The Japanese “Passive” – it isn’t difficult. And it isn’t passive!

Japanese passiveThe Japanese “passive” conjugation can be a real mind-bender.

The particles all seem to change places pretty much at random from what they usually do.

But the truth is that it isn’t complicated at all and it works just like every other Japanese sentence.

The particles are doing what they always do.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is the way the standard texts teach it. For a start they call it the passive conjugation.

It isn’t passive.

And it isn’t a conjugation.

Once you know what it really is, you can see that it is very simple and completely logical. There is nothing to “memorize”. If you know elementary Japanese grammar you already know how the passive works.

The books and sites just messed it up for you by describing it so confusingly.

Watch this seven-minute video to straighten out the “passive” in your mind forever.

If you have questions, please ask them in the comments on the YouTube page and the Doll will answer you!

Grammatical note

For those interested in a more detailed analysis of how the grammar of the Japanese receptive form works, this note may be of interest and help you to grasp the unfamiliar – but very simple and logical – way the Japanese works:


mizu ga inu ni nomareta
Literally “The water drink-received from the dog”
(not “the water was drunk by the dog” – the meaning is the same but the structure is completely misleading).

The water does the action of the compound verb noma-reru. Reru/rareru essentially means “receive” so when we attach it to another verb (it can’t stand alone) the newly-formed compound means “receive the action of the original verb”.

So the water is the one doing the verb nomareru, which means drink-receive. And understanding this is what makes the whole thing fall into place.

It is tempting to say that reru/rareru modifies the verb it is attached to into meaning “receive the modified verb’s action”.

However, while this may clarify the matter, I would say that it is strictly incorrect because of the rule that in Japanese the modified always follows the modifier.

In other words, if we want to “deconstruct” nomareru into its two component verbs nomu and reru, then we have to say that it is nomu that modifies reru. The head-verb, the final action of the sentence, is reru – receive. Ultimately nomu is the modifier (shuushokugo) of reru, which is the actual jutsugo, or action, of the sentence.

So just as in

watashi wa omise ni itta
“I went to the shops”

the “skeleton sentence” is:

watashi wa itta” = “I went”

and omise ni, “to the shops” is simply a modifier telling us something else about “went” (namely where I went)…

So in

mizu ga nomareta
(let’s leave the dog out for clarity) the “skeleton sentence” is:

mizu ga reta
“the water received”

the noma “drink” is simply telling us more about “received” (namely what it received).

Admittedly this is somewhat theoretical since reru/rareru is never actually used on its own in modern Japanese, but I believe this is how the sentence should be analyzed.

If it is easier to see “reru” as modifying “nomu“, I don’t think that does much harm. But in the end I think it may be easier to see “nomu” as modifying “reru“, which I think is actually the case.

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