The protagonist dynasties in the Dragon Ball franchise are members of the Saiyan species. This race of powerful warriors were once a proud, haughty people known throughout the galaxy for their fierce fighting spirit and tenacity, as well as their tendency towards violent colonialism. The term, much like the expansive franchise from which it was spawned, has become ubiquitous within anime culture and pop culture in general.
Despite this popularity, it is not the original term for the species; rather, it was Saiyajin, which despite the similar spelling has a different pronunciation. Anime fans who are fond of watching subbed anime have been known to use the original term, but what is the etymology behind the two words, and are they actually different?
The Japanese term Saiya-jin, like many of the names in the Dragon Ball franchise, has several pun-related elements to its etymology. It is firstly related to “yajin,” a term that means “wildman” in Japanese. This is in reference to the race’s violent, warmongering ways. “Saiya” is also an anagram of “yasai,” which can mean either vegetable or salad. This explains the species’ names fittingly being based on the names of different vegetables, such as Kakarot, Broly and, of course, Vegeta. The species’ home planet before conquering the final world of Planet Vegeta was even called Planet Sadala.
The Japanese suffix “jin” simply means person. For instance, a Canadian person would be referred to as a “kanadajin” or “Canada person.” Thus, Saiya-jin, or Saiya person, literally translates as… wild vegetable person!
When the series was dubbed into English the term was transliterated from Saiya-jin into Saiyan. The punny wordplay of the original term was obviously lost when removed from the Japanese language but the pronunciation was even different, too. “Saiya-jin” is pronounced “Sigh-ya-jeen”, whereas “Saiyan” is pronounced “Say-uhn.” Likewise, the various states of the “Super Saiya-jin” transformation became “Super Saiyan” forms in the West. It’s worth noting, though, that the pronunciation should still be “Sigh” as opposed to “Say,” and Goku’s Kaioken transformation is pronounced correctly in the dub. This makes a more commonly known pronunciation in the Funimation dub incorrect.
American fans first introduced to the series on programming blocks such as Toonami would have undoubtedly heard the term and pronunciation as Saiyan, yet despite this familiarity, deference to the original term has abounded within the fandom.
Use of either term, Saiyan or Saiya-jin, typically revolves around which part of the world a fan grew up in. Western and other non-Japanese fans will use the word Saiyan, and vice-versa. Despite this, many Western fans will note the various Super Saiyan transformations with abbreviations and acronyms such as SSJ3, SSJG, etc.. The numbers, ranging from two-four, refer to the level but the “J” stands for the “jin” in Super Saiya-jin.
Given the otherwise more common use of “Super Saiyan” within these circles, referencing the original term in this way honestly makes next to no sense. It’s believed, however, to have become common among fans as a way to more accurately express the original Japanese naming system. This can also be seen in how fans will refer to characters such as Bulla, whose name has an inherent pun that is much more obvious through the Japanese pronunciation.
As for which term is more accurate, it again is essentially just a matter of geography and preference. The “n” at the end of Saiyan would still denote the species etymologically as being made up of “Saiya people/persons.” It’s no different than referring to people of America, Mexico or Kenya as Americans, Mexicans or Kenyans. The only elements that are lost in the word’s transliteration are the aforementioned “yaisa” and “yajin” words, though these terms reference characteristics of the Saiyans that are otherwise clearly shown and not necessary to be told in the series, anyway.
Furthermore, Saiyan names such as Kakarot, Vegeta, Broly and Paragus remain unchanged in the English dub, making their homage to produce still readily apparent. The continued popularity of the franchise in the East and West has made sure that it remains a pop culture fixture on both sides of the world, but it hasn’t so far reconciled the two somewhat divergent terms for one of the franchise’s core concepts.
Super Saiyan and Super Saiyajin (SSJ) are used for the alien species in Dragon Ball, but is there any difference between the terms besides geography?