Blue Shoe over at Just Another Day in Japan has a nice little post about his experience with the word 適当に. It’s cool to read as he gets closer and closer to the meaning and then nails the definition almost without realizing it. It’s not his fault, though, since this word gets defined obscurely in just about every dictionary ever created.
He gives the standard dictionary definition of “appropriately” or “properly” when a yakitori chef says, 適当にしましょうか. At first Blue Shoe thinks it might refer to a set meal, but there is none on the menu. His second guess is right on the money:
Either that or he was offering to just let us buy whatever he felt like making. Sometimes the problem in these cases is that you really have no idea what “properly” or “appropriately” means.
There it is in bold – the chef was exercising his subjective choice when performing the action of choosing and cooking delicious chicken bits. Less eloquently, 適当に means “do something however the fuck you/I want to.” It’s not exactly that rough in every case – especially this one which is probably closer to “So should I just rustle up some stuff for y’all to grub on?” – but it’s definitely that arbitrary. A good comparison might be an お任せ course at a sushi place, although if お任せ is A level, then 適当に is like B- level.
One of the best examples is when someone delegates work but can’t be bothered to specify how that work should be done. They usually tell the person to 適当にやって or 適当にしてもいい. Something along those lines. Plug in my profane example and you get the extreme end of the spectrum (imagine an angry boss yelling this): “Do it however the fuck you want!” The other end of the spectrum is “Do it however you see fit” or “However you see suitable.” This is where the “appropriate” and “proper” come in to play.
In a Japanese dictionary, the first listing is “Done well so that the action meets certain conditions, goals or requirements. Something that fulfills something. Something appropriate. Something with those characteristics.” Because the decision-making is subjective, however, the word can also take on negative meanings if the doer happens to choose standards that are inappropriately low.
No matter how you look at it, it’s tough to gather the meaning from the words “appropriate” and “properly” alone. I definitely remember wrestling with the meaning of 適当に. This one takes some getting used to.