Don’t Suffer Passively

Some of you may have noticed I recycled content from my personal blog for my last post. For the 2, 3 people that actually read my blog, I offer my apologies as I’ve been busy with real life which sucks as usual. As reprieve, I’m actually going to write about a breaking insight into Japanese. You heard it here first.

There is no such thing as a suffering passive

You may have heard about a “suffering passive” from various textbooks or teachers. In fact, here’s an explanation right here.

Essentially, the concept is that when a passive verb is used, it can sometimes indicate that somebody has suffered from that action. The first two questions that should come to mind is, “What makes it suffering?” and “How can you tell?” The only explanation I’ve seen so far is, “it just is” and “guess”. In other words, no explanation whatsoever. But don’t worry, everything will be cleared up after reading this post.

The suffering passive is essentially a fabricated concept designed for non-native speakers so I won’t go into too many details. Ask any Japanese person with no experience in teaching Japanese and he/she will have no idea what you’re talking about. To put it quite simply, there’s nothing in the language that indicates somebody is suffering from a passive verb. The suffering is only suggested from the inherent properties of the passive form.

Let’s take a very simple sentence.

いいと言った。- Said, “good”.

Now let’s change it into the passive. (reference)

いいと言われた。- Was told, “good”.

The only difference between the two sentences is that the first performed an action (somebody said something) while in the second, the action was performed on someone (was told by somebody).

Now let’s look at the following sentence.

ケーキを全部食べられた。- All the cake was eaten.

Since the verb is passive, the action of eating all the cake was performed on somebody. Let’s say that somebody is myself. Then the sentence means that somebody ate all the cake and that action was done to me. If you think of it the right way, it makes perfect sense.

The Japanese word for “passive”, 「受身」 using the characters for “receive” and “body” expresses what the passive is in Japanese much more accurately. People are doing things to you and you have no choice but to take it like a bitch. The passive indicates that the action was not done by the subject but done unto the subject. In other words, the subject had no control or input on the action.

It is this property of the passive form that can create the sense of “suffering”. However, whether the subject is suffering or not depends entirely on the context. Am I suffering because all the cake was eaten by somebody without my say? Sure, probably… but then maybe not. There is nothing in the language that says. The only thing we know for sure is that the action of eating the cake was done by others, unto me, outside of my control.

Again, think in Japanese, and things seem much simpler and clearer.

17 thoughts on “Don’t Suffer Passively

  1. Nice… Passives seem so much more clearer to me now. Why couldn’t all of those expensve textbooks and reference guides I’ve used come up with such a clear explanation? >:/

  2. “People are doing things to you and you have no choice but to take it like a bitch”
    not only a classic explanation of an irritating structure, also a pretty accurate rendering of my week..
    Thanks for the great explanation!

  3. Part of the reason people want to make this distinction is the difference between these pairs of sentences:


    You say that the use of a passive means that the action of the verb was done “to the subject.” By this I assume you mean “to the speaker”. This makes sense in some cases, but in others it is hard to see where the speaker is even involved. For instance, I can use a sentence like 1850年に~の化石が発見された, and of course I did not have control over the discovery, but so what? I could use the active version, but I would not be implying that I had some control over the discovery.

    The test to see whether there is a separate type of passive is not whether you can just look at a sentence out of context and tell if it is “suffering” or not. You have to look at the grammar of the sentences and ask, can all the uses of the passive be grouped together? Some people (including native speakers) have looked at the data and said: no, they cannot. For instance:


    The first is a complete sentence. It is a sentence about the children, and how they were scolded. The second looks also to be about the children, but if you think about it, in order to understand this sentence you need to have a definite person who “suffered” due to the scolding of the children. You do not need this at all for the first sentence.

    Finally, just because (even most) Japanese people cannot tell you that there are two types of passives does not mean that the claim is incorrect. English speakers may not be able to tell you when they use “too big of a spoon” versus “too big a spoon”; or that the ‘k’ in “skim” is different from the ‘k’ in “kick,” but that is not to say there is no difference, no rule underlying the patterns.

  4. I’m very well aware of the use of passive for general sentences without a specific subject. However, the focus of this post was on the suffering usage with requires a specific subject for suffering.

    Yes, this sentence requires a person who receives the action. However, is there any evidence that that person is suffering? My argument is that the nuance of suffering is merely a by-product of the lack of control in the action and not inherent in the grammar itself. Though unlikely, it might actually be good or neutral that the children were scolded.

    For instance, here’s a real-world example:

  5. Okay, I understand now. However, this doesn’t mean that there is only one type of passive in Japanese. There still should be two types, one that is used when someone (who may or may not be mentioned) is not in control of the situation (and so -may- be suffering), and another where no such extra person is conceived of.

  6. The word “suffering” is not limited in meaning to “feel pain” or “sustain harm.” It has a wide range of meanings. That is why a quote such as “suffer the children” is incomprehensible to some. The definition of suffer includes “to experience” and “to feel.” When the Japanese textbooks use the term “suffer,” it is these last two meanings to which they refer. A dictionary example in this context is “suffer a change in staff.” The word alerts the listener that the person who “suffered” the change in staff merely was around and affected by the change in some way. No direct pain or aggravation is necessarily implied.

  7. What I say doesn’t matter. Go to any good dictionary and look up the word suffer. Better yet, avoid a paper cut and go to Merriam-Webster online or to and you’ll see for yourself. Don’t take my word for it – I’m just some anonymous guy making a web posting. Howsever, what I say is true. The grammarians who originally labeled “rareru” the suffering verb knew a lot more about English grammar and entymoloy than the great majority of those writing college textbooks today.

  8. By the way, that’s “etymology” and “However.” Obviously, I’m not perfect either.

  9. I know what “suffering” means. I was trying to say that the definition you mentioned is usually not the one most people refer to when they talk about the “suffering passive” (as evidenced by the sites I just mentioned).

    Did I mispell “etymology” or something?

  10. A good textbook or grammar dictionary, like that by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui, will point out that sometimes the verb implies “suffering” as any English speaker born after 1950 would understand it, but that sometimes it doesn’t. That is why I think the word “suffering” is a good label for the verb because it captures both of these meanings. Anyway, my posts are coming across much harsher than I intend. I have to say I discovered your site just the other day and think it’s great. Also, I’m the one who misspelled etymology, not you. I directed that cheap shot at myself.

  11. No problem. I just think the word “suffering” itself is unnecessary. What’s wrong with just “passive”? To say that sometimes implies suffering and sometimes doesn’t is absolutely useless unless you can explain when and why; like a weather report that says 50% chance of rain. In my opinion, no special distinction is necessary to needlessly complicate things.

  12. Y’know, I feel like i’ve been under a rock for the past couple years of studying Japanese for not having discovered this class. :\

    I feel like for every article I read I get closer to understanding Japanese and how to think of things in terms of Japanese. This passive explanation really cleared things up for me.

  13. Wow, way late and a two bit addendum, here, but ‘suffer’ can also roughly equate to ‘allow’. Suffer a witch to live? Suffrage- allow to vote? So perhaps this ‘suffering passive’ can be equated to ‘passively allowing’ something.

  14. This is the only thing like a clear explanation I found on several sights and a couple grammar books. Thanks.
    It seems there’s just extra emphasis on the subject with this form. In English, we can say “I had x happen” and it roughly seems to correlate?
    My natto was eaten by someone.
    I had my natto eaten by somone.

    And obviously it’s not suffering since now I don’t have to eat natto.

  15. This is the way JSL explains it:

    “But now consider this example: 子供を起こされました。English is of little help here. The meaning of this Japanese sentence is that someone else awakened “the children” but “I” was the person affected: ‘I was affected by the waking of the children.’ Here again, the implication is that I was adversely affected-I would have preferred that this hadn’t happened, but the event was out of my control. We call this use of the involuntary passive the ADVERSATIVE PASSIVE. The connotation is the opposite of that of 子供を起こしてもらいました, which indicates that someone woke the children and I was the beneficiary.

    Since not all examples of the passive have an adversative implication, some claim that the implication is dependent on context, not expressed by the passive form itself. Whichever interpretation is accurate, the important thing is that in examples like 行かれました, and 子供を起こされました, and others of this kind, something happened that “affected” the person to whom the passive refers, even though that person did not participate directly in the occurrence. Almost invariably the affect is unfavorable.

    The person to whom the passive refers (i.e., the person who is affected), if expressed, is followed by particle が (or は or も). When the operator of the underlying from which the passive is derived is expressed, that personal nominal is follow by particle に(or less commonly, から). Examples:

    友達は先生に呼ばれました。’My friend was called by the teacher.’ (lit. ‘My friend was affected by calling done by the teacher’; since no one else is mentioned, the assumption is that it was my friend who called).

    This may or may not imply an adverse reaction on my friend’s part, but unlike 先生は、友達を呼びました. ‘The teacher called my friend,’ it emphasizes the fact that the occurence was outside my friend’s control and that my friend was affected by it.

    子供に起こされました. ‘I was awakened by the children.’ (lit. ‘I was affected by awakening done by the children.’)

    Again, this may or may not imply an adverse reaction.

    誰かに子供をおこされました。’Somebody woke the children, damn it!’ (lit. ‘I was [adversely] affected by the waking of the children by somebody.’

    In this pattern, in which the person affected and the person[s] awakened are different, the implication is almost invariably adversative.
    アルバイトに遅く来られて、あの仕事は済ませませんでした。’With the part-timer coming late (not something I wanted to happen), I didn’t finish that work.’ (lit. ‘Being unfavorably affected by the part-timer’s coming late . . .’)”

    Before this, Eleanor Harz Jorden talks about the Involuntary Passive, where someone is affected by something. So Jorden emphasizes the experience and being affected. However, I do believe that the implication based on context, and it’s not written in stone in the grammar.

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