Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Future career?

Well, having finally sat the level 2 of the JLPT, I think it's high time I reinvented myself as a Japanese teacher and cast some light on the bloody awkward language for the uninitiated.

Today is chapter one, in which we will be focusing on a word you are likely to hear everywhere you go in Japan: sugoi.

Now, as soon as you look in a dictionary, you will see that sugoi is translated as "great" or "wow" or similar.

What the dictionary doesn't tell you, however, is that when Japanese people use this word, they are invariably being sarcastic. This crucial information was suppressed during the post-war occupation period by the Ministry Of Making Stuff Up. Contrary to popular western stereotypes, the Japanese in general have a remarkably caustic sense of humour, and like nothing more than doing other people down.

Let's look at some examples:

1. If you tell a Japanese person that you know around 500 kanji characters, dollars to doughnuts says they will respond with:

Sore wa sugoi desu ne.

Meaning: "Wow, and to think that I only know about ten thousand."

2. If you find yourself in Osaka's aquarium, there will be a continual chorus of sugoi!

Meaning: "Oh my goodness. A big fish. How remarkable."

3. If you try to impress your new JHS class with your juggling skills, you can bank on the home-room teacher piping up with a sugoi from the back of the class.

Meaning: "Do it with chainsaws, you bloody hack."

So, next time someone compliments you on your ability to use chopsticks, there's no need to feel like they're being patronising.


In chapter two, we'll be looking at the phrase ii na, meaning "I'm glad I'm not in your shoes."


'sugoi' means as much 'wonderful' as it does 'terrible' and that is truth-- without searching a dictionary, taking a test, or juggling chainsaws.--vmm
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