30 July 2020
(This article was reviewed and edited by native Japanese speakers to ensure accuracy.)
Why do Japanese verbs conjugate?
Japanese verbs conjugate to express tenses, to connect with other phrases, and to show various nuances. Compared to other languages, Japanese conjugation types can be a bit more complicated. There are many different verb forms as well as polite forms. The conjugations can even be combined together!
Ru-verbs, U-verbs, and Irregular Verbs
Verbs in Japanese can primarily be categorized into two types: ru-verbs and u-verbs. This refers to a verb’s dictionary form. It’s important to know these two types to understand conjugation rules.
Ru-verbs are those that end in る, that have either i or e vowel sounds before the る.
Some examples include 食べる(taberu), 着る(kiru), or 寝る(neru).
U-verbs are any verbs which end in u, which is not a ru-verb. This can be any verb ending like う(u), つ(tsu), む(mu), etc… This also includes verbs ending in る that don’t have an eru or iru ending.
Some examples of u-verbs are 立つ(tatsu), 学ぶ(manabu), 飲む(nomu), and 分かる(wakaru).
U-verbs that look like Ru-verbs
Unfortunately, there are exceptions to the rules and some u-verbs look like ru-verbs. This means that some eru and iru ending verbs are part of u-verbs. These simply have to be memorized.
Here are some common u-verbs that look like ru-verbs: しゃべる(shaberu), 帰る(kaeru), 知る(shiru), 入る(hairu), and 走る(hashiru).
There are two main irregular verbs in Japanese that don’t belong in ru-verbs or u-verbs. These are する(suru) and くる(kuru).
Polite and Casual Form
Most verb conjugations have a polite and casual form. Japanese is a language that values politeness. Depending on who you are talking to, it’s important to create different nuances in speech and writing. Navigating the polite and casual form in verb conjugations can help to express politeness or familiarity.
The polite form should be used if talking to those of higher social hierarchy, strangers, or older people. The casual form can be used with friends, family, and those of lower social hierarchy. Understanding when to use polite and casual form is best learned from interacting and observing native Japanese speakers.
Dictionary Form and Present Tense
The dictionary form of verbs is the casual present tense of a verb. As the name suggests, it is what can be found in dictionaries to look up verbs. This form is casual and you would only use it with friends and family. All dictionary form verbs end with the u-vowel.
An important thing to note about Japanese present tense is that it can also be used as the future tense.
Here are some examples of the dictionary form or casual present tense:
Sushi o taberu
I eat sushi
Ocha o nomu
I drink tea
In spoken casual Japanese, particles are often dropped. It’s also common to answer by repeating the verb if someone asks you a question. This is because verbs don’t change based on the person it applies to. For example, “I eat” is the same as “she eats” in Japanese.
Do you want to eat sushi?
(yes) I (want to) eat.
Since there’s no future tense, the dictionary form can apply to both present and future. The only way to figure out the tense is through context.
Ashita, gakkou iku.
Tomorrow, I will go to school.
Negative Casual Present Tense:
To conjugate ru-verbs to the negative casual present tense you simply need to drop the る and add ない.
すしを食べる → すしを食べない
Sushi o taberu → Sushi o tabenai
I eat sushi → I don’t eat sushi
For u-verbs it’s easier to look at the romaji to change to the negative form. You need to drop the u and add anai to the end. If you prefer to conjugate with Japanese characters, you can also look at the hiragana ending of the u-verb and change it to the first hiragana in the same row, with an added ない.
お茶を飲む → お茶を飲まない
Ocha o nomu → Ocha o nomanai
I drink tea → I don’t drink tea
For irregular verbs, they don’t follow any rules and can only be memorized. They will change to the negative as follows:
くる → こない
kuru → konai
I come → I don’t come
する → しない
suru → shinai
I do → I don’t do
There is a special rule for verbs which end in う. They will change as if there is a w in front of the u.
買う → 買わない
ka(w)u → kawanai
I buy → I don’t buy
Here is an example of the casual negative present tense being used as the future tense. As discussed earlier, knowing if it is present or future tense relies only on the context.
Ashita gakkou ikanai.
Tomorrow I won’t go to school.
This form can also be used as a way to make suggestions. You can make a suggestion by making it a question.
Kyou sushi tabenai?
Do you want to eat sushi today?
To answer this question, you can use the negative and affirmative casual present tense.
yes: 食べる (taberu)
no: 食べない (tabenai)
Polite Present Tense
The polite present tense can be made by adding ます and ません. This is the form you should normally use unless with close friends, family, and those of lower social hierarchy.
For ru-verbs you only need to drop the る and add ます or ません(the negative form).
すしを食べる → すしを食べます
Sushi o taberu → Sushi o tabemasu
I eat sushi → I eat sushi (polite form)
すしを食べる → すしを食べません
Sushi o taberu → Sushi o tabemasen
I eat sushi → I don’t eat sushi (polite form)
For u-verbs you should drop the u and add imasu or imasen. If you prefer to conjugate with the Japanese characters, you should look at the hiragana of the verb ending and change it to the second hiragana in the same row. Then, add ます or ません at the end.
お茶を飲む → お茶を飲みます
Ocha o nomu → Ocha o nomimasu
I drink tea → I drink tea (polite form)
お茶を飲む → お茶を飲みません
Ocha o nomu → Ocha o nomimasen
I drink tea → I don’t drink tea (polite form)
The irregular verbs change to the polite form in the following ways:
する → します(affirmative)/しません(negative)
suru → shimasu/shimasen
くる → きます(affirmative)/きません(negative)
kuru → kimasu/kimasen
To make it a polite question, you can add か after the ます.
Would you like to eat sushi?
yes: 食べます (tabemasu)
no: 食べません (tabemasen)
To make it a suggestion, you can use the negative polite form and add か. It’s a softer nuance than adding か to the affirmative polite form.
Issho ni tabemasenka?
Would you like to eat together?
This is a useful conjugation that works on the negative casual present tense verb. You can take off the ない and replace it with ず.
食べない → 食べず
tabenai → tabezu
飲まない → 飲まず
nomanai → nomazu
The irregular verbs changes as follows:
する → せず
suru → sezu
くる → こず
kuru → kozu
This form doesn’t appear by itself and connects with other verbs. It can be used to make phrases that indicate that an action was done without doing the other action. In most cases it’s followed by に to make the phrase sound smoother.
Asagohan o tabezu ni kaisha ni itta.
I went to work without eating breakfast.
Ocha o nomazu ni kaisha ni itta.
I went to work without drinking tea.
Casual Past Tense
The casual past tense, which is also sometimes called ta-form, ends in た or だ. The negative form has the ending なかった.
For ru-verbs it is an easy conjugation where you drop the る and add た.
すしを食べる → すしを食べた
Sushi o taberu → Sushi o tabeta
I eat sushi → I ate sushi
For u-verbs there are more rules. う(u), つ(tsu), and る(ru) ending verbs will change to った(tta). む(mu), ぬ(nu), and ぶ(bu) ending verbs will change to んだ(nda). く(ku) changes to いた(ita), ぐ(gu) changes to いだ(ida), and す(su) changes to した(shita).
In the case of 飲む, it will change to んだ.
お茶を飲む → お茶を飲んだ
Ocha o nomu → Ocha o nonda
I drink tea → I drank tea
The irregular verbs follow their own rules:
くる → きた
kuru → kita
する → した
suru → shita
You can also form questions with the casual past tense by adding a question mark.
Kinou, sushi tabeta?
Did you eat sushi yesterday?
The negative form of the casual past tense has the same rule for all verb types. Take the ない form of the verb and replace ない with なかった. The nai-form of the verb is the negative casual present tense (negative version of the dictionary form).
すしを食べない → すしを食べなかった
Sushi o tabenai → Sushi o tabenakatta
I don’t eat sushi → I didn’t eat sushi
お茶を飲まない → お茶を飲まなかった
Ocha o nomanai → Ocha o nomanakatta
I don’t drink tea → I didn’t drink tea
Kinou, sushi tabenakatta.
Yesterday, I didn’t eat sushi.
Polite Past Tense
To form the polite past tense you can take the polite present tense, and replace the ます ending with ました.
すしを食べます → すしを食べました
Sushi o tabemasu → Sushi o tabemashita
I eat sushi (polite form) → I ate sushi (polite form)
お茶を飲みます → お茶を飲みました
Ocha o nomimasu → Ocha o nomimashita
I drink tea (polite form) → I drank tea (polite form)
The polite past tense can also become a question by adding か. Unlike in present tense, this only applies to the affirmative and not the negative form.
Kinou, sushi tabemashitaka?
Did you eat sushi yesterday? (polite form)
The negative form of the polite past tense can be made by adding でした to the negative polite present tense.
すしを食べません → すしを食べませんでした
Sushi o tabemasen → Sushi o tabemasendeshita
I don’t eat sushi (polite form) → I didn’t eat sushi (polite form)
お茶を飲みません → お茶を飲みませんでした
Ocha o nomimasen → Ocha o nomimasendeshita
I don’t drink tea (polite form) → I didn’t drink tea (polite form)
Kinou wa gakkou ni ikimasendeshita.
I didn’t go to school yesterday (polite form)
This form is useful for making requests and connecting sentences. If you already know the past tense, it follows similar rules.
Here is how to form the causal te-form:
Any verb which ends in た in the past tense, changes to て.
すしを食べた → すしを食べて
Sushi o tabeta → Sushi o tabete
I ate sushi → Please eat sushi
Verbs that end in だ in the past tense, will change to で.
お茶を飲んだ → お茶を飲んで
Ocha o nonda → Ocha o nonde
I drank tea → Please drink tea
The negative and polite te-forms follow the same rules regardless of verb type. The negative te-form can be made using the negative dictionary form with an added で.
すし食べない → すし食べないで！
Sushi tabenai → sushi tabenaide!
I don’t eat sush→ Don’t eat sushi!
For the polite form, you can create it by adding ください to the te-form.
すしを食べて → すしを食べてください
Sushi o tabete → Sushi o tabetekudasai
Please eat sushi → Please eat sushi (polite form)
すしを食べないで → すしを食べないでください。
Sushi o tabenaide → Sushi o tabenaidekudasai.
Don’t eat sushi → Please don’t eat sushi (polite form)
In the previous examples, the te-form was at the end of the phrase. In these cases it acts to make a request.
If the te-form is in the middle of the sentence it usually connects phrases and verbs together.
Sushi tabete miru?
Do you want to try eating sushi?
Sushi tabete iku?
Do you want to go eat sushi?
Te-form can also work to connect a series of actions. It acts as the word “then” in English.
Kinou kaisha ni itte shigoto shita.
Yesterday, I went to my company and (then) I worked.
This is also called the volitional form and expresses an intention or thought about doing something (if talking about yourself). It can also mean something similar to “let’s” or “shall we” in English if it includes other people. The ending (よ)う is the informal form and しょう is the polite form.
For ru-verbs, the casual form can be made by dropping the る from the dictionary form and adding よう.
すしを食べる → すしを食べよう
Sushi o taberu → Sushi o tabeyou
I eat sushi → Let’s eat sushi
For u-verbs, the informal form is made by dropping the u of the dictionary form and adding ou. If looking at the Japanese characters, take the last hiragana of the dictionary form, and change it to the last hiragana in the same row. Then simply add う to the end.
お茶を飲む → お茶を飲もう
Ocha o nomu → Ocha o nomou
I drink tea → let’s drink tea
For irregular verbs, they change in the following manner:
くる → こよう
kuru → koyou
する → しよう
suru → shiyou
Sa, shigoto shiyou.
I think I’ll work (now).
If you add よ, it can be clear that you are talking to someone else and not about yourself. This is usually a childish or feminine way of speech but it can add a nuance that is more insistent.
Let’s eat sushi.
For the polite form, take the polite present tense and drop the す. Then, replace that with しょう. This works with all verb types.
すしを食べます → すしを食べましょう
Sushi o tabemasu → Sushi o tabemashou
I eat sushi (polite form) → let’s eat sushi (polite form)
お茶を飲みます → お茶を飲みましょう
Ocha o nomimasu → Ocha o nomimashou
I drink tea (polite form) → let’s drink tea (polite form)
Shigoto ni modorimashou.
Let’s return to work.
よ can also be added to the polite form to be more insistent. Unlike in the casual form, this way of speech sounds feminine but not childish.
Hayaku ikimashou yo.
Let’s go quickly.
This form can be used to express the ability to do something. It is similar to “can” and “can not” in English.
The casual potential form can be made by dropping the る and adding (ら)れる or (ら)れない. The ら is often taken out to be smoother in daily speech and writing. Notice that the を preceding the dictionary form must change to が when changing to potential form.
すしを食べる → すしが食べ(ら)れる or すしが食べ(ら)れない
Sushi o taberu → Sushi ga taberareru or Sushi ga taberarenai
I eat sushi → I can eat sushi or I can’t eat sushi
To make the casual potential form with u-verbs, it’s necessary to drop the u and add eru or enai (negative form) to the end. If looking at the Japanese characters you can change the last hiragana of the verb to the fourth hiragana in the same row and add る or ない.
お茶を飲む → お茶が飲める or お茶が飲めない
Ocha o nomu → Ocha ga nomeru or Ocha ga nomenai
I drink tea → I can drink tea or I can’t drink tea
These will change to the casual potential form as follows:
する → できる/できない
suru → dekiru/dekinai
くる → こられる/こられない
kuru → korareru/korarenai
Here are some examples of the casual potential form:
Nama no sakana, tabereru?
Can you eat raw fish?
I’m too busy and I can’t go.
For the polite potential form, take the casual potential form and drop the る. Then, add ます or ません(negative form).
すしが食べられる → すしが食べられます or すしが食べられません
Sushi ga taberareru → Sushi ga taberaremasu or Sushi ga taberaremasen
I can eat sushi → I can eat sushi or I can’t eat sushi (polite form)
お茶が飲める → お茶が飲めます or お茶が飲めません
Ocha ga nomeru → Ocha ga nomemasu or Ocha nomemasen
I can drink tea → I can drink tea or I can’t drink tea (polite form)
Here are some example sentences:
Ima, kaisha ni koremasuka?
Could you come to work now?
Mada kaisha ni ikemasen.
I can’t go to work yet.
In Japanese, passive verbs can be used often. Unlike in English, the passive verb can also convey politeness because it doesn’t directly address the person that the action affects. It is especially common in formal writing.
In the passive form, ru-verbs look exactly the same as the potential form. However, make sure not to take out ら in the passive form of the verb. For the passive verb to work there must be an object in the beginning of the sentence.
Kuma ni taberareru.
I will get eaten by a bear.
Kuma ni taberarenai.
I will not get eaten by a bear.
The polite form:
Kuma ni taberaremasu.
I will get eaten by a bear. (polite form)
Kuma ni taberaremasen.
I will not get eaten by a bear. (polite form)
These verbs change to passive form by taking the negative present tense, dropping ない, and adding れる or れない (negative form).
お財布を盗まない → お財布が盗まれる or お財布が盗まれない
Osaifu o nusumanai → Osaifu ga nusumareru or Osaifu ga nusumarenai
I don’t steal the wallet → the wallet will get stolen or the wallet won’t get stolen
For the irregular verbs, change to the passive in the following ways:
する → される
suru → sareru
くる → こられる
kuru → korareru
To make the passive form polite, take the る from the informal passive form and add ます or ません (negative form).
お財布が盗まれる → お財布が盗まれます
Osaifu ga nusumareru → Osaifu ga nusumaremasu
The wallet will get stolen → The wallet will get stolen (polite form)
お財布が盗まれる → お財布が盗まれません
Osaifu ga nusumareru → Osaifu ga nusumaremasen
The wallet will get stolen → The wallet won’t get stolen (polite form)
The passive form is often used in the past tense and when unwanted events occur. To make the passive form into past tense, conjugate the passive form as a ru-verb by adding た.
Kuruma ni hikaretano? Daijoubu?
You were run over by a car? Are you ok?
Kyou osaifu nusumareta.
My wallet was stolen today.
Kyou osaifu nusumaremashita.
My wallet was stolen today. (polite form)
Here are some examples of unwanted events where you might use the passive form.
Kyonen, tsuma ni shinaremashita.
Last year, my wife died (I didn’t want her to die).
Tomodachi ni saki ni ikareta.
My friend went before me.
Dareka ni keeki taberareta.
The cake was eaten by someone (I didn’t want that to happen).
This verb form can show “if” statements. The conjugation for the conditional form follows the same rule for all verb types.
For the affirmative, change the dictionary form of the verb by dropping the final u-vowel and adding e. Then, add ば.
食べる → 食べれば
taberu → tabereba
Sushi o tabereba genki ni naru.
If you eat sushi, you get energy.
飲む → 飲めば
nomu → nomeba
Ocha o nomeba byouki ni naranai.
If you drink tea, you won’t get sick.
For the negative, take the negative informal present tense (nai-form), remove ない and add なければ.
食べない → 食べなければ
tabenai → tabenakereba
Sushi o tabenakereba, genki ga denai.
If you don’t eat sushi, you won’t get energy.
飲まない → 飲まなければ
nomanai → nomanakereba
Ocha o nomanakereba, byouki ni naru.
If you don’t drink tea, you’ll get sick.
Shukudai sureba, geemu shite iiyo.
If you do your homework, you can play video games.
Kaisha ni kureba, oshiete agemasu.
If you come to the company, I will teach you.
The causative form of the verb can mean “to make” or” let” someone or something do an action. It’s important to see the context to know exactly what the phrase is trying to convey.
For ru-verbs, drop the る and add させる to create the causative.
すしを食べる → すしを食べさせる
Sushi o taberu → Sushi o tabesaseru
I eat sushi → I make (them) eat sushi
For u-verbs take out the last vowel u and add aseru.
お茶を飲む → お茶を飲ませる
Ocha o nomu → Ocha o nomaseru
I drink tea → I make (them) drink tea
Another way is to take the negative form, remove ない and add せる.
お茶を飲まない → お茶を飲ませる
Ocha o nomanai → Ocha o nomaseru
I drink tea → I make (them) drink tea
The two irregular verbs are conjugated as follows:
する → させる
suru → saseru
くる → 来させる
kuru → kosaseru
To make the negative and polite forms of the causative you can treat the conjugated causative verbs as ru-verbs. Remove る and add ない (negative), ます(polite affirmative), or ません(polite negative)。
食べさせる → 食べさせない/食べさせます/食べさせません
tabesaseru → tabesasenai/tabesasemasu/tabesasemasen
飲ませる → 飲ませない/飲ませます/飲ませません
nomaseru → nomasenai/nomasemasu/nomasemasen
Parents often use this to talk about making their kids do things.
Kodomo ni yasai motto tabesaseru.
I make my children eat more vegetables.
Suimasen, shizuka ni sasemasu.
I’m sorry, I’ll make them be quiet.
The causative passive is a combination of causative and passive verbs. Although it may seem confusing, it just means “to be made” to do something. To form the causative passive take the causative form and then conjugate it as a ru-verb into passive form.
すしを食べさせる → すしを食べさせられる
Sushi o tabesaseru → Sushi o tabesaserareru
I make (them) eat sushi → I am made to eat sushi
お茶を飲ませる → お茶を飲ませられる
Ocha o nomaseru → Ocha o nomaserareru
I make (them) drink tea → I am made to drink tea
To form the negative and polite forms, conjugate as a ru-verb in the present tense, using the endings ない(negative), ます(polite affirmative), or ません (polite negative).
食べさせられる → 食べさせられない/食べさせられます/食べさせられません
tabesaserareru → tabesaserarenai/tabesaseraremasu/tabesaseraremasen
飲ませられる → 飲ませられない/飲ませられます/飲ませられませんnomaserareru → nomaserarenai/nomaseraremasu/nomaseraremasen
Here are some example sentences uses the causative passive form:
Itsumo sensei ni kyoushitsu no souji o saseraremasu.
My teacher always makes me clean the classroom.
Tomodachi ni himitsu o iwasaserareta.
My friend made me say a secret.
The command form in Japanese can be extremely rude and should never be used with someone who is of higher social hierarchy than you. However, it can be used to express anger or authority, and it can also be heard in anime and manga. In most cases, if you want to make a request, it’s better to use the te-form.
To create the imperative form for ru-verbs, drop the る and add ろ.
すしを食べる → すし食べろ!
Sushi o taberu → Sushi tabero!
I eat sushi → Eat sushi!
For u-verbs, change the last vowel to e.
お茶を飲む → お茶飲め！
Ocha o nomu → Ocha nome!
I drink tea → Drink tea!
The two irregular verbs conjugate as:
する → しろ
suru → shiro
くる → こい
kuru → koi
The negative imperative can be formed by adding a な to the dictionary form. This applies even to irregular verbs.
食べる → 食べるな!
Taberu → Taberuna!
to eat → Don’t eat!
飲む → 飲むな!
Nomu → Nomuna!
To drink → Don’t drink!
Japanese verbs can be conjugated further and combined with different conjugations.
As seen earlier, the conditional passive is a great example of this. The conditional makes the verb function as a ru-verb so that it is simple to further conjugate it to passive.
As you study Japanese, you may notice more and more combined conjugations.
Here are some other examples of combining conjugations:
Potential form + past tense can be formed by taking the potential form and conjugating it to past tense as if it was a ru-verb.
すしが食べ(ら)れる →すしが 食べ(ら)れた
Sushi ga taberareru → Sushi ga taberareta
I can eat sushi → I could eat sushi
Passive + te-form can be formed by taking the passive form of the verb and conjugating it like a ru-verb in te-form.
食べられる → 食べられて
taberareru → taberarete
Shujinkou ga teki ni taberarete shinda.
The main character was eaten by their enemy and died.
The causative passive can also further connect to the te-form. Here’s an example:
Itsumo shukudai o yarasaserarete tsurai.
It’s hard to always be made to do homework.