In Japanese, there is a potential form to express that it's possible for something to be done.

My own examples of potential form:

辛【から】い食【た】べ物【もの】が食【た】べられる。 (I can eat spicy foods.)

ギターが弾【ひ】ける。 (I can play the guitar.)

But I also know of 見【み】える and 聞【き】こえる. I've heard them used as also meaning it's possible for something to be done (seeing for 見【み】える and hearing for 聞【き】こえる). But this isn't the potential conjugation of the original words, 見【み】る and 聞【き】く. The potential form would be 見【み】られる and 聞【き】ける.

What is the difference between the normal potential form and their "special" forms?

  • 3
    By the way, on a phonentic, tangent, "rareru" iften becomes "reru" in speech. This change has a name: it is called "ranuki" (ら抜き). Removal of the "ra".
    – Kaz
    May 8, 2012 at 22:47

5 Answers 5


みえる = to be able to see. (precisely: to be seen/to be in sight)
⇒ Can you see the fujisan? => 富士山が見えますか?

みれる = to be able to watch.
⇒ Can you watch DVD with this? => それでDVDが見れますか?

The same for 聞ける (Can you listen) vs 聞こえる (Can you hear / precisely: to be heard/to be audible)

みえる and きこえる and not a special form of みる and きく, they are specific verbs by themselves.

  • 7
    I disagree. mieru is the verb mi-ru in irrealis form (未然形) plus the suffix -yu --> miyu. This conjugates to miyuru > miyeru, with the middle -y- dropping out since Japanese no longer distinguishes between /e, ye/. Note that the above mireru is a so-called ら抜き form. School grammar dictates that this should be mirareru.
    – Dono
    Apr 26, 2012 at 0:44
  • I did not know about the suffix -yu. Can you tell me a bit more about it? And it's meaning?
    – oldergod
    Apr 26, 2012 at 1:02
  • 6
    I think it's safe to say that for all Modern Japanese purposes, 見る and 見える can be (re)analyzed as two different verbs. I would say they are a transitive-intransitive pair, as in 切る-切れる etc. In terms of Classical Japanese, aren't 見る and 見ゆ also two different verbs, or am I mistaken? There is some regularity to these transitive-intransitive pairs, but I'm not sure if it's ever been completely productive/regular. For example in 止める-止む, the verb with the -er- is the transitive one, unlike 切る-切れる。
    – dainichi
    Apr 26, 2012 at 1:56
  • 5
    @oldergod: -yu is an old suffix that is no longer productive. It conjugates as [y]e, [y]e, yu, yuru, yure, - and attaches to the irrealis of quadrigrade (modern pentagrade), n-irregular, r-irregular, and r-irregular verbs. It may express 1) passive, 2) potential, and 3) spontaneous. You can also see it in fossilized forms such as arayuru and iwayuru.
    – Dono
    Apr 26, 2012 at 2:03
  • 1
    @dainichi OT for this question, but re the last issue you raise, Frellesvig, Vovin etc. argue that /-e-/ was actually a "transitivity switch" morpheme, making intransitive stems transitive (ap- → ap-e-) and transitive stems intransitive (yak- → yak-e-). (Also, I think you know this but just to avoid confusion in the thread as a whole, this morpheme is also distinct from the -y(e)- morpheme Dono is talking about.)
    – Matt
    May 9, 2012 at 1:08

What I've read regarding the 見える、見られる and 聞こえる、聞ける doesn't appear to have been mentioned here at all and I think it's probably the clearest explanation.

  • 見える - something comes into view
  • 聞こえる - something can be heard

Both of these describe sights/sounds that can be sensed regardless of the speaker's volition, e.g. if you look out the window you can see the sky, or you can hear a baby crying. For these kinds of things you don't really have a say in the matter.

  • 見られる - you can see something
  • 聞ける - you can hear/listen to something

These describe things that you can do (hence potential verbs) but on a volitional level e.g. you can see a film at the cinema or you can listen to a song on the radio.

Hopefully that clears it up a little. If not then let me know and I'll try explaining another way.

  • 1
    Exactly. This is how it was clearly explained to me by my tutor some years ago. The difference is about volition. The classical explanations above are very interesting but for a student of Japanese this is the most helpful answer. Feb 26, 2014 at 5:13


  1. To be visible, to be in sight.


A tall mountain can be seen over there.


You are visible to me / I can see you.

  1. to look like.


That cloud looks like cotton candy to me.

見える is about objects being visible and not so much about one's ability to to see them. Obviously, if an object is visible to us, we can see it.


  1. To be able to see. (見ることができる)


  1. (Damn!) they saw / caught me. (見られてしまった)


Someone saw me when I was changing clothes.

聞{きこ}こえる and 聞{き}かれる follows roughly exactly the same pattern as 見える and 見られる.


To be audible. To be heard.

  • 電車{でんしゃ}の音{おと}が聞こえる。
  • ウエイターを呼{よ}んだが、僕の声{こえ}は聞{き}こえなかったようだ。


To be able to hear / listen or when someone hears what one is / was saying and that's undesirable.


She / Someone heard me speaking ill of her / saying bad things about her.


They can be summarized like this:
( I=intransitive verb / T=transitive verb / TP=potential form of the transitive verb )

I: きこえる "can be heard" / T: きく "hear" / TP: きける "can hear"
I: みえる   "can be seen"  / T: みる "see"  / TP: (みられる or みれる) "can see" 

So this is the picture. However one point somewhat confusing is the (みられる or みれる) part, where lexically correct form is said to be みられる but it is rather rare, and popular form みれる is formally considered incorrect.

  • This problem always occurs to any 一段動詞 (vowel-stem verbs, e.g. [見]{み}る, [受]{う}ける, etc.), because the lexically correct potential forms ( 見られる, 受けられる ) are identical to / indistinguishable from passive forms ( 見られる, 受けられる ). Of course you could use compound expressions ( 見ることができる, 受けることができる ) but they are a little lengthy. Thus the colloquial short forms ( 見れる, 受けれる ) came into usage and have become popular in everyday conversation during the last century.
    – isayamag
    Nov 19, 2014 at 15:15
  • As for 五段動詞 (consonant-stem verbs; [聞]{き}く, [打]{う}つ, etc.), potential forms ( 聞ける, 打てる ) are different from passive forms ( 聞かれる, 打たれる ), so there is no such problem.
    – isayamag
    Nov 19, 2014 at 15:15
  • 2
    Historically speaking, the same change happened to consonant-stem verbs, and the short potential forms we have now are a result of this change. Before that happened, the potential and passive forms were the same for consonant-stem verbs as well.
    – user1478
    Nov 19, 2014 at 15:20


Maybe, I think that your understanding is correct.


The word "みまられます" is not. Did you mean "みられます" ?

Can you show me an example sentence?

きけます (= can listen)

あなたはストーリーをきけます。 You can listen to the story .

きこえます (=hear)

海の音がきこえます。 We can hear the ocean from here.

何か音がきこえますか? Do you hear any sound?

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