Introduction to Japanese: Volume 1
Giving and receiving objects and actions
Last chapter, we learned about the “te form” and some of its functions, and in the chapter before that, we learned about the entire conjugation of the plain form of the verbs. In contrast, in this chapter we will learn about three verbs only – あげる, くれる, もらう – but make no mistake: we will deal with some hard to understand concepts in this article, so let’s jump into it.
Giving in Japanese
Even though in this chapter we will learn how “to give” and “to receive” in Japanese, sharp readers may have noticed that I mentioned not two but three verbs above. This is because Japanese has two verbs for giving. Understanding the difference between them will be the object of our attention now.
The two verbs that mean “to give” in Japanese are あげる (polite form: あげます) and くれる (polite form: くれます). The main difference between them is the “direction” of the giving. The verb changes according to the point of view of the giver and the receiver.
Here, we have to make at least a passing reference to the Japanese sociolinguistic concept of “uchi” (inside) and “soto” (outside). When speaking Japanese, it is unavoiadble to divide people into those who are “inside” your group and those who are outside. This is the origin and reason for the politeness and the use of honorifics in the Japanese: for example, when speaking with someone who is from outside the group, we speak highly of that person and humbly about ourselves and our group.
The same happens with あげる and くれる. When you give something to someone else, or someone in your group gives something something to someone outside your group, you use あげる. あげる is also used when someone from the group gives to another person of the group. The idea of あげる is that you or someone else is giving “upwards” or “outbound”. On the other hand, くれる implies that someone from outside your group is giving something to you or to someone else in your group, what we call giving “downwards” or “inbound”.
Although we are using the word “groups” here, we are talking about fluid positions, not static relationships. For example, let’s imagine it is your sister’s birthday and you give her a present; in this case, you would use the word あげる, because from your point of view, you are giving outbound: the gift is leaving you and going in the direction of someone else (your brother).
If your mother gives your sister a present, we would again use あげる, since from your point of view, someone from your group (your family) gave a present to another person from the same group. Now, let us imagine that someone from outside the family (an uncle, a friend or a neighbour) gives a present to your sister. This time, we would say くれる, since from your point of view, someone from outside your group gives something to inside your group (the family).
To summarise, if you give something to someone, you always use あげる (because of ideas of humility, you are always giving upwards to someone else); if someone gives you something, you always use くれる (again, because you should always position yourself lower than others, they are giving “downwards” you).
If someone is giving something to someone else, you have to think: to whom am I closer? If, let’s say, a stranger gives something to someone in your family, you would probably use くれる (“downwards”), while in the opposite situation you would use あげる. If two people from inside the same group (say, your mother gifts your father) or two people whom you are not particularly close to or feel ambivalent towards which you are closer (a friend gifts another friend), go with あげる.
Let’s move onwards to the grammar. Just like in English, the giver is the subject of the sentence (this is true with both あげる and くれる). The giver is marked by either は or が, while the recipient is accompanied by the particle に. The object given is marked with を.
私はかよこにプレゼントをあげた。(I gave a present to Kayoko.)
かよこは私にプレゼントをくれた。(Kayoko gave me a present.)
By the way, because あげる and くれる already make implicit the direction of the giving, if you are the giver or the receiver you can often omit the “私” part:
かよこにプレゼントをあげた。 ((I) gave a present to Kayoko.)
かよこはプレゼントをくれた。(Kayoko gave (me) a present.)
The verb “to receive” in Japanese
First, some good news: there is only one verb equivalent “to receive” in Japanese: もらう (polite form: もらいます). Because it only has one version regardless of who is receiving, we can jump straight to the grammar. Here we are shifting the point of view from the one who is giving to the one who is receiving, so it is the receiver who is marked by either は or が, while the giver is marked with に (in this case, から is also acceptable). The object received is once again marked with を.
私はかよこに/からプレゼントをもらった。 (I received a present from Kayoko.)
かよこは私に/からプレゼントをもらった。(Kayoko received a present from me.)
The last example sentence, while not grammatically wrong, would be a bit uncommon; normally when you are the giver, we would just use the verbあげる. A sentence like the last one, therefore, emphasises that the other person received it from you.
Giving and receiving actions
Differently from English, you can also give or receive actions in Japanese. Think about sentences like “I cleaned your room” or “He taught me Japanese”. We would render these sentences in Japanese using the verbs あげる, くれる and もらう. Let us look the sentence below:
Hiroki: I teach Kayoko Portuguese. Kayoko teaches me Japanese.
You see that when translated to English, the “giving” or “receiving” aspect disappears. Even in Japanese it is possible to write sentences without these verbs, but their use implies a sense of gratitude or goodwill towards the giver or receiver.
You probably also noticed that we attach あげる, くれる or もらう to the “te form” of the verb. The te-form with あげる indicates that you or someone else is doing a favour to someone with a sense of goodwill (so do not overuse it, or you might sound too pretentious as if you were doing favours to everyone left and right!). The te form with もらう indicates that someone is “kindly” (you will see this word a lot in translations from Japanese) doing something for you or that you have someone doing something for you and that you feel grateful for that.
私はかよこにポルトガル語をおしえてあげます。(I taught Kayoko Portuguese (literally “I gave the gift of teaching Portuguese to Kayoko).)
私はかよこに日本語をおしえてもらいました。(Kayoko taught me Japanese (literally “I received the gift of teaching Japanese from Kayoko).)
I would like to call your attention to the last sentence above. One thing that I often found confusing when I was beginning to learn Japanese is that when you use てもらう, you still are the subject of the sentence. However, when you translate the sentence to English, it just sounds more natural to put you as the object. Also note that even though you are being taught, the verb (in this case, おしえる) is still in the active voice, not the passive voice: you are receiving the teaching from Kayoko.
Finally, the te form with くれる also indicates that someone does you or someone in your group a favour. Again, it also conveys a sense of gratitude on your or the receiver of the favour’s part.
かよこは私に日本語をおしえてくれました。(Kayoko taught me Japanese (literally “Kayoko gave me the gift of teaching Japanese”).)
Some readers might remember that in the previous chapter I mentioned that there is a way to make requests in the form of questions (such as “could you please do this for me?”) using the te form. We also use the te form plus the verb くれるto make such questions.
Doudou: I am sorry, could you please speak slowly?
Tanaka sensei: Could you please open the door?
Hiroki, could you please lend me 5000 yen?
We will again try a learn-by-pattern approach to Kanji in this chapter. Some students really appreciate this method because it helps them to make connections between characters and to memorise the Kanji.
This Kanji means “inside” or “within”; the drawing is basically a person (人) halfway inside something. The Japanese reading is うち, which, as we have seen in this article, is an important sociological and sociolinguistic concept in Japanese culture.
After the plain form of a verb, it can be used to mean “while”. The Chinese reading is ない, appearing in some words we have already seen, such as 国内 (domestic), and some new words, such as 内容 (contents), 内科 (internal medicine), 内緒 (secret) and 内向的 (introvert).
Sample sentence: ドウドウは内向的な人です (Doudou is an introverted person.)
This Kanji means “outside” or “exterior”. It is basically the Katakana タ with the Katakana ト together. The Japanese reading is そと, and with 内, it composes the uchi-soto pair that regulates Japanese social interactions. Another reading is はず, such as in the verb 外す (to unfasten, to remove).
There are two Chinese readings: the more common がい, and the relatively uncommon げ. Fittingly for a Kanji with many readings, we use this Kanji in many words: 外人 (“gaijin” as in this website; foreigner) and 外国人 (foreigner), as well as 外国語 (foreign language); 外見 (outward appearance); 外食 (eating out); and 海外 (overseas).
Sample sentence: ヒロキは外国人です。海外に住んでいます。(Hiroki is a foreigner. He lives abroad.)
Now we shift gears to new learn-by-pattern Kanji study. We start with this very easy to draw Kanji, meaning “eye”. This Kanji is very similar to sun (日), but with an extra stroke. The Japanese reading, and the Japanese word for eye, is め. The Chinese reading is もく. This is a commonly seen Kanji, appearing in words such as 目上 (superior; someone that you have to “look up”), 目下 (subordinate; cruelly, someone you can “look down”), 目的 (purpose, objective) 目玉 (eyeball) and 目薬 (eye drops).
Sample sentence: あなたの目的は何ですか？ (What is your goal?)
This Kanji is very similar to eye; it basically has some longer strokes. This Kanji means “ear”. The Japanese reading is みみ, while the Chinese reading is じ. Differently from 目, though, this Kanji is not as often used, so let us just say that I 耳にする (to hear by chance) that if you have 中耳炎 (otitis) you should check a 耳鼻咽喉科医 (otorhinolaryngologist, turns out some words are hard in any language).
This is another pictographic Kanji, that is, a sketch of the object it represents, meaning “gate”; it can also mean “speciality”. The rarely used Japanese readings are かど or と; you would do much better by remembering the Chinese reading, もん. In addition to appearing as a suffix to gate names, such as the famous 雷門 (Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate”) in Tokyo, this Kanji also appears in common words such as 専門 (major as in one’s field of study), 専門家 (specialist) and 入門 (manual, primer).
Sample sentence: 田中先生の専門は工学です. (Tanaka sensei’s major is engineering.)
Here comes the payoff: this Kanji, meaning “to listen” or to “to ask”, is simply the combination of the “gate” and “ear” characters. The Japanese reading is き, appearing, for example, on the verb 聞く (to listen, to ask) or in the word 聞き手 (listener).
The Chinese reading is ぶん, appearing most famously on 新聞 (newspaper).
Sample sentence: 私は新聞をあまり読まない。(I rarely read the newspaper.)
Similar, but different: this Kanji, meaning “space, interval”, combines the gate and sun characters. The Japanese readings are あいだ or ま; the Chinese readings, かん or けん. This is an extremely common Kanji. You might remember we saw this Kanji when we checked length of time, such as 1時間 (for one hour).
It also appears on 期間 (period, interval), 人間 (human being), 仲間 (fellow, colleague), 間接 (indirect), 間違い (mistake), 間もなく (soon), 週間 (weekly) and 瞬間 (moment, instant).
Next in our list of characters containing the “gate” radical, this one means “to open”. Japanese actually has many verbs meaning “to open”, such as 開ける and 開く.
For some things, like doors, we normally use the first verb, while for others, like eyes, we use the second one – but do not worry about this for now. The Chinese reading of this Kanji is かい; it appears in common words such as 開会式 (opening ceremony), 開始 (start, beginning), 開発 (development), and 開催 (to hold an event).
Sample sentence: ドアを開けてくれませんか？ (Could you please open the door?)
Lastly and appropriately, this Kanji means “to close”. This time inside the “gate” we have the Katakana オ (“o”). There are also many verbs that mean “to close” in Japanese, like 閉める and 閉じる.
Normally things you 開ける you 閉める, while things you 開く you 閉じる, so it might help to think of those verbs as pairs, but again, I would not worry about that for now. The Chinese reading for this character is へい. Whenever you enter a public building such as a library or a shop, it might be helpful to check the 閉館 (closing of a building) or 閉店 (closing of a shop) time. And with that, it is time to 閉じる this article!
Sample sentence: 目を閉じて！(Close your eyes!)