How do native Japanese speakers understand the Japanese passive?

The different “types” of Japanese passives has recently come up in another topic. This reminded me of a question that I have been wrestling with, but it seems better to raise it in a new topic, rather than confuse the issue there.

My question is about the mental model that native Japanese speakers have of the passive, I suppose, rather than the practical question of how to use the passive form in Japanese.

Basically, to what extent do native Japanese speakers understand the different types of passive as different things that just happen to use the same form? Or to what extent do they understand the passive form as a single thing?

The indirect passive seems to set out a general paradigm: “the subject verbed the object” becomes “the subject was in a subordinate position in respect of the fact that the agent verbed the object”. (Or, if the verb is intransitive, “the subject verbed” becomes “the subject was in a subordinate position in respect of the fact that the agent verbed”.)

The direct passive seems to fit nicely into this paradigm. For example, ケーキは私に食べられました would traditionally be translated “the cake was eaten by me”, but it could also be understood as “the cake was in a subordinate position in respect of the fact that I ate it”.

That is, the direct passive could be understood as the special case of the indirect passive, where the topic/subject happens to be the same thing as the object, and is therefore only stated once.

To adopt the terminology from Jay Rubin’s well-known explanations of the apparently subjectless sentence and the difference between は and が, we could say that the direct Japanese passive sentence does always have an object (if the underlying verb is transitive), but that object occurs as a zero pronoun.

A test of whether this is correct might be whether the direct Japanese passive necessarily bears a nuance of the topic/subject being in a subordinate position. The Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar seems to suggest that this might be so, it states that the Japanese passive always has a connotation that the situation is beyond the topic/subject’s control. (At least I think it says that - I do not have that book to hand at the moment.)

This special case explanation seems a lot more attractive to me than viewing the direct and indirect passives as effectively two different things, as the conventional explanations given to English speaking learners of Japanese seem to do.

But I am not a native Japanese speaker. How do they understand it? Do they feel the direct and indirect passives as different things?

Disclaimer: most of this is me armchairing about linguistics.

I’ve seen Japanese people online commenting that they don’t think of them as different (and Tae Kim doesn’t like the distinction).
I’m not sure how much that really “means” since a lot of subtle language nuances are unconscious processes and you don’t think about it much.
I can’t say I ever realised, never mind thought about, the intransitive passive construction in my native German being anything but a normal passive before I saw it mentioned in a linguistics text (but now I see why it’s different).

I’m skeptical about claims that it has some very specific meaning.
I can imagine that when there are other alternatives (e.g. simple sentences like “the dog bit Jim” vs “Jim was bitten by the dog”), the passive may indeed have some connotation, just like there are some shifts in nuance in the English example just given.
But I wouldn’t expect relative clauses that force the use of the passive to have the same connotation.
Transitive verbs without an intransitive partner also tend to use passive in lieu of it.

I’m also not sure about your explanation involving zero-subject.
As I understand it,
can also be
(with the usual shift in meaning between は and が).
So I’m not sure how that fits into a zero-subject explanation.

A bit of a tangent but:
Something to note about the English passive is that, I think, it’s often just used to move the “topic” at the start of the sentence. We all know Japanese is crazy about topics but topic is kind of a general thing in human cognition about language. You want to start the sentence with something that links up to what was previously said. Since Japanese has an explicit straightforward way to put the topic at the start, there is no problem here.
For comparison, although German does not have “topic” in the sense that Japanese does, it does allow you to swap subjects and objects, so you might just use that instead of a passive to achieve the same effect.
But in English, where subject is #1, you generally have to use the passive.


Disclaimer: This is me armchairing about linguistics also.

So I don’t know how helpful this will be but I just wanted to mention a couple things:

1- In japanese school grammar, things are explained from a much more “morphological” perspective than in english treatments of japanese grammar. the lexicon is broken into word types (stand-alone, particles, interejections, inflected words, uninflectable words, etc). So in a japanese grammar book you will see an explanation like the following:
there is a ending -れる/-られる, it attached to the irrealis (ない) stem of verbs and has the following meanings: honorific, passive. And then a bunch of examples of how its used. So, much like speakers of all languages, they allready know how to speak and are just giving names to rules they have allready internalized.

2- there is alot of disagreement among native speakers as to the acceptability of various constructions. also alot of variation as to the psycholiguistic interpereatation of various constructions. As an example, there was a thread that I read that was asking native speakers if they interperated the を in sentences like “道を歩いた” as a “direct object” and the results were about 50 / 50. (it is not linguistically considered a direct object)

3- the best english gloss of the passive that I have come across is from “Unlocking japanese” and it basically says that you can think of the ending -られる as modifying the verb to mean “got + verb (phrase) + ed”.
the ball hit john. (active)
john got hit by the ball. (passive)

the problem is that we really don’t have the indirect passive in english.

My friend died. (active)
I got “my friend dying”-ed. (indirect passive)

that captures the essence of what is being expressed, but again, there is no way to make it sound not weird in english, b/c we don’t have that semantic construction.

It is worth nothing though, that this gloss of the passive as “got+verb” does map really well to the japanese usage (the particle changes match, the order of the compound verbs is the opposite of english like all the other compound verb forms, etc).

So I didn’t answer your question. Because I am not a native speaker. Thanks for letting me ramble.


It seems like a very limited explanation. It sometimes works but it also overlaps with causative forms (but then so does Japanese? though Japanese overlap in this area seems more of an accident of morphology).

I got my bag stolen.
The building got designed.
I got the building designed.

“had” is a bit more general:

I had my bag stolen.
I had the building designed.
I had my mother die.

(Yeah, the latter sounds quite self-centered, much like the Japanese does)

EDIT: And the third example actually uses present tense verbs rather than -ed forms… the similarity is misleading; the syntax is quite different as well, I think.

Overall I’m not quite sure it’s a magical formula to “unlock” the Japanese passive.

Note the particle changes also match normal passives:

John hit the ball.
subject, verb, direct object

The ball was hit by John.
subject, verb, indirect object

direct object becomes subject, subject becomes indirect object
or in japanese, を becomes が, が becomes に (ignoring topic and other fun things)

One way to think about indirect passives in Japanese is that, for intransitive verbs, subject becomes indirect object and the empty subject slot is filled with the one affected.
You can include transitive verbs if you include the direct object as part of the verb, so that the whole XをY phrase is considered as an intransitive verbs (there are other examples where something like this happens, cf. the double-subject construction).

I feel like “had” implies the causitive. “I had my brother clean his room” is a very common translation of a causative sentence.

I have always looked at it as:
In a passive sentence, the subject receives the action described by the verb phrase it whatever way semantically makes sense (either by the subject being the direct object of the corresponding active sentence, or by being effected by the action as in the “suffering” passive).
In a causative sentence, the subject makes someone to do the verb phrase.

I don’t think in the end there is a good way to figure this out by trying to gloss it in english. None of what we have been talking about actually elucidates the usage of the passive (if an explicit agent is required, why if the agent is specified by -niyotte suffering sentences “lose” the implication of adversity, why usage is different in reletive clauses, why there are restrictions on the verbs that can be used, etc.)

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My native Japanese professor had a good way to translate the indirect passive, she used “on me”.

So it becomes:
My friend died on me.

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Kuno’s classic “The structure of the Japanese language” (from 1973, though) has some interesting comments on passives:

He views the two forms of the passive as clearly distinct. In particular, he states the normal passive as having no negative connotation at all.

An example he gives to show the contrast is

Kono ie wa 1960-nen ni taterareta.
‘This house was built in 1960.’
John wa niwa no sugu mae ni ie o taterareta.
‘John had a house built on him right in front of (his) yard.’

Another example:

John wa gakusei no daihyoo ni erabareta.
‘John was elected as representative of the students.’
which he perceives to have no negative implication at all

He also notes that じぶん is ambiguous only in adversity passives, which suggests a genuine grammatical difference

John wa Mary ni zibun no koto o zimansareta.
‘John suffered from Mary’s bragging about (lit.) self’s matter.’
(zibun = John or Mary)

Mary wa John ni zibun no uti de korosareta.
‘Mary was killed by John in her own house.’
(zibun = Mary)

His explanation for this involves the ‘deep structure’, basically the latter is a ‘transformed’ version of a simple active sentence, whereas the former involves a more complex ‘deep structure’. I’m not sure it’s worth to dwell on this too much (deep structure is not without controversy anyway).

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Armchair linguistics is fun!

I wasn’t aware of Unlocking Japanese, so I bought and downloaded a copy.

The explanation in that book seems to make sense, that the subject of the passive verb receives the doing of the verb. It is close to, but a bit different, from the explanation I awkwardly tried to set out in my first post, but I think I paid insufficient attention to the principle that the subject of the verb has to be the thing that is “doing” the verb. So the verb is actually transformed into a new verb that means the subject is receiving the doing of the old verb in some way.

One thing that is very attractive about this is that the terms used in Japanese grammar for the two “types” of passive, 直接 and 間接, which I (should) recall from Level 26 mean direct and indirect respectively, would then be precise descriptions of the relationship between the subject and the verb in the two cases.

In the direct passive, ケーキは私に食べられました, the topic/subject, the cake, is directly receiving the doing of the eating (ie: it is actually being eaten).

In the indirect passive, 私はケーキを食べられました, the topic/subject, me, is indirectly receiving the doing of the eating, in that it was the cake that was eaten, but I received the doing of the eating in that I was affected by it in some way.

Unlocking Japanese does not seem to reveal the actual name of the author, but, if I understand correctly, the author appears to be a non-native speaker of Japanese who remains anonymous under the conceit that the book is actually written by a doll. So it does not definitively show that this is how native speakers understand the Japanese passive.

But the other comment in this topic from @terraki that a native Japanese professor said that a good way to understand the Japanese passive was to use “on me” suggests that this is indeed the way native speakers understand it. The “on me” explanation seems the same thing as the “receiving” explanation, just using different words.


Yes. I enjoy some of Cure Dolly’s work. But I’m unsure how much authority I should actually grant her (it?) because once in awhile I have creeping doubts about how much she actually knows in a deep sense the way a native speaker of the language would.

Ultimately I feel that for me at least, it’s better to skim the grammar enough to get the general idea and then absorb a ton of native material before deep diving into the underlying grammatical structures.


Cure Dolly occasionally mentions that she is still learning, so some skepticism is natural and healthy. From what I’ve seen, a lot of her ideas come from (relatively) recent academia. She occasionally mentions references, but it’s very brief, so it’s easy to miss. I’ve run across a lot of the same material on my own.

That being said, I think all experts should be viewed with at least a little bit of skepticism. We’re all human, and an expert is just someone who knows sufficiently more than average to sound like they know what they’re talking about :grin:


I wish she published transcripts of her videos. I find listening to her voice pretty unbearable. I think she has a general unfortunate tendency to ignore details and try to unify things that are probably not unifiable. Also she believes in universal grammar which obviously makes her wrong.

Kuno’s “The structure of the Japanese language” remains my favourite source of grammar insight, despite its age (Yeah, he also quite firmly believes at least in “deep structure”, though no clue how he felt about universal grammar).


I believe she mentioned in one of her videos that if you find her voice annoying or hard to understand, you can turn closed captioning on and the volume on mute (and that the CC is actually hand written, not the YouTube auto-generated garbage). Problem solved. I mean not all the problems with her videos, but that one in particular.

I’m not totally up on the theory of universal grammar, but from what I’ve read I find it unpersuasive. Why, briefly, do you think it’s wrong?

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It’s a Youtube feature: on the button row with the thumbs up/down, there is a “three dots” button, in there is an option to open the transcript with or without timing information.

To me she sounds like an old lady and the videos would be nicer with her sitting next to a fireplace or something, but with subtitles it’s easy enough to follow.

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Ah. Thanks. Copypasting that into a text editor I can even make it readable.

From what I can tell universal grammar started out as pretty strong claims about the actual grammars of languages, which turned out to be silly rather quickly. Then they’ve weakened their claims and it has moved further and further internal. Now universal grammar doesn’t even really mean much anymore. Everyone has their own definition, of course, but the more sensible ones boil down to something like “universals of human cognition” which I would agree exist. But I think it’s a horrible name for that concept and it will mislead people to make much stronger claims (going back to the earlier idea of actual literal universal grammar) and justify them using the weaker definition.


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