A person, thing, or situation that feels sketchy or shady.
  • barbarian, foreign
  • さん
  • scatter, disperse
  • くさ
  • smelly, stinking

さんくさい describes a situation when something feels “shady” or “sketchy”. When we have a bad feeling about a thing or person, and cannot trust it or him or her, we use this word.

There are a few theories about where the first part of this word, さん, originates from. One theory suggested is comes from an old Chinese word, ろん, that means “suspicious” - another theory posits that it could actually come from a Portuguese word “vsanna”, which also has a meaning of “fishy” or “suspicious.”

The strongest theory, though, is that さん originates from a word originally meant to describe a type of black-glaze pottery called さん (note how the readings are the same). Vintage さん tea bowls were preferred at tea ceremonies and traded at fairly high prices. In the middle of the Edo period, there were many fake さん tea bowls flooding the market, and it became difficult for regular folk to tell which were real. So metaphorically, the phrase さんくさい is trying to expressing the feeling that while you have no actual evidence proving which is good or bad, you somehow still feel uneasy about the situation at hand.

The second half of this word, くさい, is actually a fairly common suffix in Japanese. Literally, it means “smelly” - but when used like this, it carries a meaning more like “seems like” or “feels like.” It’s similar to how in English we might say something “smells fishy!”

Note that さんくさい can’t be used when we have actual evidence that something is bad or sketchy. It is meant to describe your doubt despite the lack of evidence. For example, if you met a man who has a criminal record and you knew about it, you couldn’t say the man was さんくさい. However, if you didn’t know anything about the man, but he somehow gave you an uneasy feeling, then さんくさい would be a good word to use!

Example Sentences
  • 「ディズニーワールドにりょうしょうたい」なんて、さんくさはなしだ。じゃない?

    A “Free Disney World Vacation?” - I don’t trust it. Isn’t that a scam?

  • ともだちあたらしいかれさんくさおとこだ。ごともしてないのにあそあるいている。

    My friend’s new boyfriend is shady guy. He is always out playing around even though he is unemployed.