Giving and receiving in Japanese

Japanese has several different words for giving and receiving. Which word is used depends on various factors:

  • whether the giver is the speaker or is another person
  • whether the other person has higher status than the speaker
  • whether the speaker views the action as giving or as receiving

In the rest of this post, I use speaker to refer to a speaker or writer. The term speaker also covers any member of the speaker’s ‘in group’, for example:

  • members of the speaker’s family, when talking to (or about) someone outside the family
  • co-employees, when talking to (or about) someone outside the company that employs the speaker

There are 3 basic verbs for giving and receiving in Japanese:

  • ageru: gift by the speaker
  • kureru: gift to the speaker
  • morau: receipt by the speaker

Ageru: gift by the speaker

Ageru refers to a gift by the speaker to someone else.

Watashi watomodachi nihon oagemashita
I.TOPfriend.tobook.OBJgave
I gave my friend a book
example 1: ageru

Explanation of example 1:

  1. The particle wa marks watashi (‘I’) as the topic (TOP) of the sentence.
  2. The particle ni marks tomodachi (‘friend’) as the indirect object.
  3. The particle o marks hon (‘book’) as the direct object (OBJ)

Kureru: gift by someone else

Kureru refers to a gift by someone else to the speaker (or writer).

Tomodachi wawatashi nihon okuremashita
friend.TOPme.tobook.OBJgave
My friend gave me a book
example 2: kureru

Morau: receipt by the speaker

Morau refers to a receipt by the speaker.

Watashi watomodachi nihon omoraimashita
I.TOPfriend.tobook.OBJreceived
I received a book from my friend
example 3: morau

The sentence in example 3 marks the donor (tomodachi, ‘friend’) with the particle to. The particle kara (‘from’) can replace the particle to here.

Politeness

Each of the 3 verbs has an honorific counterpart, as follows. Also, ageru also has a humble (or condescending) counterpart.

Normal formHonorific formHumble form
agerusashiageruyaru
kurerukudasaru
morauitadaku

The honorific is used when the speaker portrays the other person as having higher social status than the speaker. In example 4, the verb sashiageru is used instead of the verb ageru. That is because the recipient (the teacher) has higher status than the speaker.

Watashi wasensei nihon osashiagemashita
I.TOPteacher.tobook.OBJgave
I gave the teacher a book
example 4: sashiageru (honorific)

The humble form yaru is used when the speaker gives something to someone of lower status. It is used, for example, among close friends, or when the recipient is a child, animal or plant.

Sentences not involving the speaker

The above discussion covers sentences in which the subject is the speaker (or other member of the speaker’s in group). Kuno (1973) states that:

  • the verbs kureru, kudasaru, sasiageru and tadakimasu can be used only in those sentences.  
  • the verbs ageru, yaru and morau can be used even if their subject is not the speaker (or other member of the speaker’s in group).

Using these verbs as auxiliary

The verbs of giving or receiving can be combined as an auxiliary with another verb (the main verb). This construction shows that the person portrayed as the recipient (of the verb of giving or receiving) of the gift benefits from that the action of the main verb.

In this construction, the main verb appears in a connective form ending in -te. In examples 5-7, the verb form yonde is the -te form of the verb yomu, ‘read’.

Watashi waTaroo nihon oyondeagemashita
I.TOPTaroo.tobook.OBJread.TEgave
I read the book for Taroo’s benefit
example 5: -te + ageru

Taroo waWatashi nihon oyondekuremashita
Taroo.TOPTaroo.tobook.OBJread.TEgave
Taroo read the book for my benefit
example 6: -te + kureru
Watashi waTaroo nihon oyondemoraimashita
I.TOPTaroo.tobook.OBJread.TEgave
I received benefit of Taroo reading me a book
example 7: -te + morau

Common phrases using verbs of giving

A couple of common phrases are based on words mentioned above:

  • the normal word for ‘please’ is kudasai, a form of kudasaru. For example, ‘please show me’ is misete kudasai (literally please do the favour of showing me)
  • when people start to eat a meal together, they say itadakimasu (‘we are receiving from someone of high status’)

Sources

The Structure of the Japanese Language, by Susumu Kuno (1973)

An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics, by Natsuko Tsujimura (1996)

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