Table of Contents
- What Is the Passive Form?
- Elements of the Passive Form
- Structure of the Passive Form
- Direct Passive
- Indirect Passive
- How to Use the Passive Form with に, から and によって
What Is the Passive Form?
The passive form 〜られる is used to express that something is done to somebody. So, with the passive form, 食べる (to eat) becomes 食べられる (to be eaten), 飲む (to drink) becomes 飲まれる (to be drunk) and する (to do) becomes される (to be done). You can see how 〜る changes into 〜られる on this page.
The use of the passive in Japanese is much broader than in English, however, and can even be used in situations when the passive would be impossible in English.
On this page, we'll learn the basics of Japanese passive sentences while focusing on the differences with English.
Elements of the Passive Form
Just like in English, Japanese passive sentences generally have three component parts:
- Action: something done by someone (or something)
- Actor: someone (or something) who carried that action
- Affected person (or thing): someone (or something) who is affected by that action
For example, if you were scolded by your mom, the action is "scold," the actor is your mom, and the person who is affected by that action is you:
- I was scolded by my mom.
But wait, can't regular sentences have these three elements too? You're totally right. The example could also be:
- My mom scolded me.
The difference is the nuance — a passive sentence focuses on what happens to the affected person ("me," in this case), rather than what the actor ("my mom") does. This shift of focus emphasizes that the action was done to the affected person, and that the affected person does not have control of the action.
So far, this is exactly the same as the passive in English. However, in Japanese, there is a second way to use the passive that doesn't exist in English. You can make a sentence passive even if the action isn't directly done to the person who is affected.
For example, let's imagine a situation where your cat runs away. In this case, you are the affected person, the action is 逃げる (to run away) and the actor is your cat. Yet, since the action of running away is not something that is directly done to you, you cannot say "I was run away by my cat" in English.
However, making it passive is possible in Japanese and actually very common if you want to emphasize that you were affected by the action. You can be affected in both a good way or bad way, but more commonly in a bad way:
- Our cat ran away.
While the first "I was scolded by mom" example is called "the direct passive," this type of passive sentence is called "the indirect passive," and it's one of the characteristics of Japanese grammar. The indirect passive is also called "the adversity passive" because it's often used to highlight a negative effect. We'll talk more about each type of passive later, but first let's talk a bit about structure!
Structure of the Passive Form
A Japanese passive sentence is usually has the following structure:
- X is 〜ed by Y.
The verb that ends in 〜られる is the action, Y is the actor, and X is the person or thing who was affected by the action. The tricky part is that the actor and/or the affected person or thing are frequently omitted in Japanese when it's understood from the context.
For example, in the following sentences, the parts in parentheses can be omitted in Japanese:
- (I) was stung by a bee.
- I was suddenly punched (by that man).
That being said, figuring out the identities of X and Y isn't much of a headache. They are usually omitted only when it's clear from the context. In this sense, the logic is similar to English, even though more can be left out in Japanese than in English. Whereas in English we can usually leave out the actor, we can't leave out the person on the receiving end.
In direct passive sentences, an action is done directly to the subject, and therefore, the subject is directly affected by the action. When it comes to direct passive, there is usually an English counterpart.
Let's look at an example sentence:
- I was kissed by Picasso.
In this case, the action is to kiss, the actor is Picasso, and the affected person is me. The action was directly done to me, so this is direct passive. The focus is not on what the actor ("Picasso") did, but rather on what happened to the affected person ("me," in this case) and emphasizes that I didn't have control over the action.
Just like in English, the subject, the actor, or both can be inanimate:
- My cake was eaten by Picasso.
- Picasso was hit by a bicycle.
- Picasso's painting is protected by copyright law.
In all of these cases, the important thing is that when the sentence is passive, the focus is on the affected person or thing.
It's worth mentioning that when the actor is the general public, this is often omitted, which is also the same as English!
- Picasso is known as a famous painter.
The indirect passive can be trickier to grasp for English speakers because there is no obvious equivalent in English.
Imagine a situation where a man smoked right in front of you. In English, you might say:
That man smoked right in front of me.
If you want to add the nuance that you were particularly affected by the man's smoking, you'd probably do it by stressing "right in front of me." In Japanese, however, instead of stressing a part of the sentence, it's more common to use the indirect passive:
- That man smoked right in front of me.
Literally: Right in front of me, I was smoked by that man.
In this example, the action is to smoke and the actor is that man. The action of smoking is not directly done to me, but I was affected, so I'm the affected person. The same as the direct passive, it focuses on "what happened to me" instead of "what the actor did" and emphasizes that I did not have control over the action. It therefore creates the nuance that the action was a nuisance.
The nuance of the indirect passive is usually negative, but not always. For example, even the above sentence can be positive depending on the context:
- Brad Pit smoked right in front of me, and I thought I was going to faint.
So, in a situation where someone sits beside you, depending on who that person is, you might either say:
- Someone I hate sat beside me and I was annoyed.
- Someone I like sat beside me and I was happy.
In an indirect passive sentence, the action is usually considered intentional, so the actor is usually a person rather than a thing. Therefore, you cannot say the following sentences:
- ❌ 私は本に頭に落ちられた。
- My head was fallen on by a book.
- ❌ 私は道の真ん中で犬に止まられた。
- I was stopped in the middle of the road by a dog.
There are, however, some exceptions, such as:
- All of a sudden, I was rained on.
This is like you are sort of personifying the weather or considering there is someone who is controlling the rain. In English, maybe we can think of it as the rough equivalent of, "I got caught in the rain."
How to Use the Passive Form with に, から and によって
The particle に usually marks the actor, but it can sometimes be replaced with から or によって.
If both the actor and the affected person are people, and the action is done directly to the affected person, both に and から can be used to mark the actor. So, if Picasso laughed at you, you can say:
- ⭕ ピカソに笑われた。
- I was laughed at by Picasso.
If the actor is not a person, however, only に can mark the actor. 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.
Even if the actor is a person, if the action is not done to the subject by itself but to something belonging to the subject, then you should use に and not から.
- ⭕ 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.
In a formal setting (especially writing), によって is preferred over に:
- ⭕ この落書きはピカソによって描かれた。
- This doodle was drawn by Picasso.
On the other hand, 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.