TooBen Creative Writing Column

TooBen Creative Writing Column

TooBen Creative Writing Based on Translation Column (5)

Absence of Subjects

As a topic-prominent language, Japanese doesn’t necessarily require subjects (See Japanese As a Topic-Prominent Language). Namely, it uses them only when the description needs to mention the doer (or owner) of a specific action (or state, condition, circumstance, etc.).

Then, let’s see how the language forgoes so-called “subjects”. I’ll use some simple sentences as follows:
  1. I’m tired.
  2. I don’t know.
  3. Are you OK?
Now, how do we say them in Japanese?
  1. Tsukare-ta. (Tired.)
  2. Shira-nai. (Don't know.)
  3. Daijōbu? (OK?)
As you can see, all “I” and “you” counterparts are missing in the Japanese version, which is quite natural in Japanese. In other words, those sentences are solid and sound, just like the English version with their subjects “I” and “you”.

On the other hand, there’s the forced, artificial version still believed by some people to be correct, which would go:
  1. Watashi wa Tsukare-ta. (I'm tired.)
  2. Watashi wa Shira-nai. (I don't know.)
  3. Anata wa Daijōbu? (Are you OK?)
Now, the subjects (Watashi and Anata meaning “I” and “you” respectively) missing in the first version are present. So, as an Anglicized version, it may look familiar and satisfactory.

However, as natural Japanese, this version doesn’t sound perfect. On top of that, it’s based on the old idea that subjectless sentences (as seen in the first version) are incomplete. Even though some still support it, this old grammar was hastily moulded out of European language examples such as French or English in the Meiji era (1868 - 1912). Nowadays, it’s becoming obsolete, tested by emerging discussions on the definition of Japanese (so-called) subjects or whether their absence is due to omission or unnecessity in the first place.

With that said, let’s see cases where a sentence requires the doer (owner) of the action. The parenthesized description in each sentence shows an example of when it takes the subject:
  1. (You may not be tired, but) I AM tired. → Watashi wa Tsukare-ta.
  2. (You may know, but) I don’t know. → Watashi wa Shira-nai.
  3. (I’m OK, but) Are YOU OK? → Anata wa Daijōbu?
As you see, the subject “I” or “you” appears in the sentence when the speaker needs to clarify “who” is tired, doesn’t know, or OK. So in the first sentence, it’s like when you say, “I don’t know about others, but I AM tired”. Then, in the second, “you may know, others may know, but I don’t know”. In the same way, in the third, “others may be OK, and I'm OK, but how are YOU?”

Except for those cases where the speaker must accentuate or separate a specific noun, Japanese sentences don’t mention the apparent doer of the action or the target of the description.

 Since March 2006. Last update July 27, 2021. Copyright (C) Tuben. All rights reserved.