Verbs, Part II

There is so much to say about verbs, it stretches into two chapters. Here we tackle some of the harder concepts that are confusing to Westerners even when they have good familiarity with Japanese.

Action Is Done

What a strange section title—”action is done.” It casts action into a passive role. The indirectness of Japanese, as well as the tendency not to mention pronouns or subjects explicitly, makes for a lot of sentences that seem to be passive. However, many of them actually aren’t passive! This is a really complicated topic, and it gets at the heart of the Western confusion about Japanese sentence structure.

Here is the essential problem when English speakers try to understand Japanese: most English sentences that don’t have apparent actors (people or other obvious “doers”) are passive. Hence, our brain responds to many Japanese sentences by casting them into a passive form. You must work very hard to train yourself not to do this!

Here are some examples. An active English sentence is “I drank beer.” A passive sentence is “Beer was drunk”. The second has no apparent actor, although it could be implied (“beer was drunk by me”). The subject of the passive sentence—beer—is acted upon by the verb. Now consider this Japanese sentence:

Biiru o nomimashita.

The sentence has no explicit subject (o is a particle that marks direct objects). But this is an active sentence nonetheless! It means “(The subject) drank beer,” where (the subject) is understood from previous sentences. Maybe it’s “that guy” or “my mom”—whoever it is, it has to have been previously established. (It can’t, BTW, be the indefinite “someone”—that requires a different sentence. It is someone in particular).

It would be just plain wrong to translate the above sentence as “Beer was drunk,” even though that’s tempting for the American mind since there is no apparent actor.

This may seem nit-picky, but it gets important when you start learning true passives. The sentence “Beer was drunk” is said this way:

Biiru ga nomaremashita.

The different ending on nomu indicates passiveness, and ga is used to mark biiru as the subject of the sentence, and hence the receiver of the passive verb’s action. So the beer was drunk.

So far, so good. Japanese has active and passive verbs, just like English. But in reality, the line drawn between active and passive verbs is drawn differently in Japanese than in English. Obivously, some verbs are active in both languages, like “to eat” (taberu). And the standard form of the passive—that is, turning an active verb around—is the same in both languages. The English “to eat” becomes “to be eaten” and the Japanese taberu becomes taberareru.

But there is a vast gray area between these, and you will spend a lot of brain time in this area, wondering which verb form you are supposed to use, which particle is appropriate (ga? o? ni?), and whether you need to state the actor explicitly in order to be clear.

Here are several common areas of confusion:

The False Passive

You have probably learned that you can talk about a state of being with the -te iru form. That is, you use the te form of the main verb, plus the verb iru (to be) to convey something like the English present progressive, which is what we use to talk about states of being.

So the sentence, “I am hungry” would be Watashi wa onaka ga suite imasu (literally, “my stomach is in a state of being empty”). Or, “This train is crowded” would be Kono densha wa konde imasu.

You may not realize that this -te iru form really only applies to intransitive verbs. The verb komu (which becomes konde imasu) means “to be crowded”; it cannot take a direct object.

But in Japanese, there is also a way to express states of being that emphasizes the fact that someone had to act to bring the object to that state. This form applies to transitive verbs. The most natural way to translate this form into English is to use the English passive. But be alert! These sentences are not passive.

The form is -te aru. Here’s an example:

Mado wa akete arimasu. (The window has been opened or has been left open)
[Compare to: Mado wa aite imasu. (The window is open)]

Using arimasu implicitly points out that someone has done the opening. But again, it’s not passive despite the way it is translated. That’s why this form is called the “false passive.” Since we don’t have an equivalent concept in English, your brain just picks the closest thing—the passive.

Honorific Passives

One way to make the exalted form of many verbs is simply to use the passive form. This is totally bizarre. It’s like being able to use “he ate” or “he was eaten” to mean the same thing, except the second is far more polite. I talk more about honorific forms in the Politeness chapter.

Passive Intransitive Verbs

In English, only transitive verbs can become passive—that is, the verb must take a direct object in order to be turned around into a passive sentence. “I threw the ball” can become “The ball was thrown.” But you can’t passivate a sentence like “I fled.” (I guess you could try something clunky like “Fleeing was done by me,” but then you have really passivated the sentence “I did fleeing,” which isn’t quite the same as the original sentence “I fled.”)

Not so in Japanese. Intransitive verbs can be made passive. This gets confusing because the translation doesn’t really work. For example, the verb furu (to fall) is intransitive. But it has a passive form—furareru. This form is used, for example, in the following instance:

Ame ni furarete shimatta (Argh! I got rained on!)

The “Suffering Passive”

The “suffering passive” is a silly name, but it’s an important concept—and it has no English correlate. It means that you (or someone else in particular) were adversely affected by something having been done. So the sentence may involve three nouns: the perpetrator, the object that was acted on, and the person who was adversely affected by the perp’s action. In Japanese, of course, not all of these nouns will be named, so you have to have sharp ears to figure out who’s doing what to whom.

Try this on for size:

Biiru o nomaremashita.

Whaaaaat? That seems to be a combination of the two sentences I wrote above for “(the subject) drank beer” and “Beer was drunk.” Now we have a passive sentence (indicated by the passive verb nomaremashita), but it has no explicit subject, and in addition, it has a direct object. In English, passive verbs are not allowed to take direct objects!

This is a “suffering passive.” The subject is someone who was previously established (“I” or “my sister”, maybe). This subject suffered the consequences of something. What? Well, it was the fact that the beer was drunk. Biiru is the object of the sentence—it had the verb (drinking) done to it—and it is no longer the subject because the sentence is about suffering consequences, and that was done by the subject. The sentence can only be understood completely by context, but it might mean,

“I suffered the consequences of the fact that my beer was drunk (by my roommates).”

Maybe the beer was supposed to be for a party Saturday night, but my pesky roommates drank it all on Friday, and now I’ve got egg on my face for not delivering. (Hey, it’s just an example).

Transitive-Intransitive Verb Pairs

This is another tricky subject. Here’s the basic point: Japanese separates transitive and intransitive uses of verbs into two separate verbs that conjugate differently. In English, we either don’t separate the pair or we separate them into active and passive verbs.

Here are some examples. First,

Verbs that are transitive-intransitive pairs in Japanese but are the same verb in English

tomaru (intrasitive): to stop
tomeru (transitive): to stop (something)

So you would say Tokei ga tomatta (or tomarimashita) for “my watch stopped” (the first is abrupt, the second polite). But you would say Kuruma o tometa (or tomemashita) for “I stopped my car.”

The first sentence has the watch as the subject (marked with ga), and it is simply stopping. The second sentence is a transitive action—I stopped my car. The car is the object (marked with o). We don’t care about this distinction in English– you just include a direct object if you need one, and not if you don’t. But it’s a big deal in Japanese.

There are many other examples too:

hajimaru (intransitive): to begin
hajimeru (transitive): to begin (doing something)

ochiru (intransitive): to drop, fall
otosu (transitive): to drop (something)

So Kurasu ga hajimatta means “Class began,” but Kurasu o hajimeta means “(The teacher) began class.” (The teacher is the unnamed subject. It has to be understood from context).

That’s not too confusing. The hard part is when Japanese transitive-intransitive pairs represent verbs that would be active-passive pairs in English. You must try very hard not to think of the intransitive verb as passive! All of the examples below are active verbs.

Verbs that are transitive-intransitive pairs in Japanese, but active-passive pairs in English

kimaru (intransitive): to be decided
kimeru (transitive): to decide (something)

kawaku (intransitive): to get dry
kawakasu (transitive): to dry (something)

shimaru (intransitive): to be closed, shut
shimeru (transitive): to close (something)

And on and on. So consider the sentence Ryokou no nittei ga kimarimashita. This means “The travel itinerary (ryokou no nittei) has been set.” At least, that’s the most natural way for our American brains to understand the sentence. But it’s really not a passive sentence. The true passive verb “to be decided” derives from kimeru—it is kimerareru.

I guess you could also say Ryokou no nittei ga kimeraremashita (“the travel itinerary has been set”), but this has a slightly different meaning than Ryokou no nittei ga kimarimashita. I don’t know if this is a general rule or not, but I’ve noticed that these passive-sounding intransitive verbs are really popular in Japanese speech. Far more so than using the passive version of the transitive verb. As I noted above, I think this has to do with the polite indirectness of Japanese. These intransitive verbs are truly elegant in that they totally eliminate all mention of the people involved. Even using a passive form implies the hidden “(by someone)” as in the sentence “Beer was drunk (by me).” But if there were an intransitive form of “to drink” (which there isn’t, however), then you could say “Beer was drunk” as an active sentence, and no hidden people would be lurking around.

The only way to deal with these totally new grammatical structures is to learn to think in Japanese– to learn to understand what is being said without translating it first. You have to get to that “clicking point” where you can just understand things without consciously thinking about it (you do this in your native language already!).

Final note on passives

I got a very nice email from a Westerner skilled in Japanese, pointing out some top-level comments on the use of passive forms in Japanese. They provide an excellent closing to this section:

Japanese verb forms express emotional rather than temporal relationships, and the passive form is an excellent example of this. In my experience, Japan is a culture where many events seem out of individual control—many things are left to “fate” or “the powers that be”, and there’s really nothing we can do about it! We’re forced to do things and be in situations we’d rather not, so it seems we have alot of things “done” to us arbitrarily or unfairly.

Obviously this is a very negative use, but on the positive end it can also be used to connote feeling grateful or being appreciative of having had a certain experience. For example, Sono oishii birthday cake o tabette yokatta is a fine sentence in itself, but if you want to express THANKS for the experience with a simple passive and some politeness thrown in, try tomodachi ga tsukutte kureta birthday cake o taberarete yokatta desu. Thus the meaning goes beyond merely, “I’m glad I ate that cake,” and becomes instead, “I’m thrilled that I could have the chance to eat the birthday cake that my friend (so kindly) made for me.”

What he said.