Kate Elwood has another interesting column in The Daily Yomiuri looking at Japanese culture:
I strive to adhere to the environmental three Rs of "reduce, reuse, recycle," in addition to the original educational three Rs of "reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic," but recently I've got my mind on another set of three Rs--recognition, responsibility and reproach. In his fascinating book "Credit and Blame," published in 2008, the late award-winning social scientist Charles Tilly argues that humans have a tendency to assign moral weight to life's events, assigning someone as the effective and deliberate agent of a good or bad outcome. As I read Tilly's thought-provoking and persuasive book, I kept thinking, Japan, Japan, Japan, although he does not mention the country. But since coming to Japan many years ago, I've experienced the notions of credit and blame on a whole new level.
As anyone who has learned a bit of the language knows, in Japanese there are all kinds of nifty ways embedded right into the language to assess who is responsible for what happened, and how the speaker feels about it. "Benefactives" first spring to mind--the "giving-receiving" verbs, like kureru, ageru and morau. Tagging on these verbs lets speakers show who should get acknowledgment for something beneficial that occurred and are often requisite in natural-sounding Japanese, adding something along the lines of "He/she/they is/are kind enough to..." --or who might be supposed to be responsible but has shirked this obligation, if the negative construction of the verbs is used, such as kurenai, agenai and morawanai. These append a slightly grumbling nuance like "He/she/they doesn't/don't do it, and they ought to!"
Applied linguist Barbara Pizziconi made a study of the use of benefactives among learners of Japanese of varying levels of proficiency in the course of 30-minute interviews. She found that as learners become more proficient, their correct use of benefactives increased, and misuse or avoidance decreased. Predictable enough, but Pizziconi also found something a bit surprising: The advanced learners actually used benefactives more frequently than the native speakers she interviewed. On average, the advanced learners used benefactives 13.7 times in 30 minutes, but the native Japanese speakers used them only 9.5 times.
At the same time, despite using them a lot, when Pizziconi questioned the learners about giving-receiving verbs, many confessed to feeling a bit oppressed by the acclaim-conferring linguistic devices. While understanding the need for proficiency in benefactives to speak Japanese naturally, the respondents found the use of them in opposition to their own social identity. They were uncomfortable making a point of assigning credit in situations in which they did not feel exceptionally grateful. Nonetheless, the advanced learners did so--a bit too much. Once immersed in the favor-recognition mode, whether they enjoy it or not, learners appear to find it hard to understand when it isn't necessary to tip their hats metaphorically. Pizziconi describes benefactives as a kind of "Trojan horse," which are adopted as a means of speaking naturally, but actually lead learners to constitute new frames and identities.
Unfortunately, life is not solely a matter of one pleasing event followed by another. The Japanese language also allows speakers to demonstrate their displeasure at disagreeable occurrences and point the finger at the often unintentional agent of distress in more cases than English permits. This is achieved through "malefactives," also known as the adversative passive. Some examples, pointed out by communication researcher Naoyuki Ono, include Taro ga kodomo ni nakareta (literally "Taro was cried by the child"--Taro was adversely affected by the child's crying); Hanako ga tonari no gakusei ni piano o asa made hikareta (literally "Hanako was played the piano by the neighboring student until morning"--Hanako was adversely affected by the neighboring student's playing the piano until morning); Taro ga tsuma ni taorerareta ("Taro was collapsed by his wife"--Taro was adversely affected by his wife's being sick in bed); and perhaps the most prototypical example of all, Taro ga ame ni furareta (Taro was rained on).
As the last example suggests, the closest colloquial approximation in English is the use of "on" in phrases like "His wife ran out on him" or "His dog died on him." But many of the examples above wouldn't work with "on." It might work with the "sick in bed" case, but "Taro's wife got sick on him" sounds rather callous and accusative. In addition, with the "on" construction the subject is the person or thing causing the nuisance or misery, while the Japanese sentences focus on the sufferer undergoing the hardship, and yet the passive shows that the trouble is usually beyond their control.
The adversative passive packages up a grievance very neatly and meticulously in a fairly simple and commonly used form. And the lack of a true equivalent in English can be sorely felt by Japanese speakers trying to express adversity in English. Theoretical linguist Mayumi Masuko made an examination of more than 500 essay tests written by Japanese learners of English on the topics of the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl and on dying with dignity. She found that the learners frequently made incorrect use of the passive voice when using such verbs at "occur," "happen," "take place" and "suffer." Masuko notes that the cause of these errors cannot be ascertained conclusively, but observes that it is possible that students associate adversity with the passive voice.