Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond the Basics
〜られる is a suffix that makes a verb passive. In other words, attaching 〜られる to a verb tells us that the verb was done to someone or something. For instance, the passive form of 食べる (to eat) is 食べられる (to be eaten). To use it in a sentence, if my surfboard was eaten by a shark, I could say サーフボードはサメに食べられた.
You'll see on this page that the Japanese passive is not exactly the same as the English passive though, and it can be a bit tricky for learners.
Conjugating Verbs to Take 〜られる
|Godan||会う → 会われる
立つ → 立たれる
写す → 写される
割る → 割られる
書く → 書かれる
泳ぐ → 泳がれる
死ぬ → 死なれる
学ぶ → 学ばれる
休む → 休まれる
|Ichidan||食べる → 食べられる
起きる → 起きられる
閉じる → 閉じられる
|Irregular|| 来る → 来られる
する → される
Like with most conjugations, godan verbs are the trickier of the verb types! Rather than simply adding 〜られる to the verb, you first have to locate the character that comes at the end of the verb in plain form, and transform it to the corresponding あ-column character on the kana chart. Then you can add 〜れる. So if your plain form verb ending is む, your passive ending will be 〜まれる. If it's つ, your new ending will be 〜たれる. Let's try conjugating the verb 読む (to read) into its passive form:
む+ ま + れる = 読まれる
This pattern holds for most godan verbs, but watch out for verbs ending in 〜う, such as 買う (to buy). Logic dictates that the passive form of 買う would be 買あれる, but logic fails us here. The correct passive form of 買う is 買われる.
う+ あ + れる = 買あれる
う+ わ + れる = 買われる
When it comes to grammar, we like to leave no stone unturned. If you'd like to know more about this curious conjugation, check out its historical context.
For ichidan verbs, it's easy. Just replace the 〜る ending of the verb with 〜られる. For example, 食べる (to eat) becomes 食べられる.
Take note though — the 〜られる ending can also be used for the potential form. Due to this overlap, modern Japanese is developing a distinct potential form ending, 〜れる. Isn't it cool to see how language shifts and adapts to its users' needs over time?
As for our two typical irregular verbs, the passive form of 来る (to come) is 来られる, and する (to do) is される.
Forming a Passive Sentence
A Japanese passive sentence has three main parts:
- An action: this is the action described by the verb of the sentence.
- A doer: this is the person (or thing) that the action is done by.
- An experiencer: this is the person who the action is done to.
These parts plug into a sentence as follows. 'X' is the experiencer, 'Y' is the doer, and '〜られる' is the action:
- Xは Yに 〜られる。
- X is 〜ed by Y.
See how that works? Now let's try it with a real sentence. Let's say that a bee stings you, but you want to highlight your experience of the situation by making it passive, as in "I was stung by a bee". The bee is the doer, you are the experiencer, and being stung is the action:
- I was stung by a bee.
Not too bad, right? Well, things do get a little trickier due to how often unnecessary elements are dropped from a sentence in Japanese. With the passive, this is particularly common when the experiencer is you, or their identity is obvious from context. So it might be more natural to complain about a bee sting by saying:
- (I) was stung by a bee.
It's also common to omit the doer from a passive sentence, and this is actually the same in English:
- I was suddenly punched (by that man).
We can omit (by that man) from the sentence above in both Japanese and English. Maybe we don't care who punched you, and we just want to focus on how it affected you. Or, maybe you just got punched, so the big bully puncher is still standing right there and there's no need to say it! 💥
Beyond the Basics
The Japanese passive form is a bit of a headache for a lot of Japanese language learners. This is because the Japanese passive can be used in ways that extend beyond the English passive.
Direct vs. Indirect Passive
Let's start this off by defining two types of passives: direct and indirect.
In direct passives, the effect that the action has on the experiencer is very obvious, because it is done directly to them. For example:
- I was kissed by Picasso.
In this case, the action is getting kissed, the doer is Picasso, and the experiencer is me. The action was directly done to me, so this is direct passive. This is exactly the same as English, so no big deal.
The indirect passive can be trickier to grasp for English speakers because there is no perfect equivalent in English. The indirect passive is used to express that someone did something, and this somehow had an effect on me. As you can imagine, this is used a lot to complain about stuff (I can't believe X was done to me😭), earning it the name the adversative passive.
The easiest way to understand the indirect passive is with an example. Imagine that a man smoked a cigarette right in front of you, and the exposure to the smoke is bothersome. In this case, I can use the passive form to say that I got smoked on 💨
- I got smoked on (by that man).
In this example, the action is smoking and the doer is that man. What gets smoked in this sentence though, is a cigarette, not the experiencer, AKA me. In fact, you could add 私は to the beginning of this sentence and it would be perfectly grammatical (albeit not necessarily natural, due to the preference for dropping elements of sentences in Japanese). The point is, the passive highlights that this act of smoking was done to me, and emphasizes that I did not have control over the action. It therefore creates the nuance that the action was a nuisance.
Depending on the context though, there can be times when this done to me nuance is not necessarily negative:
- Brad Pitt smoked right in front of me, and I thought I was going to faint.
Like, are you fainting from the smoke, or are you fainting because that's Brad Pitt? 😍 Still, notice that our English translation is not actually passive here (smoked is in active voice). This is because the English passive is often not a good way of capturing the essence of an indirect passive. For example, the following is a bit awkward in English, don't you think?
- I got smoked on by Brad Pit right in front of me, and I thought I was going to faint.
Except for a few cases, indirect passives are usually formed with verbs that are intentional, meaning that someone intentionally does the action described by the verb. For this reason the doer of the verb is usually a person rather than a thing. Thus, the following sentence is totally whacky sounding:
- ❌ 私は本に頭に落ちられた。
- My head was fallen on by a book.
However, it seems to be acceptable with some weather related verbs:
- All of a sudden, I was rained on.
Marking the Doer with に, から or によって
The particle に usually marks the doer of the action, but it can sometimes be replaced with から or によって.
If both the doer and the experiencer are people, and the action is done directly to the experiencer, both に and から can be used to mark the doer. So, if Picasso laughed at you, you can say:
- ⭕ ピカソに笑われた。
- I was laughed at by Picasso.
However, if the doer is not a person, only に can mark the doer. So, if your friend was hit by a car, you can only use に:
- ⭕ 友達が車にはねられた。
- My friend was hit by a car.
And if you were stung by a wasp, the same rule applies:
- ⭕ スズメバチに刺された。
- I was stung by a wasp.
に is more appropriate than から when the action is done to an object, or the passive is indirect:
- ⭕ ピカソに落書きされた。
- This was scribbled by Picasso.
- ⭕ 泥棒に携帯をとられた。
- I had my phone stolen by a thief.
If you are talking about something that is made from something, you should use から rather than に:
- ⭕️ このお酒は芋から作られている。
- This alcohol is made from potatoes.
Finally, what about によって? You can use this in formal settings (especially writing):
- ⭕ この落書きはピカソによって描かれた。
- This doodle was drawn by Picasso.