A simple question to those speaking and the native ones. What of the two forms (potential verbs or passive voice verbs) in Japanese verbs is more frequent?

This question may seem strange, but I need to know, as there is an ichidan ambiguity between potential and passive forms, so to make a more or less proper decision which one form is which.

I can, of course, rely on the particles, such as Ni and Wo. But in general, which form is less frequent? Which form do Japanese people use more often?

  • I do not know the answer, but I strongly disagree with your claim that this is a simple question to those who speak Japanese. Sep 10, 2012 at 15:29
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    I would suggest you decide by context and not by frequency, whether you consider the verb in question to be a passive voice form or a potential form.
    – Earthliŋ
    Sep 10, 2012 at 15:38
  • Maybe you can give more context as to why you need to know by frequency, if you already know how to determine it by context.
    – Earthliŋ
    Sep 10, 2012 at 15:41
  • This question might be of interest japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/4588/…
    – dainichi
    Sep 11, 2012 at 1:31
  • A human can tell which form is which, can the machine do it? So, the information about which form is more frequent is a good start. Later, the contex sensitive rules can be implemented as well, but everything has its limitations.
    – minerals
    Sep 11, 2012 at 9:51

1 Answer 1


Potential verbs are much more common than passive form. However, keep in mind that in speech it is very common to use ら抜き言葉 also.

For example:

来られる #1

来れる #2

Some people actually believe that #1 is passive and #2 is potential, while others would say that #1 is both passive and potential (which is the way the standard dialect (東京弁) deems it).

This question may seem strange, but I need to know, as there is an ichidan ambiguity between Potential and Passive forms, so to make a more or less proper decision which one form is which.

You should generally be able to distinguish the two from context quite easily. However, you are also missing another possibility. The られる form can also be used as the pollite form, which is neither passive nor potential.

For example:


The above should be interpreted as 敬語 and not passive.

However, going back to the passive form again, I believe that one common mistake for Japanese learners is the overuse of the passive form were the active form would be more appropriate. This happens because other languages (such as English) use the passive form more often and in situations were Japanese people would use the active form instead.

Example 1:

ニュースに驚いた <-- Not passive

I was surprised at the news. <-- Passive

Example 2:

These cookies were made by her yesterday.

これらのクッキーは昨日、彼女によって作られました。 #1


In the above example, #1 is a closer translation to the English equivalent. However, it should be known that while the English is quite natural sounding, #1 would be awkward in everyday speech and it is most likely that a Japanese person would use a similar sentence like #2.

  • Is “The cookies were made by her yesterday” a usual sentence in English? I assumed that it was awkward also in English. Sep 11, 2012 at 0:17
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    @TsuyoshiIto: That might not be the best example although I feel that it isn't awkward. However, think about how you would translate the following sentence in English: これは私の母が作ったケーキです, I think "This cake was made by my mother" and "My mother made this cake" both sound natural to me.
    – Jesse Good
    Sep 11, 2012 at 0:45
  • Although “My mother made this cake” sounds more natural than “This cake was made by my mother” to me, I (a non-native speaker of English) cannot really argue what is natural in English. Sep 11, 2012 at 0:52
  • @TsuyoshiIto: Although I am not confident in my English abilities (I am a native speaker though), I feel that the passive is more common in English than in Japanese.
    – Jesse Good
    Sep 11, 2012 at 1:01
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    @JesseGood, I'd like to write an answer, but I kinda lost confidence now. Researching a bit, it seems that originally the Japanese passive was mostly used as the "passive of inconvenience" as in 財布を盗まれた, but is used more neutrally now because of western influence. It's a bit hard to see the full picture...
    – dainichi
    Sep 11, 2012 at 2:43

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