Japanese Causative Form: A Detailed Guide

Imagine that you’re a genius high school student who is the vice president of the school council. You have a crush on the council president, but you can’t confess your feelings because that would mean admitting that you liked them first, making you the loser in the relationship! But what do you do if you really like the president?? Well, you make them confess to you first, that’s what. Love is war, after all…

And this, my friends, is where the causative form in Japanese comes in.

What is the Causative Form in Japanese? 

The causative form, known as 使役動詞 (shieki dōshi) in Japanese, describes situations wherein someone or something causes some action to happen. There are 2 nuances to the causative form:

  1. Make (someone do something)
  2. Let/Allow (someone to do something)

In the manga『かぐや様は告らせたい』(Kaguya-sama wa kokurasetai), Kaguya-sama wants to makethe council president confess his love to her—hence the 告らせたい of the title, the causative form of the verb 告る* (kokuru = to confess one’s feelings) plus 〜たい (~tai) to indicate desire.

*Note: 告る(kokuru) is a shortened form of 告白する(kokuhaku suru). They both mean the same thing, but 告る became popular in the ’90s and is considered slang by some people.   

We also use the causative form when we let something happen—like letting a head of lettuce go bad and turn to brown soup in a plastic bag at the back of the fridge. Causing the lettuce to rot is described as 腐らせる、the causative form of the verb 腐る (kusaru = to rot). 

We use the causative form in many situations, so let’s first check out how to derive it!

How to Change Verbs Into the Causative Form 

A human hand holding a piece of white paper with the word, "VERB" written on it in red.

Changing a verb into its causative form is similar to changing a verb into its passive form. When you change a verb into the causative form, it becomes a Group 2 verb. 

Changing Group 1 / Godan Verbs (う-Verbs) Into the Causative Form

Changing a Group 1 / Godan or う-Verb into its causative form requires two steps: 

  1. Changing the sound of the verb suffix, or ending, from the original –u sound to its counterpart –a sound, then 
  2. Adding 〜せる (~seru).

Examples:

告る (kokuru = to confess)

  1. 告る    →    告ら
  2. 告ら    +  せ る = 告らせる

思う (omou = to think)

  1. 思う    →    思わ
  2. 思わ    +    せる = 思わせる

Changing Group 2 / Ichidan Verbs (る-Verbs) Into the Causative Form

Changing a Group 2 / Ichidan or る-Verb into its causative form simply requires dropping the verb suffix 〜る and adding 〜させる (~saseru) to the verb stem.

Examples:

  • 食べる (taberu = to eat)   →    食べ   +    させる =      食べさせる
  • 見る (miru = to see)    →    見    +   させる =  見させる
  • 寝る (neru = to sleep)    →    寝    +    させる =  寝させる

Changing Group 3 / Irregular Verbs Into the Causative Form

Here are the causative forms of the Group 3 / Irregular Verbs, similar to their passive forms! 

  • する (suru = to do)     →    させる
  • 来る (kuru = to come)    →    来させる (kosaseru)

Forming the Short Version of the Causative Form

There’s also a short version of the causative form, but its usage varies by region. It’s also more commonly used among younger speakers and in casual situations. 

Group 1 / う-Verbs

To form the short version of the causative form for Group 1 verbs, we:

  1. Change the sound of the verb suffix from the original –u sound to its counterpart –a sound, then 
  2. Add 〜す (~su).

Examples:

  • 聞く (kiku = to hear)    →     聞か + す  =  聞かす
  • 待つ (matsu = to wait)    →   待た + す  = 待たす

Group 2 / る-Verbs

To form the short version of the causative form for Group 2 verbs: 

  1.  Drop the verb suffix 〜る 
  2.  Then add 〜さす (~sasu) to the verb stem. 

Examples:

  • 食べる   →    食べ + さす = 食べさす
  • 見る     →     見 + さす = 見さす
  • 寝る   →     寝 + さす = 寝さす

Group 3 / Irregular Verbs

And finally, the short version of the causative form for Group 3 verbs are: 

  • する    →    さす 
  • 来る    →    来さす

While it helps to know that the short version exists, it’s also good to note that Group 1 verbs that end in 〜す (~su), such as 話す (hanasu = to speak), do not usually use the short version, and that the short versions of Group 2 verbs are not usually used either. (webpage in Japanese only)

Now that we know how to make the causative form, let’s look at how to use it!

How to Use the Causative Form 

Remember that the causative form is often described as either :

  1.  Making someone do something.
  2.  Letting someone do something. 

That’s an important point, but the form is more interesting than that! 

You can’t tell from the verb or the particles whether the causing comes with force, permission, love, regret, or another emotion—but the fact that the causative can hold all those meanings is the beauty of it. 

Examples: Make Someone Do Something

1. おばあさんは私にたくさんの野菜を食べさせた。
(obaasan wa watashi ni takusan no yasai o tabesaseta.)
My grandmother made me eat lots of vegetables.

2. コーチはけんに400メートルを走らせた。
(kōchi wa Ken ni yon hyaku mētoru o hashiraseta.)
The coach made Ken run 400 meters.

Examples: Let Someone Do Something

1. 私は田中さんに先に発言させました。
(Watashi wa Tanaka-san ni saki ni hatsugen sasemashita.)
I let Tanaka-san speak first.

2. ボブはひろに自分の車を運転させた。
(Bobu wa Hiro ni jibun no kuruma o unten saseta.)
Bob let Hiro drive his car.)

Let’s go into more detail on how to make causative sentences in Japanese. 

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs with the Causative Form

A calligraphy brush resting on a nice bowl filled with black ink.

In terms of grammar, one distinction for causative forms is whether the verb is transitive or intransitive. To learn more, let’s look at an example, taken from the novel 『人間失格』(Ningen shikkaku = No Longer Human, 1948) by 太宰治 (DAZAI Osamu, 1909–1948), a Japanese 文豪 (bungō = literary giant). (Link to page is in Japanese only)

Elements of a Causative Sentence in Japanese

But first, I want to reiterate that the causative form describes when someone or something causes some action to happen. In such situations, there can be several elements:

  1. The “causer” (someone or something that causes or allows the action to happen to the “receiver”)
  2. An action (causative verb)
  3. AND “the receiver” (someone or something who was made/allowed to do an action)

Causative Form With Transitive Verbs

Here’s a sentence from the novel mentioned above, where the main character is talking about making his family laugh, begins like this:

「⾃分は・・・下男のひとりに滅茶苦茶(めちゃくちゃ)にピアノのキイをたたかせ・・・」
(Jibun wa … genan no hitori ni mechakucha ni piano no kī o tatakase …)
I … made one of the servants strike the piano keys randomly, and…

In the example, the main character (自分) is making a servant hit the piano keys (「ピアノのキイを たたかせ」), with the Group 1 verb たたく (tataku = to hit) in the causative form (たたかせる).

The situation can be broken down like this:

  1. The “causer” (someone or something): 自分は 
  2. An action (causative verb): たたく    →     たたかせ(る)
  3. AND “the receiver” (someone or something who was made/allowed to do an action): 下男

Causative Sentence Particles for Transitive Verbs

I mentioned that one distinction for causative forms is whether the verb is transitive or intransitive. The particles you use can differ depending on if a sentence is transitive or intransitive.  

In the example above, the causative verb (たたかせる) is transitive because it takes on a direct object of the piano keys, marked by the particle を (「ピアノのキイ」). 

Transitive verb sentences always contain a direct object. The particle を always marks the direct object being used in the sentence.  

Examples:

私は寿司を食べた。
(watashi wa sushi o tabeta.)
I ate sushi.  

私は本を読んだ。
(watashi wa hon o yonda.)
I read a book.  

The use of the direct object particle is important because if the verb in the causative form is transitive and uses the particle を, then the person carrying out the action (the “receiver”) has to be marked with a に. In our example,「下男のひとり」). 

This sentence is an example of a typical “make someone do something” use of the causative and the tendency not to repeat the same particle in a Japanese sentence. Now let’s look at another causative example, this time with an intransitive verb. 

Causative form with transitive verbs = The “receiver” (person or thing being made/allowed to do an action) is marked by a に.

Examples of Causative Form Transitive Verb Sentences

1. マイクはジョンに水を飲ませた。 
(maiku wa jon ni mizu o nomaseta.)
Mike made/let John drink water.

2. お父さんは私に宿題をさせました。
(otousan wa watashi ni shukudai o sasemashita.)
My father made me do my homework.  

How To Tell If You’re Making or Letting Someone Do Something? 

How do you tell if you’re making someone do something or letting them? The best way is by understanding the world that the sentence is describing. Who is doing the causing? What is the action being caused to happen? Who is doing the action that’s been caused to happen? Is the action pleasant or unpleasant? What is the power dynamic among the people involved? 

Let’s look at the examples above.  

In the first example, (マイクはジョンに水を飲ませた。), we don’t know whether Mike made John drink water or if he let him drink water. We don’t have enough information from the context. 

In example two, (お父さんは私に宿題をさせました。), we also can’t be 100% certain if the father made or let you do your homework. However, most of the time, parents need to remind or even force their kids to do their homework. Also, it would be a pretty interesting household if a father “allowed” his children to do their homework. So based on this, the translation became “My father made me do my homework.”   

Besides judging from the context of the sentence, there is another easy way to tell if someone is being made or allowed to do something.  That would include the use of giving and receiving verbs together with a causative verb. We’ll go over this in detail below.

Causative Form With Intransitive Verbs

Let’s go right into another example.

きみはマイケル・ジャクソンの踊りを真似して、皆を⼤笑いさせました
(Kimi wa Maikeru Jakuson no odori o mane shite, min’na o ōwarai sasemashita.)
When Kimi showed off her Michael Jackson dance moves, she made everyone laugh heartily.

Here the main character is describing how she made everyone laugh a lot (大笑いする、ōwarai suru = lit. to do a big laugh). This verb (the Group 3 verb する) is intransitive because it doesn’t take a direct object.  

Why you ask?  

Because Kimi isn’t physically or forcefully making someone laugh, like pushing a button on a doll. Kimi was the cause of the laugher…but the laughter itself was the result of each person deciding if her dance was funny or not. It’s also not the idea of letting someone laugh or giving them permission to do so. Like walking, sleeping, or breathing, laughing is an intransitive verb since no direct object is involved.  

However, since Kimi is the cause of everyone laughing, the people are marked by the particle を. This is to state that Kimi affected the people by causing them to laugh. The causative form can indicate situations where someone causes a change in an emotional state, such as making someone laugh, happy, mad, or sad. 

Unlike in a causative sentence containing a transitive verb, the particle here can be either を or に—the sentence would still be fine written this way: きみはマイケル・ジャクソンの踊りを真似して、皆⼤笑いさせました。

Using the Causative Form with Giving & Receiving Verbs 

One instance in which the causative is clearly for letting someone do something is when it is in the 〜て (~te) form and attached to a giving or receiving verb, including:

  • くれる (kureru):  to give (from the perspective of the recipient)
  • 下さる (kudasaru):  honorific form of くれる
  • あげる (ageru):   to give (from the perspective of the giver)
  • 差し上げる (sashiageru):   humble form of あげる
  • やる (yaru):   to give (from the perspective of the giver, to recipients equal or lower in social status)
  • もらう (morau):  to receive
  • 頂く (itadaku):   humble form of もらう

Since a verb in its causative form is a Group 2 verb, we form its 〜て form by dropping its suffix 〜る and attaching a 〜て in its place, like this:

  • させる –> させ + て  = させて
  • 行かせる –> いかせ  + て  = 行かせて

Example Causative Sentences with Giving & Receiving Verbs

くれる (Kureru)

お母さんは私に晩御飯の前にお菓子を食べさせてくれた。
(okaasan wa watashi ni bangohan no mae ni okashi wo tabesasete kureta.)
My mother let me eat snacks before dinner.  

Since using くれる means that someone did a favor for me/us, we know that this sentence must mean that “mother let me eat snacks” and not “made me eat snacks.”

下さる (Kudasaru)

下さる is the more formal and polite word for くれる, but it means the same thing; someone doing a favor for me/us.  

アメリカの大統領は私達に写真を撮らせて下さいました。
(America no daitouryou wa watashitachi ni shashin o torasete kudasaimashita.)
The president of the United States of America let us take a picture (of him). 

Just like くれる, we received the favor of being able to take the president’s picture (The president let us take his picture).

あげる (Ageru)

When using あげる with a causative verb, the subject of the sentence (the “causer”) will be the one to make or let someone (the “receiver”) do something. 

宿題を終えなければテレビを見させてあげないよ。
(shukudai o oenakereba terebi o misasete agenai yo.)
If you don’t finish your homework, I won’t let you watch TV. 

差し上げる (Sashiageru)

This is the polite and formal version of あげる, but it has the same meaning of giving something to someone. However, with 差し上げる, you are giving something to someone who has a higher social status than you to show your respect.  

Because of this, it is challenging to use 差し上げる with a causative sentence. You can’t make someone do something if you are trying to honor them at the same time. If someone has a higher social status than you, they will be the ones to make or let you do something, not the other way around.  

やる (Yaru)

This giving verb is the opposite of 差し上げる. やる is a little rough and is used to give something to people or things with equal or less social status than you (including animals, plants, etc.).  

Situation: An older brother talking to his younger brother.

いい子にしたら俺のパソコンを使わせてやるよ。
(ii ko ni shitara ore no pasokon o tsukawasete yaru yo.)
If you be good, I’ll let you use my computer.

もらう (Morau)

もらう means to receive. When we use it with a causative verb, we will receive the action of being made to do something/allowed to do something.  

夜遅くなったので友だちの家に泊まらせてもらった。
(Yoru osoku natta node tomodachi no ie ni tomarasete moratta.)
It was getting late at night, so my friend let me stay at his place.

頂く (Itadaku): 

頂く is the honorific form (more polite and formal) of もらう. You’ll often hear it in speeches or when someone talks in a business meeting.  

今年度の計画について話させていただきます。
(konnendo no keikaku ni tsuite hanasasete itadakimasu.)
Please allow me to speak about this year’s project.  

Challenge Example

Here is another example from Dazai’s『人間失格 』:

「⾃分は・・・学校へ⾏っても授業時間に漫画などを書き、休憩時間にはそれをクラスの者たちに説明して聞かせて、笑わせてやりました。」
(Jibun wa…gakkō e itte mo jugyō jikan ni manga nado o kaki, kyūkei jikan ni wa sore o kurasu no mono tachi ni setsumei shite kikasete, warawasete yarimashita.)
Even when I went to school, I drew manga and such during class, and during recess, I explained it to my classmates and made them laugh.

The person causing the action of laughing (自分 = I, myself) is of equal status with the ones being made to laugh (クラスの者たち = classmates). That’s why the verb やる (yaru) is used (which denotes giving to those equal or lower on the power spectrum, including friends, younger siblings, pets, and plants). やる is attached to the te-form of 笑わせる (warawaseru = to make laugh).

Conclusion

The versatility of the causative form makes it a great way to describe our interactions with the people in our lives. What fun ways can you imagine using the causative form?

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