If there’s one Japanese construction that would deserve a special prize for multifunctionality, it’s the conditional. While expressing something akin to “If A, then B” occurs in almost every language, Japanese seems to have developed a very special fondness for such constructions.
The Japanese conditional clause normally takes one of the following forms at its end: –to, –eba, –tara or –nara(ba). The semantic differences are subtle, and it may take some time to get the right feel on which form to use when.
Take the clause 飲みすぎると (nomisugiruo to, if you drink too much). It will have quite different nuances in terms of causality, intentionality and (in)evitability when changed into 飲みすぎれば (nomisugireba), 飲みすぎたら (nomisugitara), or 飲みすぎるなら (nomisugiru nara). The hangover you’ll end up with the next day will be just the same, though.
Conditional forms are also commonly used to express obligation, as if to make up for the nonexistence of a verb for “must.” In fact, the Japanese way of saying “something has to be done” is more like “it’s no good if it isn’t done.” If I have to leave now, for instance, I announce this by saying, 行かなければならない (ikanakereba naranai), or shorter, 行かなきゃ (ikanakya), which is literally, “It’s not OK if I don’t go.” Using two negations, I leave through the back door, as it were.
On the other hand, conditional constructions also pair up with positive expressions, most favorably いい (ii, good) or 良い (yoi, good). This produces a whole battery of possible meanings revolving around the idea of “it’s good/OK if.” Here are a few examples: どうしたらいいですか？ (dō shitara ii desu ka, “What am I supposed to do?”), 謝ればいいのに (ayamareba ii no ni, “Why don’t you just apologize?”) or, as a friend of mine once said when leaving his car at a restaurant parking lot without the intention to eat there: 何か言われたら食って行けばいい話だから (nanika iwaretara kutte ikeba ii hanashi dakara, “If they tell me off, I can still go eat there”).
Suggestions are another place to watch out for conditionals. They are combined with どう (dō, how), as in 自分で試してみればどう？ (jibun de tameshite mireba dō, “How about trying it yourself?”), with the どう part possibly omitted, although this is not entirely without consequence. For instance, 勝手に すれば？ (katte ni sureba, “Why don’t you do as you please?”) is most likely not a friendly encouragement but a rather displeased, “Do what you want then” grumble.
The conditional is also an important ingredient in the daily soup of politeness. If you want someone to do something, you can communicate this politely by using the phrase いただければ幸いです (itadakereba saiwai desu) — an almost identical replica of the English, “I would be glad if you could.” A standard example is ご出席いただければ幸いです(go-shusseki itadakereba saiwai desu, “We would be glad if you could attend”).
Also indispensable in everyday life are the three conditional expressions そうしたら (sō shitara), そうすれば (sō sureba) and そうすると (sō suruto). They mean something like “if that’s the case, then” and thus do a great job in connecting previous and upcoming parts in a talk. If the factual connection between these parts is not so obvious, the phrase そういえば (sō ieba, speaking of which), also based on a conditional, comes in handy.
Conditionals are also common in complaints and other grievances. Of particular note are the two forms –(t)tara and –teba, a shortened form of the above といえば. They attach either directly to the target of the criticism or to the very end of the sentence, as in 彼ったら何も分かってくれない (kare ttara nani mo wakatte kurenai, “He just doesn’t understand anything”) or だから違うってば (dakara chigau tteba, “I’m telling you you’re wrong!”).
One of the most puzzling uses of the conditional is for the mere purpose of enumeration. “If there’s A there’s also B” is the idea behind this, and it generates sentences like 好きという人もいれば、そうでない人もいる (suki to iu hito mo ireba, sō de nai hito mo iru, “Some people like it, others don’t”). If you like non-committal statements, this conditional is for you.
And the conditional is so popular that its suffixes even lead a life of their own: the phrase tara-reba, as in たられば言っても仕方ない (tarareba itte mo shikata nai, “It’s no use to think about woulda, coulda, shoulda”). This phrase also happens to be part of the title of the popular manga series東京 タラレバ娘 (Tōkyō Tarareba Musume, “Tokyo Tarareba Girls”), about a group of women who are always dreaming of their “ifs,”which was turned into a TV drama and broadcast earlier in the year.
Finally there’s the conditional to end it all. Though few people are aware of it, the farewell formula さようなら (sayōnara) is derived from the if-construction 左様なら(ば) (sayō nara ba). It’s meaning? Well, so long, “if that is how it is.”