A recent blog post by jibtv blogger Anna Kunnecke got me thinking about uniquely Japanese words. Her deconstruction of the word bimyou highlights what is so hard about the Japanese language - that is is full of words that represent abstract ideas. Bimyou is definable, but depending on the context will mean different things. Anna has already written about that word, so I will turn my attention to a different word: sasuga.
Sasuga is one of those words that Japanese ex-pats love to drop when talking with other ex-pats. (One of them even uses it as a clever title for his blog.) It can be an adjective or an adverb, and is defined something along the lines of “clever, adept, good, expectations, as one would expect.” Example dialog: “Did you just see what Gary did!? He climbed that 50-foot fence using only his arms!” “Ooh! Sasuga Gary!”
This use of sasuga would be appropriate if Gary had a penchant for climbing things with only his arms, but had never attempted something as tall as 50 feet. You would expect Gary to top his old record.
Sasuga also carries the connotation that you would not expect anything less of a person, and in this context can be used to create a humorous situation out of a decidedly maladroit action. If you already expected someone to screw up, uttering a sarcastic "Sasuga!" when they do something like this is appropriate.
It’s this dichotomy that makes sasuga a joy to utter and a bane to hear, because the the word can either be praising or belittling, with no audible difference in intonation. You just don’t know. You don’t know if your friend is praising you or veiledly saying, “Surprise surprise, you lived up to what we thought you could do.”
In this way sasuga is brothers (or sisters, if you prefer) with the term atarimae, which means ‘expected’, ‘reasonable’ or ‘blatantly obvious.’ In Tokyo, for instance, it is atarimae that the trains run on time. Knowing the connotations of atarimae is extremely helpful, because if someone does something that is atarimae only to receive a reply of “sasuga,” then it is likely a sarcastic comment.
All this to say that when a foreigner new to the country hears the phrase “sasuga gaijin(foreigner),” they have no way of knowing whether or not it is a complement, because they have not yet learned what is atarimae and what is not. It’s one of those things you have to, as Anna says, take as a quicksilver-kind of word and go with the flow until you can determine the context. And if you figure out the context more quickly than your other gaijin friends, then I have one thing to say.