Japanese literary expression: 〜さに (~sa ni) 

By | August 15, 2022

In this post I’d like to go over a Japanese expression that you don’t hear too often in conversation, but is somewhat common in literature, especially works that are a few decades old.

The pattern is [adjective] + さに (sa ni). You can use i-adjectives or na-adjectives, but if you use the latter you need to drop the “i”. For example:

* 欲しい => 欲しさに (hoshisa ni)

* きれい => きれさに (kirei sa ni)

First, let’s look at an example from classic literature to see how this can be used:

The below line is from this work

  • 私は、金が欲しさにあの人について歩いていたのです [watashi wa, kane ga hoshisa ni, ano hito ni tsuite aruite ita no desu]

Can you guess what this pattern means in the above sentence?

Grammatically, adding “sa” to an adjective basically turns it into a noun, so since “hoshii” means “want/desire” [as an adjective], “hoshisa” would mean “desire” as a noun.

The “ni” particle is a little tricky because it has so many uses. One of the most common is to describe the direction of an action, or location of existence with a verb of existence (“iru”, “aru”, etc.) However, “ni” can also indicate the direction where something came from. We can see that in this simple example:

  • 友達もらった本です (tomodachi ni moratta hon desu)
  • It is a book received from a friend.

Note that you can also use から (kara) for this usage.

But going back to the sentence above where we have “kane ga hoshisa ni”, this can be literally translated as “from (the) desire for money”. So we could translate that whole sentence as follows:

  • 私は、金が欲しさにあの人について歩いていたのです [watashi wa, kane ga hoshisa ni, ano hito ni tsuite aruite ita no desu]
  • I was walking around and following that person because of my desire for money.

However, while you will see this expression used to mean “because”, in some cases the “ni” particle is used for a different purpose, and the resultant meaning is different. Let’s look at another example, this time from here.

  • 若さに変りは無い筈だ [wakasa ni kawari wa nai hazu da]

Here, the base adjective used is 若い (wakai), which means “young” as an adjective. The noun form (“wakasa”) means “youth”. However the “ni” particle is used as part of the phrase “~ni kawari wa nai” (as well as similar phrases like “~ni chigainai”). “Kawari” means “change” or “difference”, so you can interpret “~ni kawari wa nai” as “~is no different than”. So we can do a translation of the above sentence as:

  • 若さに変りは無い筈だ [wakasa ni kawai wa nai hazu da]
  • There should not be any difference in youth. 

There are a variety of other uses where an adjective in the “~sa” form can be used like a noun with “ni”. (“~ni kyoumi ga aru”, “~ni hikareru”, “~ni bikkuri suru”, etc.)

Let’s look at one more example, this time from this work:

  • […]あまりの残酷さに少々気分が悪くなって早送りボタンを押した

The adjective 残酷 (“zankoku”) means “cruel”, so “zankokusa” is “cruelty”. In this case, the “ni” is used in the same as in the first example here, in the sense of “from” or “because”.

So the above can be translated as:

  • […]あまりの残酷さに少々気分が悪くなって早送りボタンを押した
  • …(and) I felt a little uncomfortable so I quickly pressed the fast-forward button.

This isn’t necessarily the best translation, but my main goal here is to explain the meaning.

Have you seen any other expressions with “~sa ni” that you didn’t understand? If so, let me know in the comments!

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