Language | BILINGUAL

Don't give up yet on giving and getting in Japanese

by Peter Backhaus

Contributing Writer

One of the first things taught in anthropology classes is that presents exchanged in a given society hardly ever come for free. When someone gives another person something, that always entails some sort of obligation. Acts of giving and receiving are hence highly sensitive social endeavors, and so is the language of these acts.

In contrast to the English dyad of “give” and “receive,” in Japanese we are dealing with a triad of verbs, consisting of あげる (ageru), くれる (kureru) and もらう (morau). The reason why we need three rather than two is that Japanese additionally distinguishes whether a speaker gives or is given to: When I give someone a present, what I do is プレゼントをあげる (purezento o ageru), whereas when someone gives a present to me or someone close to me, that is a case of プレゼントをくれる (purezento o kureru).

In more formal situations, あげる, くれる and もらう are regularly replaced by their polite counterparts 差し上げる (sashiageru), くださる (kudasaru) and いただく (itadaku), respectively. As for more casual acts of giving, there is the verb やる (yaru). It is used when a “giver” is in a markedly higher position than the receiver or has a very close relationship to them. When giving a present to my little brother, for instance, I could say 弟にプレゼントをやる (Otōto ni purezento o yaru). やる is also a good choice when giving to nonhuman subjects, as when watering your plants, 水をやる (mizu o yaru, “give” water), or feeding the cat, 餌をやる (esa o yaru, “give” food).

What makes the Japanese verbs of giving and receiving so central is that they are customarily used as auxiliaries with other verbs, indicating whom a given action is supposedly done for. When a verb is combined with ageru, as in 待ってあげる (Matte ageru), that communicates that I’m willing to wait for you. By contrast, when I want you to wait for me, I will ask 待ってくれる? (Matte kureru?). Literally, in the former case I give you a wait, while in the latter you give one to me. And of course I can also ask to become a “wait recipient,” as in 待ってもらってもいいですか? (Matte moratte mo ii desu ka? Could you wait for me?).

Politeness upgrades are possible in these combinations, too. Thus, in more formal circumstances, I could ask something like 待ってくださいますか? (Matte kudasaimasu ka?) or 待っていただけますか? (Matte itadakemasu ka?). Both basically translate as “Could you wait for me?” but score markedly higher on the open-ended politeness scale. Note that the Japanese word for please, ください (kudasai), also derives from an upgrade of “give.”

The verbs of giving and receiving can also be combined with each other, revealing a whole web of social obligations. If I want you to go to a party by a friend of mine, for instance, I could ask, 行ってあげてくれる (Itte agete kureru?). This chain of “go” + “give” + “give me” communicates my awareness of the fact that you would be doing this both for my friend and, eventually, for me. Moreover, in the somewhat hypothetical situation where you did me a favor by receiving something from said friend, I could even say, もらってあげてくれた (moratte agete kureta): You received it, in order to please my friend, in order to please me. Got it?

One latent problem with all giving and receiving is that you can never say for sure if the receiving end really wanted what they ended up getting. So when someone said something nasty to someone in your in-group, you could describe this as 嫌なことを言ってくれたね (Iyana koto o itte kureta ne). The act of saying is modified here by the give-me verb, くれた, though what you have actually been given is something you’d rather do without.

Similar unwanted gifts, when given by the speaker, can be delivered with やる. A popular example is the phrase 先生に言ってやろう (Sensei ni itte yarō, I’m gonna tell this to the teacher). For offenses bigger than such petty school misdemeanors, you may also come across the phrase 訴えてやる (uttaete yaru), meaning “I’m gonna sue you!” Not particularly nice presents, to be sure, but you’ll have to take them anyway.

But the strangest use of all is when language makes it seem as though we are given something by inanimate subjects. As when my daughter said, hoping that a scheduled sports event might be cancelled due to bad weather, 雨降ってくれないかな? (Ame futte kurenai ka na?, Can’t it please rain?). Or my mother-in-law, who once told a strawberry on a birthday cake that happened to be in her cutting path, そっちに移してもらって (Sotchi ni utsushite moratte, And you move over here for me).

As these examples show, there is hardly any action that cannot be considered being done by someone, or something, for someone, in some way. The Japanese verbs of giving and receiving will help you acknowledge all these little everyday gifts in an appropriate manner. Just give it a try, or, やってみてあげてください! (Yatte mite agete kudasai!)