Japanese passive verb conjugation

The necessity of passive structures in English is debated. There are linguists saying that it should be avoided, and there are linguist saying it shouldn't. This is not the case for Japanese where passive is used in various situations. There are cases which correspond to the English equivalent, but on the other hand there are additional functions of passive verbs. Therefore in the following few chapters I will try to give the reader a short introduction into passive Japanese verb conjugation. In order to make it more understandable I have created a few examples as well.

The passive form of Japanese verbs can be used in various situations

The conjugation rules are not too difficult and can be used without remembering any exceptional cases. However the classification of Japanese verbs is a bit different from the English classification.

Japanese verbs can be divided into three big groups. There are irregular verbs, in a sense that they seem to belong to group number two, however they belong to group number one. The conjugation rules are different for each group. I have already talked about this when explaining the so called “te-form”, where the classification became very handy. Therefore if you are not familiar with that, I highly recommend you to check out my previous article. There is a free online test of Japanese verbs as well which can help you to practice a bit.

All right let's check out the rules. When I introduce a new conjugation rule it will always consist of three parts. This is because Japanese verbs can be classified into these three groups.

Group number three is fairly easy to remember, because it has only two members, but the conjugation of these two are different from the rest.

The most difficult is probably the conjugation of group number one type verbs. Most of the cases you will need to learn an additional rule that tells you how to change the last hiragana of the verb to get the required form.

And the rules for group number two are usually very straightforward, usually you will just need to remove the last “る” from the verb and then attach some syllables that are required to form the desired structure.

Conjugation rule for passive Japanese verbs:

Rule for group 1: replace the last hiragana with it’s “a” sound equivalent and attach ”れる”

“a” sound equivalents:

  • る ー ら
  • む ー ま
  • ぬ ー な
  • つ ー た
  • す ー さ
  • く ー か
  • う ー あ

Rule for group 2: remove the last hiragana “る” and attach ”られる”

Rule for group 3:

  • する ー> される
  • 来(く)る ー> 来(こ)られる
Read more >> Practical and polite Japanese verb conjugation

And let’s apply the rules on some of the verbs:

Group 1:

  • 送(おく)る  (to send) ー> 送(おく)られる
  • 飲(の)む (to drink)ー> 飲(の)まれる 
  • 払(はら)う (to pay)ー> 払(はら)われる 

Group 2:

  • 食(た)べる (to eat)ー> 食(た)べられる
  • 見(み)る (to see, to watch)ー> 見(み)られる 
  • 寝(ね)る (to sleep)ー> 寝(ね)られる 

Group 3:

  • する (to do)ー> される
  • 来(く)る (to come)ー> 来(こ)られる

Now let's see an example for the verbs that belong to different groups. These are the cases when passive is used in order to express that the doer of the action is not important or unknown. As such, it could be omitted from the following sentences. While living in Japan, I have realized that passive in Japanese is not used as frequently as in English. If you still want to emphasis the doer of the action, you need to use attach a "に" hiragana.

  • メールが田中(たなか)さんに送られた。
  • The mail has been sent by Tanaka-san.
  • アイスがピーターさんに食べられた。
  • The ice-cream has been eaten by Peter.
  • メールが田中さんに転送された。
  • The mail has been forwarded by Tanaka-san.

Finally I will explain you another function of passive Japanese conjugation. The following example can be heard in a restaurant:

  • ワインは赤(あか)と白(しろ)がございますが、どうされますか?
  • We have red and white wines, which one would you like?

If your friend was asking you he or she would ask it in the following way:

  • ワインは赤と白があるけどどうする?
  • Would you like red or white wine?

You might have realized that when your friend is asking you the question is much shorter compared to the question of the waitress.

This is because when you are in a restaurant, you are a customer. In Japan, and in most of the Asian countries, you are somewhat above your partner(目上の人) when you are using a specific service. Consequently, the waitress must use a formal way of speaking, which is called "sonkeigo(尊敬語)". It would sound very rude, if she was asking the customer in the same way as she was asking a friend and most of the people in Japan would be offended.

As for the explanation and the connection with passive let’s consider the following:

You might have also realized that ”される” has been used by the waitress, instead of ”する” to make the question more polite. As a general rule passive can be used instead of active to express honorific Japanese. Let me give you a few examples for clarification:

Passive Japanese verb conjugation used as a form of honorific:

  • 何(なに)を飲まれますか ?
  • What would you like to drink?
  • 社長(しゃちょう)は映画(えいが)を見られています。
  • (My ) Boss is watching a movie.
  • 先生(せんせい)は今日(きょう)不在(ふざい)ですけれども明日(あした)来られると思います。
  • (My) Professor is not here right now, but I think he will come tomorrow.
  • 先生、明日来られますか?
  • Professor, are you coming tomorrow?
  • 社長、来週(らいしゅう)参加(さんか)されますか?
  • Boss, are you participating next week?
  • 田中さん、何を食べられますか?
  • Tanaka-san, what are you going to eat?
  • 立岡さん、メールを送られましたか?
  • Tachioka-san, have you sent the mail?
I also recommend: Basic rules of business and honorific Japanese

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