|

Stop worrying and embrace the passive tense

by Daniel Morales

Special To The Japan Times

English grammarians like to abide by ironclad rules: Don’t split infinitives! Don’t splice sentences together with commas! Use the active voice!

In the case of the latter, the English rule does a disservice to students of Japanese as the passive voice is used much more regularly in Japanese. So, forget this rule when studying Japanese. Use of the Japanese passive tense should be actively encouraged; it is an incredibly useful tense that can be employed to create beautifully efficient Japanese expressions.

It takes time to get used to the way the passive tense in Japanese works, and certain key phrases can help speed up the process. One that shaped my understanding is Sō iwareru to (そう言われると) and Sō iwarete mireba (そう言われてみれば). Both of them are unfinished Japanese thoughts (dependent clauses) that incorporate the passive tense of the verb iu (言う, to say).

After hearing them over and over again, I eventually came to understand from context that they both mean “Now that you mention it …” but the Japanese syntax is so fundamentally different from a literal English translation that it can be hard to see how it takes this meaning. The differences highlight important language lessons. In the English version, the subject (you) is explicitly stated. In the Japanese, however, there are no pronouns whatsoever.

This brings us to an important concept: Japanese often excludes subjects, objects and indirect objects, and when a speaker is talking, the subject of a subject-less verb is often an implied “I.” In the case above, iwareru means “(I) am told.” But by who? The implied “you,” of course — the person who sparked the realization: “Ah, now that you mention it, that’s true isn’t it.” Sō iwareru to really means “When (I) am told (by you).” Strange, in English, but this is the way they say “Now that you mention it …” in Japanese. Students of the language just have to get used to that. Trying to directly translate “Now that you mention it” results in Ima kimi ga watashi ni sō iu to (今君が私にそう言うと), which is just a total failure to communicate naturally in Japanese.

The Japanese passive tense has the added bonus of implying the adversative experience of the subject of the verb — it shows what the speaker “suffers.” A good example is the exclamatory yarareta! ?(やられた), which is the passive tense of the verb yaru (やる, to do) and means something along the lines of “Damn, I’ve been had!” or “Damn, it/they got me!” Don’t forget that our subject and the “doer” of the yaru are both invisible. The subject is, again, the implied “I.”

The doer of the action (the person or thing that pulls a fast one on our poor “I”) could be anything, really, and changes based on the situation. The heat that sapped all your energy, the bully who snuck up and smacked you on the head or the elementary school student who poked you in the butt while performing the legendary kanchō (かんちょう, playful butt-poking mostly favored by very young boys).

You can mark the doer with the particle ni (に). If, for example, you’re having a particularly bad day with a computer and it crashes when you’re trying to print out the final draft of a paper, you could say Pasokon ni yarareta! (パソコンにやられた, This damn computer has it in for me today!).

One of the unspoken highlights of the passive voice is its ability to create beautifully efficient phrases. Sō iwareru to and yarareta both convey a huge amount of information in very tiny packages. Japanese author Haruki Murakami took advantage of this aspect of the passive voice in “Toi Taiko” (“A Distant Drum”), his travel diary of the years he spent living in the Mediterranean region.

The first stop on his itinerary was a small Greek island where the local Greek men ogled with impunity the foreign female tourists sunbathing topless. At first he seemed surprised, but then, in a moment of sheer linguistic genius, he decided, what the hell: Oppai wo dasu no mo katte nara, dasareta oppai wo miru no mo katte de aru (おっぱいを出すのも勝手なら、出されたおっぱいを見るのも勝手である). As usual there are no pronouns, and Murakami builds a wonderful play on words between oppai wo dasu (show breasts) and dasareta oppai (breasts that have been shown), with the latter taking advantage of the passive tense. The subject of dasareta are the breasts themselves, but someone had to take them out; This someone is the invisible, implied doer of the action — the women sunbathing on the beach, presumably.

An English translation doesn’t do full justice to the brilliance of the original, but my attempt reads something like this: “If people have the right to show their boobs, then others have the right to look at the boobs shown.”

Becoming familiar with the passive tense — and in particular the ability to imagine the invisible subjects and “doers” of passive tense verbs — enables you to become a more natural speaker of Japanese. It may take a while to catch up with Murakami’s poignant truism about sunbathing, but you can work your way there eventually.