I stumbled upon the Japan Times’ Bilingual series, which features articles in mostly English, but also includes key sentences in Japanese. In particular, I found this interview with Miss World Japan 2016, whose ethnicity (she is half-Indian) caused a bit of a stir!
Most important for us though is that she uses the “passive tense” in Japanese when we wouldn’t use it in English.
If you need to review how to form passive verbs, check this out. Then come back to learn how to use the passive voice to sound waayyy more Japanese in everyday conversations.
People ask me whether or not I’m ‘pure Japanese’
純粋【じゅんすい】pure かどうか = whether or not 聞【き】かれる to be asked
Notice how in English, we would say, “People ask me…” (人々は私に…と聞く) whereas in Japanese, they say “(I) am asked…” (…聞かれる).
She uses the passive tense again in another part of the interview, where she talks about how other Japanese kids treated her growing up.
Everyone thought I was like a germ*
まるで…のように: it’s almost as if…; like… バイ菌【きん】germ 思【おも】われた to be thought of
*A more English way of expressing this idea is “People avoided me like the plague.”
Notice how instead of “Everyone thought I was like a germ” or as we might say in direct-translation, みんなは私をまるでバイ菌のようだと思った, she says “I was thought to be a germ”: まるでバイ菌のように思われた. Short and sweet, eh?
Although the passive voice sounds awkward in English, do you notice how much more awesome the passive sentences are in Japanese? Here they are again:
Clunky Japanese: 人々は私に純粋な日本人かどうか聞く
Native Japanese: 純粋な日本人かどうか聞かれる
Clunky Japanese: みんなは私をまるでバイ菌のようだと思った
Native Japanese: まるでバイ菌のように思われた
Why the passive voice?
I think the reason that Japanese people use the passive voice is because it allows them to omit the subject of their sentence. Which they already do all the time.
But it also has the effect of making the sentence less pointed and less accusative. This is especially the case in situations where you need to indirectly reject something someone said. For instance, if someone tells you they like you (好きです❤️), but you don’t like them back: そんなこと言われても… ></ Even if I am told such a thing (I don’t like you back).
Notice how with the passive voice they don’t need to pointedly say “you”. It’s all wrapped into the passive tense. Perhaps Miss World Japan was using the passive voice also for this reason. She didn’t want to call out specifically WHO thought she was a germ or WHO asked about her racial purity.
But more likely she didn’t even think to call out people. That’s just how Japanese people are USED TO speaking in these situations… and how we should speak Japanese if we want to SLAP!
Get some practice. Now.
- If someone hits on you by telling you you’re gorgeous, and you want to say, “I get that a lot” or “People tell me that a lot,” you can put the following phrase in the passive voice: よく言う –> Answer (Literally, “I am often told.”)
- You can fake-complain to your friends by saying people often hit on you, or as the Japanese would say “I’m often hit on”: Put よくナンパする in passive voice –> Answer
- If you don’t look Japanese, chances are Japanese people will assume you don’t speak Japanese and speak to you in English. To describe this situation you can put the following in the passive tense: (日本人に見えないので、)よく英語で話しかける –> Answer
So next time you find yourself making a long, drawn-out sentence about people doing something to YOU (positive or negative), consider using the passive voice.