When I first decided to tackle the question of, “What does saa (さあ) mean in Japanese?” I figured it would be a really straightforward task.
The expression “saa” pops up all the time in real life, anime, and tv-dramas, so I figured that I knew exactly what I was going to be tackling right off the bat.
But then I thought about it a bit and realized that “saa” can actually mean a couple of things. Then I googled into the topic a bit and learned that it means even more than I thought at first.
In fact, we’re going to tackle nine different ways you can use the simple utterance “sa” in Japanese. But, let’s start with the most obvious one first.
What does saa (さあ) mean in Japanese?
In general, saa is used as a particle to express an assertion, and is typically used by males. When used in this way it doesn’t have an explicit meaning, but rather functions as a sort of filler word.
Saa: the particle
Saa is an interesting particle in Japanese, since it doesn’t really have any explicit meaning.
It often gets called a “filler word,” but if I’m being totally honest I think this is an unfair way to look at this admitedly simple expression.
To me, a filler word is “um” or “uh,” which in Japanese are usually translated as ano and eto.
Those are “true” filler words, simply creating space for the person to think of their next word, or, at most, to indicate that a thought is coming.
Saa, however, provides what I would consider meaning, and might even call a sort of “meta meaning.”
While the word isn’t used only by men, it certainly can impart a masculine air to what’s being said.
Since it expresses assertiveness, it adds a plethora of contextual cues and clues, letting the listener know that the speaker is serious, or about to give a command, or is going to invite someone to do something, or is providing no other options.
Also, it’s considered casual, and so it enforces a particular mood when it’s spoken. It’s certainly not rude, however, so feel free to use it with friends
That said, it can be used as filler, almost as “hmm” in Japanese. In this way it often breaks up sentences.
We’ll only get so far describing the word, though. Let’s examine a handful of sentences to really get a feel for things.
Sa: the nominalizer
This is a super easy one. If you have an adjective, and want to turn it into a noun, you only have to do one of two things, depending on what type of adjective it is. If it’s a “na” adjective, just slap that sa on there and you’re good to go. If it’s an “i” adjective, replace the i with sa and you’re all done.
Sa: the difference
You may hear “sa” spoken, but not in any of the contexts mentioned already. In this case, it’s probably a completely different word.
Don’t forget, Japanese has an extremely limited number of discrete phonemes, and so there are a ton of homophones.
The first major homophone we’re going to take a look at is written in kanji as 差. This word is pronounced, as you no doubt expect, sa, and means “difference” or “variation.”
It’s a simple noun, and is often use as a suffix. Let’s look at two example sentences.
Sa: the arrow
Another super simple one (okay, these are all going to be pretty simple). In fact, this one is also a bit useless for the modern era, but if you read anything that takes place in Ye Olde Japane, then it might be helpful.
While today the word “arrow” is pronounced ya in Japanese, its archaic form is actually sa.
As for kanji, it’s most common (in my experience, and according to Google results) to see “arrow” written with 矢.
However, you will also see it written 箭, depending on the context.
This is such a simple and obvious noun I’m just going to skip the examples.
<Sa: the Direction
Usually, when you think about the word for “left” in Japanese you think of hidari. However, that is in fact the kunyomi, aka the native Japanese pronunciation of the word.
The concept for “left” and the attendant kanji, 左, also carries an onyomi, a “Chinese” pronunciation. Can you guess what that is? That’s right: it’s sa.
You’ll usually hear this when it’s part of a word including other kanji. For example, 左右 is pronounced sayu and means “left and right.”
Sa: the Narrow
When used as a prefix, the kanji 狭 is pronounced sa and means “narrow” or “thin.” This character and meaning is most well known for its pronunciations that begin with se, such as semai, but this is a special case.
Saasaa: the Repeated
As is so common in Japanese, you’ll also occasionally hear the sound sa repeated, to create the word saasaa. Unlike the singular version we started with, this expression is fairly soft and inviting.
It has a feeling like, “come come now,” and is often used when handing something over to say, “here you go.” Let’s look at a couple of quick examples.
Sa: the Name
Sa can also be a name! This section is just going to be a quick pair of lists.
The first list is the short syllable sa, comprised entirely of family (aka sur) names. I’ll include the character and its rough meaning.
sedge (grassy bush)
The second list is of given names which are all two character compounds and are pronounced with the long syllable, saa.
sand + Asia, next in line, -ous
blossom + Asia, next in line, -ous
blossom + meeting
blossom + beautiful
gossamer + Asia, next in line, -ous
gossamer + love
gossamer + sky
early, fast + Asia, next in line, -ous
“I’ve lived in Japan on-and-off for the last five years, travelling to (almost) every corner of the Land of the Rising sun. I’ve deepened my love of the language with big hauls from Sapporo book stores, by chatting in Shinjuku coffee shops, drinking in Osaka “snack bars,” exploring distant Okinawan islands, and hitching rides with monks in Aomori. Japanese is a wide and deep language, and I’m always eager to dive in deeper.”