9 June 2016

Stop thinking in English! Active, passive and causative

Japanese verb conjugations are often said to be easy, due to having so few irregular verbs. However, that doesn’t mean that they are easy to use. The causative, despite being a fairly elementary bit of Japanese, is really hard to master. It’s not used as much as other verb endings, and it feels so different from English equivalent that it doesn’t come naturally. I’m not going to cover how it’s formed; there are plenty of other places on the internet with that information.

What do I want to explain is how it logically fits in with way of thinking behind Japanese.

Let’s take a simple situation. We’ve got a queen, a crocodile and the seven dwarfs. The queen, alloyed that the dwarfs helped Snow White, sets the crocodile on them. Things don’t end well for the seven dwarfs.

There are three participants in this incident, and we can describe what it happening with each of them as the subject.

The queen makes the crocodile eat the seven dwarfs.
This sentence has two objects: the crocodile and the dwarfs. Japanese doesn’t like having two を in one sentence, so the actor, the crocodile, is marked with a ‘ni’. Now, what does the queen do? In Japanese we can drop the objects and it’s still a grammatical sentence.
She caused it, so the verb is in the causative.

With the crocodile as the subject it becomes:
The crocodile eats the seven dwarfs
What does the crocodile do?
He’s doing the main action, so his verb is in the active voice.

Finally, the poor seven dwarfs.
The seven dwarfs are eaten.
What do the seven dwarfs do?
They are the victims of this heartless attack, so the verb is in the passive.
I believe that linguists normally use the word ‘patient’, but victim is more appropriate, and this very apt for the Japanese passive that tends to have a negative sense.

You can see that the causative, active and passive voices can be used to change the focus of the narrative, even though they’re all describing the same scene.

In English and many, if not all, other Indo-European languages, it is very important to include information on who is the subject; the person, gender and number. Is the subject the person speaking, the listener, or somebody else? Are they alone, or in a group? English has mostly lost the verb inflexions that mark this, but the pronouns live on and it’s still a core part of the way of thinking behind the language.

In contrast, Japanese doesn’t really care about that. The language is far more interested in the role of the subject. Did they cause it? Did they do it? Were they affected by it? This is why Japanese doesn't really have pronouns in the same way English and other European languages do. There is such a wide variety of ways of saying 'I' and 'you' in Japanese because they're not grammatically fundamental to the language and are therefore easier to change.

The meaning translates easily into English, but not without losing the symmetry in the verb forms. Often for any given situation you only hear a single sentence describing it, so the relationship between the causative, active and passive isn’t always obvious, but knowing the relationship between them is key to understanding the internal logic of the Japanese language.


  1. Nicely described by Japanese Examples . Looking forward to see more stuff like this.
    Thanks you.

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