in bursts of oversized lettering. The front rows were likely to be limestone statues by the end of class. We read love poems from the Heian period, which were head-scratchingly difficult. It was a kujira of a time.


“The difference between koi and ai is something maybe you don’t have in English, since there’s only one word for rabu (love),” said Yamamura-sensei. He walked away from the blackboard and toward the class again. “But I suppose, let’s say ai can be family and friends too, and of course your wife or husband. But koi is really only with your girlfriend or boyfriend.”

“Is one of them a wider category? Like, koi is included in ai…” one of the students asked.

“No. Ai is deeper. But koi can become ai, if given time.”

Given the poetry we were looking at, it was more complicated than this, but I mentally filed it under the simplistic ‘koi = infatuation/crush’ and ‘ai = love’ regardless. I’m a bad student like that.

He told us the story of the first girl he really liked. He thought it was ai. It was a long tale involving a train all the way to Tōkyō, an inability to spit feelings out, and the stars at night. All good love drama tropes. Finally he told us the conclusion. When he summoned up the courage, she gave him this reply:


You’re just in love with love. Or to put it more harshly:

You’re just infatuated with infatuation.

Ouch. Seems it doesn’t matter, since Yamamura-sensei ended up with his current Matsuo Bashō-loving wife. It’s funny how love works out against our intentions.


Classes continued. Meanwhile I began NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The fact you don’t know about my novel, and no one ever will if I can have my way, says everything about how that panned out.


Almost from the start, Rebekah and I had been chatting on Discord. Point of fact, we’d been talking until four or five a.m. sometimes. My grades began to drop. So did my word-count. The boring girl had become one of the most interesting people I’d met. Or it wasn’t that, rather, even when our conversation was about nothing, I liked listening to her, and I wasn’t sure why. She started coming around in the evenings, but since she’d made sure we verbally friend-zoned each other the first night at Gojō Station, we felt comfortable doing things together that would normally raise eyebrows, like cooking together.

One night it was getting hot in the kitchen in my apartment. “Do you mind if I take my t-shirt off?” I asked, “I have a singlet on underneath, I’m not getting properly undressed or anything.”

Rebekah looked at me as though I was crazy for suggesting it might be a problem. “What? Yeah, of course you can, I don’t care,” she said. We were in the friend-zone. It was almost refreshing.


Literature class on Thursdays continued, and the distinction between koi and ai rattled around in my brain like number balls in a lottery tombola. Surely a clear definition would come with the ding ding ding of a winning powerball. What was it to be merely in koi with koi? For the matter, what was the difference with being in ai? Not that it mattered, because of my one rule.

My thoughts followed the arc of the procession of the sun toward the solstice, getting lower and more distant day by day. For that matter, so was my NaNoWriMo word-count. Every bloody time I talked to Rebekah on Discord until the wee hours I was missing my deadlines. Could I still make it by the end of November? We were only halfway through the month and I felt like dying.

I kept going to worship practice regularly, too. Rebekah and I spent so much time in my apartment together we had started going to practice together. The train pulled in to Enmachi Station, and our conversation slowed with it. I glanced out the window, on to the city going through its rush-hour death throes outside.

“So what’s your rule?” Rebekah asked.

 “Hm?” my thoughts snapped back into the train car. “I don't date.”

“Wait, so, you don't date, like, at all? Why not?”

“Well,” I said, “Basically I figured when I started university that I didn’t want my grades to suffer. A relationship takes time, it takes effort, and I wouldn’t want to sacrifice that. Of the two, I’d spend more time and effort on someone else than school. If it’s someone you love, you know, you sacrifice other things for them.”

“That makes sense,” she said, “I felt similarly, when I started college, I thought that I wanted to keep my head down, and that kind of changed when I went to my current university. I went to a community college before.”

She thought for a while. I realised I knew she was thinking for a while because I was watching her eyes for an inordinate amount of time. They were an oddly rich shade of brown. She looked back into mine. “Have you ever thought about changing it?” she asked innocently.

I met the intensity of her gaze, raising an eyebrow slightly. “Should I?”

“Yes!” Rebekah nodded. There was a half-second delay. “No— I mean, no! Uh–I mean, do what you want,” she finished lamely.

I remember looking out of the train window near Uzumasa, out on to the grids of traffic lights and pachinko parlours, buildings wrapped around in neon. Everywhere it was all red. I wondered about her response, what it meant. I decided then and there that, even given her liking me, or on the off-chance my feelings were any more than friendly – which they definitely 100% were not, I was all Friendy-McFriendzone, tremendous, believe me – it wasn’t a good idea to date anyway. We were from different countries, on exchange to a foreign one. Looking out the window still, since I couldn’t look at her, the decision was made. That was that.

The traffic lights turned green.

We alighted the platform at Uzumasa and began up the stairs. “At any rate,” I concluded, “because of that, to get into a relationship the girl is going to have to chase me to be honest, and pretty hard at that. It’s not going to happen.”

Winter in Kanazawa

Winter in Kanazawa

We walked to worship practice together. Afterwards, we walked back and caught the train together. We cooked together, cleaned my apartment together, talked until early morning online together. To be honest, there wasn’t much we weren’t doing together as friends. One night on Discord, and I can’t remember how, we both sort of admitted and both sort of already knew that we were no longer just friends to each other.


That’s when Rebekah’s campaign began.


I didn’t think that mere shallow feelings, that koi, warranted doing anything. She asked me to at least consider it, and I had to give that. There were two choices, laid ahead of me. One path was sure, and would certainly leave regrets, but its ending was known: not to do anything, to remain friends, to deny ourselves. The other was a horrifying morass of darkness, a path of unsure footing and rocks skidding into the abyss below. It promised light at the end, potentially the greatest happiness I could know. But it was fraught with danger. I had always been able to live with regret. I was used to it.

“But how can you be so sure when it’s a complicated thing, with— with such a high chance of things being bad!” I burst out one night. “It’s difficult, and I need to think, and I don’t understand how you can’t be thinking.”

Rebekah was calm. “Look, I've weighed it, and I think it's worth it. I want you to be part of my history.”

“Well don’t you ever regret anything? What if we only have three months together?”

“Then we’ll make them the best three months possible.” she said, “Don't you think that by not taking this chance, that's another type of regret?”

We were walking side by side down one of Kyōto’s bicycle lanes. It was a night walk, like usual. Lamplight pooled at our feet, widening and diminishing as we passed by each puddle of halogen yellow in smudged chiaroscuro on the asphalt. Buildings huddled narrowly either side obscured the sky, reducing our topics to talk about. We circled around each other verbally instead, going around the drain of what to do. Rebekah pointed to a nearby bench in front of a closed store. “Can we sit here for a second?” she asked,“My foot hurts.” True enough, she'd hurt her tendon from all of our night walks. This one probably wasn't helping.

I nodded. We rested on the bench for what felt like ten minutes. She picked my hand up as if to observe it, absent-mindedly like reading time on a mobile phone. Then she clasped it tight before I could realise.

“T— hey, that’s not fair,” I said, chiding her. “You’re tipping the scales. No tipping of the scales, none of that I need to make my decision fairly.”

Rebekah smiled. “I'm not tipping the scales, I'm using every tactic, but this is fair and square.”

I looked at her to find her doing the same. All at once we were inches apart. My arm cradled around her, drawing her in. It wasn’t the cold causing a shiver; a moment stretched out into the topology of an infinite plain, crackling with energy and calm all the same. It seemed the universe was unable to move time on until the correct action had been completed. I knew what it wanted, or rather, what she wanted. I wondered idly if she was going to take it by fiat, to tip the scales for good. She knew I’d never even kissed someone, and that the idea scared me. I probably shouldn’t have admitted that to anyone at age twenty-one, but hey nobody’s perfect. In fact, some of us are barely passable.

“No tipping of the scales,” I said, and moved my head away. Without looking, I could feel her gaze tingling along the nape of my neck. “I’m serious,” I tried to continue the conversation from minutes ago, “what really is the point of three or so months together? You’re not someone I can see myself together with for a few months, I just—you’re, listen Rebekah, I uh… I can’t see any roadblocks. To a long-term… it’s like I can’t see the end of the road with you, with what I know about you. I can’t see an end for us.”

Her face was hopeful. Uh oh.

“—No, no, that’s the problem. I’m afraid that after three months I wouldn't want to stop.”

Her eyes glittered. An impish, hopeful smile tugged at her mouth. Saying no now was like shooting a puppy.

“But you’re going to live here, in Japan! And I don’t—I can’t do that. I would never keep you away from something you desire.”

She gently put her hand to my jaw. “You’re already trying to do that.” Internally, I balked at the realisation I might have been the cause of the tears standing in her eyes.

“B-but what about… I don’t want to regret…” I found it immensely difficult to concentrate when looking directly at Rebekah, when taking her in, and especially when she had her hand on the side of my face.

“Simon, look at me. Stop thinking about regret. You can't live your life in fear, and we can't stay friends when we both know we like each other. Just think about the next three months, they'll be torture, we'll have to keep ourselves confined to acting like friends when we know how we feel, and then what? Listen,” Rebekah closed the space between us. Her brimming tears had subsided, replaced by a softened gaze. “I want you. Stop worrying about regret. I’ve made up my mind, and I’m going to do everything in my power to show you. Even if we’re only together for three months, it's worth it.  I want to try.”

She made it sound easy. But a war was erupting inside me, threatening to tear at my internal organs. There were two choices. Or were there? The more I thought, the more I realised that on one point she was right. And it was only one point, let’s not detract from my permanent status of knowing everything and always being right, let’s not throw the messianic baby (me) out with that dubious bathwater (doubt about my super abilities). So anyway, she was right on one point. We were past the point of pretending we were only friends. It looked like something more.

I tried to explain this to Luke. We stood at the front of campus under an overcast sky.

“Yeah, I know. Everyone knows,” he said, the wind pulling at his hoodie.


“Sometimes I just think, you guys should get a room, the way you look at each other. Random students at Dōshisha probably know from walking past.”

“Is that true?” I was concerned now.

“God yes, Simon,” said Marcus, grabbing Oreos from the supermarket shelf. “Everyone knows.”

“What, even Roseanne?”

Especially Roseanne, Simon.” He put two packets into his basket. “So my question is,” he asked, “One, when’s the wedding, and two, when did you first realise I was the perfect person to plan it?”

“It’s stupid!” I threw up my hands, “I don’t even know if it’s a good idea for us to date.”

“You’re already dating,” Luke lounged on my bed, while I sat on the computer chair in my apartment. “You just haven’t called it dating yet.” He carefully placed a chip packet on my kotatsu, where I’d be forced to clean it up after he’d left. Such was friendship with Luke.

“I’m just wondering if it’s 恋にしているだけ, you know what I mean?” I said.

“Simon, no one ever knows what you mean,” Marcus said. We were standing on the platform at Gojō underground. A train going in the wrong direction whistled by, ruffling his hair. He smoothed it back into place. “Weren’t you two out last night? You’re already dating.”

“It was a walk,” I protested, “and besides, although we sat down on a bench and talked about stuff, and she kept looking into my eyes like she wanted to kiss me and I wasn’t having any of that, it was just a walk as friends.”

“As friends.”

“As friends, Marcus. I’m not ready for any of that, and I don’t know if I ever will be. I’d be scandalised. Tainted.”

We alighted the train to university. “Cut the B.S.” Marcus said suddenly. “You’re already dating, you just haven’t said you’re dating.”

“Did you talk to Luke about…?”

“No, Simon. It’s just so obvious that everyone thinks that. Ollie asked me if you two are already screwing.”

“Yeah but Ollie asked that about me and Luke earlier in the year. He can’t conceive of human relations outside of conception.”

“Think about it.” Marcus finished.

I did.


I thought about it for the train trip. I thought about it during class. I thought about it on the way to meet Rebekah. There were two choices, laid ahead of me. One path was sure, and would certainly leave regrets, but its ending was known: not to do anything, to remain friends, to deny ourselves. The other was a horrifying morass of darkness, a path of unsure footing and rocks skidding into the abyss below. It promised light at the end, potentially the greatest happiness I could know. But it was fraught with danger. I had always been able to live with regret. I was used to it.

“What are you thinking about?” Rebekah asked me. I noticed how cute her outfit was, how her voice rang richly like shining crystal bells, how her eyes widened when they looked into mine as though she were finding a universal truth in them each time.

I was used to regret. But it wasn’t a decision that would only affect me.

I leaned down to her ear. Rebekah started ever so slightly with my breath so close to her neck. “I was talking to Marcus, and he says we're practically already dating. So I guess we're official,” I said. “Whatever that means.” I looked away.

“What does that mean? So you mean it?” She grabbed my hand in joy, which was hard because my bicycle was between us, but she was still obviously confused. We began to walk toward the other end of campus.

I leaned down again. “It means, Rebekah, that I’m not going to change my mind. I’ve made my decision. I want to be by your side for as long as you’ll let me.”

She looked straight at my face and pulled my hand up toward herself. “What if I don’t stop letting you?” she asked earnestly, beaming.

It took a literature class, late on a Thursday evening, for me to think for the first time in a long time about romance. But it took the most delightful, intelligent, steadfast, faithful, beautiful woman I had ever met to make me feel something for the first time. And more than that, it was not a shallow koi, not an infatuation or a liking. We had started as friends and grown outward into more, reaching up into the sunlight. It was ai. I loved her, and I love her, with all that I have.

“Then,” I said, “I’ll just have to be by your side forever.”