Friday, August 30, 2019

Causative Sentences

WIP : this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In Japanese, "causatives," shieki 使役, happen when the subject of a sentence causes a causee to perform an action, where "causing" means either "forcing" or "allowing." Causative sentences usually feature verbs in the causative form, like suru する becoming saseru させる.

For example: kekkon saseta 結婚させた is a causative meaning either "[a causer] made [a causee] marry [someone]" or "[a causer] let [a causee] marry [someone]."


All causative sentences boil down to essentially the same thing:
  1. The agent isn't doing something for "some reason."
  2. The causer "causes" the agent to do that thing.

What the word "causes" is supposed to mean changes depending on the "reason" why the agent isn't doing the action in first place. That is, there are different ways causatives are used in Japanese, despite them all being fundamentally the same thing.

Broadly speaking, causatives are divided into two types: coercive causatives (forces, makes), and permissive causatives (allows, lets). First I'm going to list some ways causatives are used, and then we'll see how the grammar works.

One note: technically the terms are causer and causee, but it's easy to mistake one for the other, so, in this article, I'm going to use the terms causer and "agent." Not all causees are technically agents, some are experiencers, for example.

For reference, the terms in Japanese:
  • shieki-sha
  • hi-shieki-sha
  • kyousei
  • kyoyou
    Permission. Allowance.


The simplest, most logical causative expresses something literally "causes" an effect on something.
  • joukyou ga akka suru
    The situation worsens. The situation becomes worse.
  • Tarou no hatsugen ga joukyou wo akka saseru
    Tarou's statement causes the situation to worsen.
    What Tarou said makes the situation worse.
  • bunmei ga shinpo suru
    The civilization progresses.
  • sensou ga bunmpei wo shinpo saseru
    War causes civilization to progress.


A causative can express that the causer forces or coerces the agent into doing something. In this case, the agent wasn't doing something previously simply because they didn't want to.
  • kodomo ga benkyou suru
    The child studies.
  • oya ga kodomo wo benkyou saseru
    The parent causes the child to study.
    The parent forces the child to study.
    The parent makes the child study.
    The parent coerces the child to study.
  • kodomo ga shukudai wo yaru
    The child does the homework.
  • oya ga kodomo ni shukudai wo yaraseru
    The parent causes/forces/makes/coerces the child to do the homework.


A causative doesn't require coercion, use of force, power, authority, etc. Sometimes it only implies persuasion.
  • shachou ga nattoku suru
    The company-president understands-and-agrees (with a proposal).
  • shachou wo nattoku saseru
    To cause the company-president understand-and-agree (with a proposal).
    To persuade, to convince, the company president to agree to something.


Sometimes the agent isn't doing something that they want to do because they aren't allowed to do it.

In this case, the causative can mean the causer grants permission for the agent to do the thing, which consequently causes them to do the thing they wanted to do, since the only thing stopping them from doing it in first place was the lack of permission.
  • kodomo ga asobu
    The child has fun. The child plays.
  • oya ga kodomo wo asobaseru
    The parent causes the child to have fun.
    The parent lets the child play.
    The parent allows the child to play.
  • kodomo ga manga wo yomu
    The child reads manga.
  • oya ga kodomo ni manga wo yomaseru
    The parent lets the child read manga.
  • koko de hataraku
    To work here. (in the employment sense.)
  • koko de hatarakasete-kudasai!
    Let [me] work here!


Negative causatives have a prohibitive function, where the causer doesn't let the agent do something, or forces them not to do something.
  • nakama ga shinu
    The nakama dies.
    • TL/note: nakama means friends, sort of.
  • shujinkou ga nakama wo shinasenai
    The protagonist causes [his] nakama not to die.
    The protagonist makes [his] nakama not die.
    The protagonist doesn't let [his] nakama die.
    The protagonist won't let [his] nakama die.
  • oya ga kodomo ni manga wo yomasenai
    The parent won't let the child read manga.


Sometimes, the agent hasn't done something because they want to do not because they never had the permission to do it, but because they never had the opportunity to do it.

In this case, the causative can be used to say the causer gives, or maybe wants to give, the opportunity that the agent doesn't have.
  • kodomo ga gakkou ni kayou
    The child attends to school. Goes to school.
  • kodomo ga ii gakkou ni kayoitai
    The child wants to attend to a good school.
  • oya ga kodomo wo ii gakkou ni kayowasetai
    The parent wants to let the child (have the opportunity to) attend to a good school.
  • Jon ga sushi wo taberu
    John eats sushi.
  • Jon ni honmono no sushi wo tabesasete-agetai!
    [I] want to let John (have the opportunity to) eat a real sushi!


The causative is sometimes used to express that the causer is appointing a specific agent to do the action. That is, the causer could have let anyone do something, but they specifically left the task on that agent's hands.
  • pasuwaado wo yuuzaa ni kimesaseru
    To let users decide the password. (as opposed to the administrator deciding the password, or a computer program randomly deciding the password.)
  • kane ni mono wo iwaseru
    To let money do the talk. To use power, connections to achieve something that seems very difficult. (e.g. purchasing Akihabara, bringing a car decorated with golden statues to a kart race, building a roller coaster in your mansion, and so on.)


Now that we've already got an idea of how causatives work, let's start understand the grammar behind them.


The causative form of any verb ends in ~aseru, which is conjugated like an ichidan verb. That means ~ru is dropped and replaced by something else. For example:
  • suru
    To do.
  • saseru
    To cause to do.
    To make do. To let do.
  • saseta
    To have caused to do. (past form.)
    To have made to. To have let do.
  • sasenai
    To not let do. To make not do. (negative form.)
  • sasetai
    To want to let do. To want to make do. (tai form.)


In Japanese, causatives can be passivized, turning into causative passives. In this case, the sentence will be in the passive voice. The causer and causee will be reversed, and the grammar will be closer to other passive sentences than to causative sentences.
  • sensei ga seito wo rouka ni tataseta
    The teacher made the student stand in the corridor.
  • seito ga sensei ni rouka ni tataserareta
    The student was made stand in the corridor by the teacher.

It's also possible to turn a passive sentence into a causative (rather than a causative into a passive).(Baker, 85, as cited in Heycock, 1987, p. 2)
  • sensei ga kodomo wo homeru
    The teacher praises the child.
  • kodomo ga sensei ni homerareru
    The child is praised by the teacher.
  • oya ga kodomo wo sensei ni homeraresaseta
    The parent makes the teacher praise the child.

The usage above is honestly very uncommon. It can happen with verbs like omowaresaseru 思われさせる, "to make [something] be thought of as [something else] by [someone]," but it's really unlikely to happen.

Lexical Causatives

In Japanese, some verbs are considered to be causatives even thought they aren't in the causative form. These are transitive, accusative verbs, that have intransitive, unaccusative counterparts. For example:
  • te ga agaru
    The hand rises.
  • te wo ageru
    To raise the hand. To raise one's hand.

Above, both sentences describe the hand as rising, but the unaccusative verb implies it rose on its own, while the accusative verb expresses someone caused it to rise.

In English, "to rise" and "to raise" is an example of unaccusative-accusative verb pair. Japanese has a lot of them. In many cases the causative verb ends in ~eru or ~su. For example: ageru, sageru, mukeru, atatameru, dasu, ugokasu, fuyasu, naosu.

Both the lexical causative and its unaccusative counterpart can be conjugated to the causative form, but the nuance is different between the two. In particular, most of the time you won't use the causative form, you'll just use the accusative counterpart instead.

For example, imagine you're talking about soccer, then the verbs would look like this:
  • booru ga gooru ni hairu
    The ball enters the goal.
  • booru wo gooru ni ireru
    To put the ball into the goal.
    To make the ball enter the goal.

The verbs hairu and ireru for, an unaccusative-accusative pair.

The verb ireru is used when you physically move something and make it enter somewhere. In order to use the causative form of hairu, hairaseru, you need a situation where you cause a thing (likely a person) to enter someplace on their own. For example:
  • oya ga kodomo wo ofuro ni ireru
    The parent puts the child into the bath.
    The parent (physically) makes the child enter the bath.
  • oya ga kodomo wo ofuro ni hairaseru
    The parent makes the child enter the bath.
    The parent lets the child enter the bath.

With ireru, it's easier to imagine something like a baby, which won't take a bath on their own. So the parent physically takes the baby and gives them a bath.

With hairaseru, the parent may be coercing, ordering the child to go take a bath, or, though unlikely, it could also be the permissive meaning.

Again: most of the time you have an unaccusative verb, which are intransitive, and you want to say that thing, but with a "cause" meaning, you'll probably just want the accusative variant instead. For example:
  • Tarou ga okiru
    Tarou wakes up.
  • Hanako ga Tarou wo okosu
    Hanako wakes-up Tarou.
    Hanako makes Tarou wake up.

Unfortunately, as you may have realized already, lexical causatives aren't simply conjugated from the unaccusative in a neat pattern like ~aseru. They're practically random. So you'll have to memorize what the accusative word is going to be.

For example: what's the accusative of deru 出る, "to leave"? Is it desu 出す? Nope. It's dasu 出す, "to put out." Why is it dasu and not desu? Why oriru 降りる becomes orosu 降ろす, but nobiru 伸びる becomes nobasu 伸ばす?

So there are patterns for the causative verb ending, but you can't really guess which pattern the causative counterpart of an unaccusative verb is going to be. You'll have to memorize them.
  • iwa ga ugoku
    The boulder moves.
  • Tarou ga iwa wo ugokasu
    Tarou moves the boulder.
  • Hanako ga Tarou ni iwa wo ugokaseru
    Hanako makes Tarou move the rock.


The way the particles are used with causatives is extremely confusing. It basically boils down to the following rules:
  1. Don't use the same particle twice.

That's it. I'm going to elaborate, but that's really, really it. Seriously.

The ga が particle marks the subject, which is always the causer in the causative, the one causing the stuff. The agent (causee), can be marked by either the wo を particle or the ni に particle depending on the underlying action.

When you have a transitive verb, it takes a direct object, marked by wo を.
  • Tarou ga sushi wo taberu
    Tarou eats sushi.

Above, the agent, Tarou, is marked by the ga が particle. In the causative, the ga が particle will mark the causer, Hanako, instead, and the agent Tarou will need a new particle.

Since sushi is already marked by wo を, we will use ni に.

After all, if both sushi and Tarou were marked by the same particle, we wouldn't be able to tell if Hanako is making Tarou eat the sushi, or if she's making the sushi eat Tarou, no matter how weird that sentence would be.

They need to be different particles so the roles of the words don't become ambiguous.
  • Hanako ga Tarou ni sushi wo tabesaseru
    Hanako makes Tarou eat sushi.

Data: when asked to decide if Tarou would get ni に or wo を in a sentence like the above, among 40 Japanese natives, all 40 of them answered ni に, so you can be extremely sure you always use ni に in this case.(Tokashiki 渡嘉敷, 2006, p. 55)

Most of the time in Japanese, one or many of the arguments of a verb will be omitted because they can be understood from context. So you can end up with a sentence where you already know you're talking about the sushi so you won't need to say the word sushi.
  • Hanako, {sono sushi de nani wo suru} tsumori da?!
    Hanako, what do [you] plan {to do with that sushi}?!
  • Tarou ni tabesaseru
    [I'll] make Tarou eat [it].
    • sushi wo is implicit here.

So even if there's no wo を, you still use ni に, because there could be a wo を with that kind of verb, and if you used wo を, the sentence would become confusing.

For example, if we said this:
  • Tarou wo tabesaseru
    (weird sentence.)

You could totally interpret it as "to make Tarou eat," as that makes sense semantically. However, it makes more sense syntactically to interpret it as "to make [someone] eat Tarou." After all, if we replaced Tarou by sushi, we would get:
  • sushi wo tabesaseru
    To make [someone] eat sushi.
    • Tarou ni was perhaps omitted here.

So with transitive verbs you don't mark the agent with wo を. You only mark the agent with ni に, even if there's nothing marked with wo を in the sentence.

That means you'll need to know if the verb is transitive, if it normally takes wo を, in order to decide which particle to use. This is actually pretty easy: transitive verbs are about "doing something to something," like "eating something" or "reading something."
  • hon wo yomu
    To read a book.
  • Tarou ni hon wo yomaseru
    To make Tarou read a book.

One problem are verbs that use the comitative case, marked by the to と particle, instead of the accusative case, marked by the wo を particle. Since they don't use wo を normally, the agent of the causative will be marked by wo を.
  • kaseijin to tatakau
    To fight with martians.
    To fight against martians.
    To fight the martians.
  • Tarou wo kaseijin to tatakawaseru
    To make Tarou fight the martians.

を行かせる vs. に行かせる

With intransitive verbs in the causative form, the usage of the particles is extremely confusing. It basically boils down to these the following rules:
  1. Use wo を.

You can also use ni に, but you won't want to.

In simple terms, a verb that doesn't have an use for the wo を particle normally, in other words, an intransitive verb, becomes transitive when it's conjugated to its causative form.

In complicated terms, it's complicated.

First off there are two types of such so-called "intransitive" verbs. Verbs of movement, like iku 行く, "to go," and non-movement verbs like oyogu 泳ぐ, "to swim."

Verbs of movement have an use for the ni に particle: it marks the destination of the movement.
  • Tarou ga gakkou ni iku
    Tarou goes (in destination) to the school.
    Tarou goes to the school.

Just like we avoided having two wo を before, in this case we'll be avoiding having two ni に. Since we can't use a second ni に, we'll have to use wo を.
  • Tarou wo gakkou ni ikaseru
    To make Tarou go to school.

The problem is: what happens if we remove gakkou ni? Once again, we still use wo を.

If we marked Tarou with ni に, someone might think Tarou is the destination.
  • Tarou ni ikaseru
    To make Tarou go [somewhere].
    To make [someone] go to Tarou.
    • Tarou - a town that was located in the Shimohei District, Iwate Prefecture in Japan. In 2005, it became part of the city of Miyako.[Tarō, Iwate -, accessed 2019-09-29]

The same thing also happens when the ni に particle marks an objective rather than a destination.
  • yakisoba pan wo kau
    To buy an yakisoba bread.
  • {yakisoba pan wo kai} ni iku
    To go {buy an yakisoba bread}.
  • kouhai wo {yakisoba pan wo kai} ni ikaseru
    To make [one's] underclassman go {buy yakisoba bread}.

Data: among 40 Japanese natives, 13 of them, or 32.5%, answered that kouhai ni 後輩に would be grammatically wrong in a sentence like the above. 12 of them cited this as the reason: because there would be two ni に in sequence.(Tokashiki 渡嘉敷, 2006, p. 55)

Next we have truly intransitive verbs. They don't have destination, so there's no ni に, only ga が. For example:
  • Tarou ga shinu
    Tarou dies.

Now let's see the causative of that verb:
  • Hanako ga Tarou wo korosu
    Hanako causes Tarou to die.
    Hanako kills Tarou.

Sorry, wrong verb. This is the causative form:
  • Hanako ga Tarou wo shinaseru
    Hanako lets Tarou die.

In this case, the particle used is, also, wo を. But why is it wo を? I mean, it's not like we're using ni に anymore. We could totally mark Tarou with ni に this time, right? There wouldn't be "two ni に in sequence" this time.

Remember the lexical causatives we talked about before? They come as intransitive-transitive (or unaccusative-accusative) verb pairs. The lexical causatives are the transitive ones, and they all take wo を, not ni に.
  • Chikyuu ga moeru
    The Earth burns.
  • Hanako ga Chikyuu wo moyasu
    Hanako burns the Earth.
  • *Hanako ga Chikyuu ni moyasu
    (wrong particle.)

Since lexical causatives mark the causee (direct object) with the wo を particle, it makes sense that verbs conjugated to the causative form would do the same.
  • Tarou ga puuru de oyogu
    Tarou swims in the pool.
  • Hanako ga Tarou wo puuru de oyogaseru
    Hanako makes Tarou swim in the pool.
    Hanako lets Tarou swim in the pool.

That's why you normally use the wo を particle with intransitive causative verbs, not the ni に particle.

This also applies to movement verbs, but with movement verbs there's also the motivation to avoid using ni に twice.

With transitive verbs, you wish you could use wo を, but the transitive verb already uses wo を to mark its direct object, so you can't use wo を, and you're stuck with using ni に instead.

を vs. に Nuance

You can, actually, use either the wo を particle or the ni に particle with intransitive verbs in the causative form, and there's a nuance between the two, but it's really not worth it.

As I've mentioned before, most people, most Japanese natives, simply avoid using the same particle twice. They don't really care about nuance.

In fact, if you use the ni に particle instead of the wo を particle, different people will have different ideas of why you're using it, and some people (around 32.5% of the people, I guess) will sincerely believe you're grammatically wrong.

Nevertheless, in the unlikely event you do see someone, one of the remaining 67.5%, deliberately use the ni に particle instead of wo を, or you attempt such feat yourself, the nuance is as follows:
  • The wo を causee is forced (or caused, let, etc.) to do something regardless of their will.
  • The ni に causee is allowed to do something they already intended or wanted to do.

In essence, the wo を particle emphasizes the "direct object" nuance of the causee. Like any direct object, it's manipulated by the subject, regardless of its will. In the sentence "Hanako burns the Earth," Hanako doesn't care if the Earth wants to burn or not.

In fact, the direct object nuance doesn't even care about the ability of the object to do something at all. In "Hanako moves the rock," the rock can't control its movement. Similarly:
  • Medwuusa ga yuusha wo sekika saseta
    Medusa petrified the hero.
    • Here, the hero doesn't have control over the fact he's petrifying. He simply petrifies.

Given this, some resources say that, roughly, wo を means the coercive causative, while ni に means the permissive causative, and ni に also requires the agent (causee) to have control over the action, while wo を has no such requirement.(possibly Shibatani 73b, cited in Heycock, 1987, p. 1)

However, I think that's a very misleading statement. At least I felt very misled by it.

The ni に particle isn't used with intransitive verbs by most people to begin with. When they want a causative, be it coercive or permissive, they just use the wo を particle most of the time. Some even consider it wrong to use ni に. Therefore, the wo を particle has both functions, not just one.

Using the ni に particle emphasizes its "dative" nuance. Just like verbs that mean "to give" have the receiver marked by ni に, using ni に with a causative means you're giving the action to someone.
  • Hanako ga Tarou ni purezento wo ageta
    Hanako gave a present to Tarou.

For example, imagine Tarou wants to swim in the pool. He tells Hanako that he wants to swim in the pool. Hanako ponders the situation. After long consideration, she decrees:
  • Tarou ni oyogaseru
    To let Tarou swim.

This is essentially the appointment function that we saw previously.

There's an action, oyogu, and Hanako is "giving" that action to Tarou. The only for this to make sense is if Hanako is aware that Tarou wants to "receive" the right to do that action, and Hanako also gets to decide whether Tarou will get to do it or not.

Due to this reason, the ni に particle can also have a nuance of:
  • Among multiple people, you selected the causee, specifically, to do something. You gave the task to the causee, and not to anybody else.

For example, let's say there's only one chair, and Tarou and Jirou are standing up. Hanako gets to decide who sits in the chair.
  • Hanako ga Tarou ni isu ni suwaraseru
    Hanako lets Tarou sit in the chair.
    Hanako chooses Tarou to sit in the chair.
  • Hanako ga Jirou ni isu ni suwarasenai
    Hanako won't let Jirou sit in the chair.
    Hanako won't choose Jirou to sit in the chair.

As you can see above, this usage should be valid even if you end up with two ni に particles in one single sentence due to the verb having a destination (like the chair) marked by ni に.

However, "should be valid" doesn't change the fact that the sentence ends up with two ni に particles, which means someone might think you're grammatically wrong, and then they might tell you that you're grammatically wrong.

And then you'll end up in the extremely socially awkward situation where you'll be trying to flex your Japanese grammar knowledge over a Japanese native speaker. If you don't want that sort of experience in your life, avoid using ni に with intransitive verbs at all costs.

Data: in a sentence about sitting like above, among 40 Japanese natives, 4 answered that the sentence was wrong. In other words: there's a 10% chance of a socially awkward nightmare happening. Only 1 person recognized the appointment function, saying it means to select someone (Tarou) from a group of people (Tarou and Jirou) and allow them to do the thing.(Tokashiki 渡嘉敷, 2006, p. 56)

Another important point: they were asked which one had a coercive meaning: Tarou wo or Tarou ni. A majority, 21 people, answered that wo を is coercive. However, 7 people (17%), answered that ni に was coercive instead.

This means that the misleading statement that I mentioned before is kind of partially (and only partially) supported by the data: yes, a majority of the speakers will think wo を is more coercive when compared to ni に, but nobody is going to be like: wow, there's a wo を in this sentence, that means Hanako must be forcing Tarou to eat all that sushi.

Besides, wo shinaseru is always "to let someone die." To permit such tragedy to happen. Generally used in the meaning of: maybe I could have saved them if I had worked harder. It never has a coercive meaning: to "force" someone to die, that doesn't make sense.


In causative sentences, the subject (causer), marked by the ga が particle, can be marked as the topic instead, by the wa は particle. See wa は vs. ga for details.
  • Hanako wa Tarou ni sushi wo tabesaseru
    Hanako causes Tarou to eat sushi.
    Hanako makes Tarou eat sushi.
    Hanako lets Tarou eat sushi.

The direct object can also be topicalized.
  • sushi wa Hanako ga Tarou ni tabesaseru
    The sushi, Hanako causes Tarou to eat.

The agent (causee) can also be topicalized. In this case both wa は and niwa には are valid, with niwa having a stronger sense of exclusivity, contrast.
  • Tarou wa Hanako ga sushi wo tabesaseru
    About Tarou: Hanako makes [him] eat sushi.
  • Tarou niwa Hanako ga sushi wo tabesaseru
    To Tarou: Hanako makes [him] eat sushi.
    • Implicature: Hanako doesn't make Jirou or other people eat sushi.

Since both causer and causee can be marked as the topic, a sentence with just one animate argument as topic would become ambiguous.

For example: Tarou wa tabesaseru and Hanako wa tabesaseru. We can't tell just from the sentence whether the topic is supposed to be causer or causee. We would need to rely on the context.

If we already know Hanako is the causer from the context, then Tarou wa tabesaseru has Tarou as the agent (causee), and it likely has a contrastive wa meaning.
  • uma wa yasumaseru ga,
    hei wa yasumesenai

    The horses [I] let rest but,
    the soldiers [I] do not.

If the speaker isn't talking about the causer and wants to make the agent (causee) the topic, he's more likely to use the causative passive instead. Then he won't need the causer to be inferable.
  • Tarou wa rouka ni tatasareta
    Tarou was made stand in the corridor.

Above, we don't have a causer, but the passive voice makes it clear that Tarou is the one that "was made" not the one that "made."


In relative clauses made out of causative sentences, the causer, causee, and direct object can be relativized.

An example of relativized direct object:
  • {Hanako ga Tarou ni tabesaseta} sushi
    The sushi [that] {Hanako made Tarou ate}.

Examples of direct objects that are also the agent (causee):
  • sensei ga seito wo rouka ni tataseru
    The teacher makes the student stand in the corridor.
  • {sensei ga rouka ni tataseta} seito
    The student [that] {the teacher made stand in the corridor}.
  • sakuhin ga kansei suru
    The work becomes-complete.
  • sakka ga sakuhin wo kansei saseru
    The author makes the work become-complete.
    The author completes the work.
  • {sakka ga kansei saseta} sakuhin
    The work [that] {the author completed}.

An example of relativized agent of a transitive verb.
  • {kou-shibou no esa wo tabesaseta} nezumi
    A rat [that] {was made eat animal-food high-in-fat}.
    A rat [that] {was fed food high-in-fat}.
    • Like in a laboratory experiment.

An example of relativized causer:
  • {seito wo rouka ni tataseru} sensei
    A teachers [who] {makes students stand in the corridor}.

Once again, since both causer and causee can be relativized, the passive causative is preferred when the causer is omitted.
  • {rouka ni tatasareta} seito
    A student [who] {was made stand in the corridor}.
    • This sentence doesn't say "by whom" they were made stand in the corridor. Presumably, the causer is a teacher.



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