Japanese verbs are quite complex compared to English verbs (Most English verbs have five or six forms and to be has eight not including archaic forms). Their agglutinative nature means they have various parts which can be present or not, or can take different morphemes.

What I'm wondering is if it is possible to calculate the total number of possible forms this can lead to for a typical Japanese verb.

If it's not straightforward or generally talked about, a reference to a discussion or research paper would also be a great answer.

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    But it's precisely because it's agglutinative that the "number" of forms matters less! In my view, a Japanese verb has about six to ten "base" forms from which all other forms can be derived by regular rules.
    – Zhen Lin
    Commented Jul 29, 2012 at 10:42
  • In my view, there is one form.
    – user458
    Commented Jul 29, 2012 at 12:23
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    @hippietrail I am saying that there is a root that is invariant, to which various affixes such as past, negation, politeness, etc. attaches.
    – user458
    Commented Jul 29, 2012 at 14:44
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    @sawa: Care to post an answer? I would like to learn more about this modern view of conjugation in Japanese. Also, is there a good book explaining this view in either Japanese or English so that I can learn more? Commented Jul 29, 2012 at 16:44
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    @TsuyoshiIto And a book by Timothy Vance An Introduction to Japanese Phonology also discusses the difference between the traditional analysis and the American Structuralist view on verb inflection, and is actually in more detail than Shibatani's book. My point of view actually goes beyond the American structuralist's view, and belongs to what is called Distributed Morphology. This view is still under development, and there is no introductory book. All the relevant researches are on academic journals. When I have time, I my post relevant things sometimes.
    – user458
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 12:01

1 Answer 1


It depends on how you count. There are ~10 base forms to which you can append auxiliaries in a fairly regular manner. For reference, the handbook of Japanese verbs covers 154 conjugations which stem from ten different forms:

  1. Conjunctive form (14)
  2. Dictionary form (39)
  3. Negative form (33)
  4. Conditional form (5)
  5. Imperative form (2)
  6. Volitional form (5)
  7. Te form (26)
  8. Ta form (25)
  9. Tara form (3)
  10. Tari form (2)

But there is a lot of similarity among those, and there are probably both more and less inclusive lists.

  • 1
    I would actually be quite interested to see an exhaustive list. Does anyone know of one?
    – aoeuueoa
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 4:01
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    This seems to apply that in Japanese there are no restrictions on which auxiliaries or affixes can be used together, which would be surprising when compared to other languages with agglutinative verb morphology such as Georgian. Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 8:20
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    If one counts compound suffixes like 食べさせられる, then the total count is possibly infinite (I could do 食べさせられさせられさせられ...; even though it's meaningless it's still a grammatically valid conjugation).
    – ithisa
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 13:49

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