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Causitive-Passive: Everyone's Favorite

JAPAN | Sunday, 31 January 2016 | Views [326]

A key difference between English and Japanese come with how you change verbs. In English, you conjugate depending on subject, and then add extra words depending on things like tense or if it’s active or passive. So for instance:

I write a blog post.

I am writing a blog post.

I wrote a blog post.

I will write a blog post.

A blog post was written by me.

I was made to write a blog post by my parents.

A blog post was made to be written by me… by my parents?

In Japanese, generally speaking, you don’t add on other auxiliary verbs to change the tense. Instead, you change the ending. I could give examples, but they wouldn’t really make my point any clearer.

Another major difference between English is that the last example I gave doesn’t make any sense in English. In part because neither the causative nor the passive are used as much in English as in Japanese, so putting them together is something that wouldn’t even occur to the average American.

The reason that it makes sense in Japanese is that the passive is often used as a way of expressing a negative. So if you want to describe how your brother bullied you when you were a child, you’ll say “I was bullied by my brother.” If you want to explain how you didn’t sleep well because your baby was crying, you’ll say “I was cried (at) by my baby.” It’s different, and takes some getting used to, (especially since in English we’re generally taught to avoid the passive voice at great expense) but it’s nothing too complicated.

Enter the causative. Causative is something I don’t think I’d studied formally before Japanese, but it’s used all the time. Young children pick up on this one pretty easily. Imagine a mother catching her younger son stealing cookies from the cookie jar, and, when questioned about it, points at his older brother and says “he made me take them.” That’s the causative.


I cleaned the kitchen. (OK)

The kitchen was cleaned by me. (Makes more sense in Japanese, but is valid in English.)

My roommate made me clean the kitchen. (Makes more sense in English, since being forced to do something is not something most people like, it works in both.)

The kitchen was made to be cleaned by me by my roommate. (Perfect sentence in Japanese. Pretty sure there is so little reason to do that in English that it’s not even a valid construction.)

This, in a nutshell, is why English speakers hate causative-passive. And even when you get the grammar sufficiently down to understand how to write decent causative-passive sentences, being able to say them out loud at a conversational speed is a challenge. For one thing, you need to make sure you’re using the right particles, (another subject for another day) and for another, stacking the tenses quickly without messing up is way harder than it looks.

There are two forms of Japanese verbs: “Ru” verbs and consonant verbs. (I’m pretty sure I’m mixing names from different sources, but oh well.) The “ru” verbs end with an “u,” the consonant verbs end with “u” or a consonant followed by “u.” (Technically, r is a consonant, but don’t worry about that.)

So for instance:

Kiru (to wear)

Kaku (to write)

To make a “ru” verb passive, drop the last syllable and add “rareru.” You now have a new “ru” verb to conjugate how you will. To make a consonant verb passive, drop the u and replace it with an “a,” then add “reru.” So

kiru -> kirareru

kaku -> kakareru

Similarly, to make a verb causitive you either drop the last “ru” and add “saseru,” or you switch the u for an a and add “seru.” So “kiru” becomes “kisaseru” and “kaku” becomes “kakaseru,” and you now have a “ru” verb.

To make a verb causative-passive, make it causative, then make that new verb passive. So “kiru” becomes “kisaserareru” and “kaku” becomes “kakaserareru.” Try and say that five times fast. Or, better yet, try and say that while still remembering enough of the question to know if you’re supposed to further change the ending to make it past tense or formal or what. This is the second reason to hate causative-passive.

And that was my Tuesday morning.

After dealing with the causative-passive, I needed a break from the day. A chance to unwind and destress. And so I went to the Japanese Spirituality English-taught elective, where I’d been promised things like meditation. (OK, maybe a more significant factor was that it would probably be able to fulfill my religion requirement, did not require meeting on a Monday or Friday, and was a significant amount of time after morning classes ended, so I had a chance to take a break from what I needed to be doing for Japanese and just do what I wanted. It also sounded more interesting than International Relations.)

The first class was really interesting, though not terribly informative, especially on the subject of spirituality. The teacher wanted to know a lot about us and our impressions of Japan, and added on that we, as outsiders, might be able to see things more clearly than the Japanese could. To support this, she gave several stories.

The first was about a castle in the town that she’d grown up, where she and her friends had played when they were little. They’d run around and eaten lunch and just generally had a good time there. Then, when she was at university, she was introducing herself with her hometown, and the person she was talking to mentioned that castle, and asked something along the lines of “were you scared to go near it? Because it’s haunted?” And then he’d needed to explain the story behind the castle, and how it had been under siege, and food had been denied, so the famished inhabitants had started eating those who had already died. And because of this, the castle was considered cursed or haunted or just generally not a good place to go. And our teacher just stared at him, because she hadn’t known that. No one had ever told her that before.

The second story came a few years later, when she was at a conference in Korea. She was the only Japanese person there. And I think on the first day of the conference, they’d had a talk by a woman whose father had been taken away at the beginning of World War II to go to Japan and work. And he’d been in Hiroshima or Nagasaki when the atomic bomb hit, but, because he was not a Japanese citizen, he’d not been given the recognition of a victim that the Japanese were, and had never received the same compensation for treatments. Our teacher went back to the place she was staying, ashamed to be Japanese, and wondering how she’d never known about things like that before.

The next day, she heard a talk by a Korean comfort woman. At 15 years old, she’d been picking flowers in the forest, or some equally innocent activity, and Japanese soldiers had come to take her away. And so, for the course of the war, she’d needed to stay with the Japanese soldiers as a sex slave, and to watch while other girls like her, but deemed too rebellious, were killed and had their bodies thrown to the street as a warning for others. And although there were struggles for financial compensation and official recognition of the suffering of these comfort women, the woman telling her story knew it would never be enough, because nothing would ever return her to being a fifteen-year-old girl.

Our teacher listened in horror, because she’d never known that such things had happened. And while the other conference attendees were going up after the talk to shake her hand and hug her and sympathize, our teacher sat back, ashamed to be Japanese. She hadn’t known. No one had ever told her.

I forget how we got back from that to the lighter topic of convenience stores and vending machines, but it happened. And we shared our perspective of Japan, though it wasn’t anything that illuminating. And then the teacher took the last few minutes of class to lead us through a breathing meditation. We stood up to stretch, then sat down again to focus on our breathing. Exhale for a count of 7, inhale for a count of 3, hold for 3 seconds, and repeat.

At the end, she asked if we felt any different. A lot of people mentioned feeling more relaxed, less tense, etc. My first thought when I opened my eyes again was that the world felt brighter. Physically brighter, like my sight had cleared. And all of my thoughts of causative-passive were washed away…

Until I started doing homework that night.

Tags: causitive, grammar, japanese, meditation, passive, spirituality

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