Passive in Japanese

This post looks at the passive in Japanese. In earlier posts, I:

Background: passive

In my earlier post, I explained that the passive construction:

  • deletes or demotes the subject of the corresponding active verb.
  • in some languages, promotes the direct object of the corresponding active verb so that it becomes the subject of the corresponding passive verb.
  • in some languages, marks the passive verb explicitly to show that it is passive.

I also noted there that:

  • the passives in English, Swahili and Chichewa do all 3 of those things.
  • English marks the passive verb by inserting the auxiliary verb be (in the appropriate tense) and using the past participle of the main verb. In contrast, Swahili and Chichewa mark the passive verb by inserting a suffix after the verb stem and before the final vowel.

Types of passive in Japanese

Japanese has 3 types of passive:

  • direct passive
  • indirect (adversative) passive
  • ni yotte pasive

Direct passive

Example (1) shows an active sentence in Japanese and example (2) shows a corresponding direct passive sentence.  

(1) Sensei-ga kodomo-o sikat-ta
teacher-Nom child.Acc scold.past
The teacher scolded the child

(2) kodomo-ga sensei-ni sikar-are-ta
child-Nom teacher-by scold.pass.past
The child was scolded by the teacher

That direct passive sentence:

  • deletes or demotes the subject (sensei) of the corresponding active verb. The active form marks the subject with the nominative case particle ga. If that noun is present in the passive, the passive marks that noun with the particle ni.
  • promotes the direct object (kodomo) of the corresponding active verb  (marked in the active with the accusative case particle o) so that it becomes the subject of the corresponding passive verb (marked in the passive with the nominative case particle ga).
  • marks the passive verb explicitly with the suffix –are (sometimes –rare) to show that the verb is passive.

Indirect (adversative) passive

Like the direct passive, the indirect passive:

  • demotes the subject (sensei) of the corresponding active verb so that it becomes a phrase marked with the particle ni. The ni-phrase is obligatory in indirect passives, although it is optional in direct passives.
  • marks the passive verb explicitly with the suffix –are to show that the verb is passive.

But, unlike the direct passive, the indirect passive:

  • adds a new subject, not present in the corresponding active verb. This subject denotes someone adversely affected by the activity denoted by the verb. Hence, the indirect passive is sometimes called the adversative passive.
  • retains the direct object (if any) of the corresponding active verb as the object of the corresponding passive verb, and still marks it with the accusative case particle o. (In contrast, the direct passive marks it with the nominative case particle ga.)
  • can be formed from intransitive verbs, not only from transitive verbs.

Indirect passive of a transitive verb

Examples (1) and (2), both repeated here, show an active verb and corresponding direct passive verb. Example (3) shows a corresponding indirect passive verb.

(1) Sensei-ga kodomo-o sikat-ta
teacher-Nom child.Acc scold.past
The teacher scolded the child

(2) kodomo-ga sensei-ni sikar-are-ta
child-Nom teacher-by scold.pass.past
The child was scolded by the teacher

(3) Taroo-ga sensei-ni kodomo-o sikar-are-ta
Taroo-Nom teacher-by child.Acc scold.pass.past
Taroo was adversely affected by the teacher scolding his child

Moving from sentence (1) to sentence (3):

  • the subject (sensei) of example (1) becomes an oblique object (marked with ni) in example (3);
  • the object (kodomo) remains an object and is still marked as accusative;
  • the passive suffix –are is added; and
  • a new subject (Taroo) is added.

Indirect passive of an intransitive verb

Example (4) is of an active intransitive verb and example (5) is of a corresponding indirect passive verb.

(4) Ame-ga hutta
Rain-Nom fell
It rained

(5) Taroo-ga ame-ni hur-are-ta
Taroo.Nom rain-by fall-pass-past
Taroo-nom was adversely by the rain falling

Tsujimura notes that English can use the passive in conveying an adverse effect in much the same way as example 5: ‘John was rained on’. Tsujimura (1996) suggests that the adverse effect is conveyed in English by the preposition on, but in Japanese is inherent in the indirect passive itself.

Is the effect always adverse?

Tsujimura and Hoshi (1999) say that the indirect passive usually conveys the nuance of an adverse effect on the subject. They indicate that the effect is not always adverse, but they do not discuss this further, beyond providing example (6), which they do not explain.

(6) Taroo-wa sensei-ni musuko-o home-rare-ta
Taroo-Top. Teacher-by son-Acc praise-pass.-past
Taroo had his son praised by the teacher

Kuno (1973) gives a similar example. He suggests that this sentence is a linguistic fossil from a traditional (and by then ‘probably extinct’) Japanese attitude that people should be modest and not boast about their own merit or about their families’ merit. The sentence conveys the idea that receiving praise causes an adverse effect: embarrassment.

From the lack of explanation by Tsujimura and Hoshi and from the brief discussion by Kuno, presumably this exception to the requirement for an adverse effect may exist for only a few verbs.

Ni yotte passive

In ni yotte passives, the particle ni yotte appears instead of the particle ni, in a construction that in other respects looks on the surface like the direct passive. Examples 7 (direct passive) and 8 (ni yotte passive)—both from Hoshi (1999)—show how the meanings of these 2 constructions differ in nuance.

(7) Sensei-ga gakusei-ni hihans-are-ta
Teacher.topic student.by criticise.pass.past
The teacher was affected by the student criticising him [the teacher]

(8) Sensei-ga gakusei-ni yotte hihans-are-ta
Teacher.topic student.to owing criticise.pass.past
The teacher was criticised by the student

Unlike the ni yotte passive, the direct passive emphasises that the activity denoted by the verb adversely affects the subject of the passive.

It follows that the ni yotte passive must be used:

  • when the subject is not adversely affected
  • when there is an adverse effect on the subject but the sentence does not highlight that effect (example 7)
  • when the subject does not perceive the adverse effect, for example if the subject is inanimate (including some subjects contained in verbal idioms).

Ni yotte cannot appear in the indirect passive—presumably because the indirect passive adds a new subject that is adversely affected.

Tenses and ni yotte

Tsujimura (1996) points out two cases in which the choice between ni and ni yotte affects the interpretation of a tense.

  • when used in a passive with ni, the past tense suffix –ta functions only as a perfect tense: state of affairs resulting from some event in the past. But with ni yotte, that suffix can function as either a perfect tense or a simple past event (referring to an event in the past)
  • when used in a passive with ni, the ‘-te iru’ construction (a sequence of a verbal gerund ending in the suffix –te and the verb iru (‘be’)) functions only as a perfect tense. But combined with ni yotte it functions as either a perfect tense or a progressive (referring to an action in progress).

Summary of the 3 types of passive

Before looking at approaches for analysing the structure of the 3 types of Japanese passive, I summarise their features in the following table.

DirectIndirectNi yotte
Passive suffix-(r)are-(r)are-(r)are
Subject of passiveObject of activeNew subject addedObject of active
Subject of passive is aware of adverse effect?YesYesNo
Possible with intransitive verb?NoYesNo
Object of passiveNoneObject of active (if transitive)None
Subject of activeMay appearMust appearMust appear?
Subject of active marked withninini yotte
3 types of Japanese passive

Notes on the above table

  1. All 3 types of passive use the same suffix –(r)are.
  2. The subject of direct passives and of ni yotte passives is also the object of a corresponding active verb. But indirect passives introduce as subject a noun that is not present with the corresponding active verb.
  3. The subject of a direct passive (object of corresponding active form) or of an indirect passive (new subject added by indirect passive) is adversely and consciously affected by the activity denoted by the verb. But there is no such adverse and conscious effect on the subject of a ni yotte passive.   
  4. Direct passives and indirect passives use the marker ni for the noun that is the subject of the corresponding active. But Ni yotte passives mark that noun with ni yotte.
  5. Only the ni yotte passive can be formed from intransitive verbs.
  6. The object of an active verb becomes also the object of the corresponding active verb. It is marked, in both the active and the indirect passive with the accusative particle o.
  7. Direct passives and ni yotte passives either (i) delete the subject of the corresponding active verb (or ii) demote that subject and mark it with ni or ni yotte.
  8. If the subject of an active verb would be marked with ni yotte (rather than with ni), can the passive delete the subject, rather than just demoting it? I haven’t found a clear answer to that question.

Structure of the 3 types of passives

Tsujimura and Hoshi describe both uniform and non-uniform approaches to analysing the structure of Japanese passives. Non-uniform approaches emphasise features that distinguish indirect passives from direct passives (indirect passives add new subject, can be formed from intransitive verbs, must retain direct object and mark direct object as accusative). They analyse direct and indirect passives as not having the same structure as each other.

Uniform approaches emphasise features that unite direct and indirect passives (ni marks the active subject, passive subject consciously suffers adverse effect). They attribute the same structure to both the direct and indirect passives, but a different structure to the ni yotte passive.

Consider examples 7 and 3, repeated below, with structures (labelled as 7a and 3a) analysed using uniform approaches, and derived from the corresponding active sentences (7b and 3b).

Uniform analysis of direct passives

(7) Sensei-ga gakusei-ni hihans-are-ta [direct passive]
The teacher was affected by the student criticising him [the teacher]
(7a) Sensei-ga [gakusei-ga sensei-o hihans]-are-ta
(7b) gakusei-ga sensei-o hihans-ita

Structure 7a (direct passive) embeds active sentence (7b) in a phrase containing both: (a) a subject (sensei) adversely affected by the activity (criticism) denoted by the verb; and (b) the passive suffix -are. The subject (gakusei) of the active verb is demoted, becoming marked with the particle ni. Because the object (sensei) of the embedded active sentence is identical with the adversely affected subject added with the passive suffix –are, that object is deleted (or not pronounced)—as symbolised here by using strikethrough text.

Uniform analysis of indirect passives

(3) Taroo-ga sensei-ni kodomo-o sikar-are-ta [indirect passive]
Taroo was adversely affected by the teacher scolding his child
(3a) Taroo-ga [sensei-ga kodomo-o sikar]-are-ta
(3b) sensei-ga kodomo-o sikat-ta

Structure 3a (indirect passive) embeds active sentence (3b) in a phrase containing both: (a) a subject (Taroo) adversely affected by the activity (criticism) denoted by the verb; and (b) the passive suffix -are.

The subject (sensei) of the active verb is denoted, becoming marked with the particle ni. Because the object (kodomo) of the embedded active sentence differs from the adversely affected subject added with the passive suffix –are, that object is retained (unlike in the direct passive). That object is still marked with the accusative case particle o.

Analysis of ni yotte passives

Example (8) shows a ni yotte passive with its related active sentence 8a.

(8) Sensei-ga gakusei-ni yotte hihans-are-ta [ni yotte passive]
The teacher was criticised by the student
(8a) Gakusei-ga sensei-o hihans-ita

The ni yotte passive forms example (8) from the corresponding active sentence 8a by:

  • demoting  the subject (gakusei) of the active verb of example 8a and marking it with the particle ni.
  • forming its own subject by promoting the object (sensei) of the active verb, marking it with the nominative case particle ga and moving it in front of the demoted noun (gakusei).

A uniform analysis of all 3 passives?

Hoshi suggests a complex structure that could accommodate all 3 types of Japanese passives, although he does also acknowledge some unresolved issues arising form that analysis. Space does not allow me to summarise in this post the structure he suggests.

Conclusion

At a high level, the Japanese passive has some properties similar to the properties of passives in English, Swahili and Bantu, but it also shows some interesting differences. Particularly interesting are:

  • the addition of a new subject in the indirect passive; and
  • the distinction between a subject (of the passive) that suffers a conscious adverse effect and subjects (of the passive) that do not suffer such an effect.

Sources

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

Passives, by Hiroto Hoshi, in The Handbook of Japanese Linguistics (edited byNatsuko Tsujimura (1999)

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

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