Giving and Receiving in Japanese – Agemasu, Kuremasu, Moraimasu
The words used to describe the acts of giving and receiving in Japanese can be quite confusing, but they needn’t be.
In a nutshell, there are two words that mean “to give”:
And another word that means “to receive”:
What most often confuses people is the fact that there are three words to describe actions that, in English, can be expressed with just two words.
More options = more trying-to-figure-out-when-to-use-what.
Fortunately, however, there is a simple way to look at these words that will eliminate any uncertainty about their use in 99% of situations.
In this article, we will see how we can easily differentiate between the words for “giving” and “receiving” in Japanese. In doing so, we will also cover everything you need to know to form sentences using the verbs “agemasu”「あげます」, “kuremasu”「くれます」, and “moraimasu”「もらいます」.
How to say “give” in Japanese – Agemasu and Kuremasu
As we saw, Japanese has two words that mean “to give” – “agemasu”「あげます」 and “kuremasu”「くれます」.
It is important to know that these words are NOT interchangeable.
Only one is appropriate in any given situation. The best way to look at these words is to compare them to the words “go” and “come”.
Because “go” and “come” can both be used to describe the same action – all that is different is the perspective.
Ultimately, both words describe the act of one person or thing moving from one place to another.
We use the word “go” when the direction of that movement is away from us, and we use the word “come” when the direction of that movement is towards us.
The action itself is exactly the same – only the word used to describe it is different.
This concept applies perfectly to the act of giving in Japanese.
In English, we use the word “give” to describe the act of someone giving something to someone. It does not matter what direction that act of giving occurs.
We can show this easily using a diagram similar to the one above:
The direction of the giving does not matter – the word we use to describe that action is the same.
In Japanese, the word we use is different. Let’s take a look:
Just like with the words “go” and “come”, Japanese has two different words to describe the same action depending on the perspective.
In terms of the direction of the movement:
Go ≈ agemasuあげます
Come ≈ kuremasuくれます
So, if you ever need to say that someone gave something to someone else, it should be very clear which word you should choose.
- If the direction of the giving is away from you, use “agemasu”「あげます」
- If the direction of the giving is towards you, use “kuremasu”「くれます」
And, just like the word “go”…
- If the direction of the “giving” is between two distant entities – neither towards you nor away from you – then we use “agemasu”「あげます」
That’s the main thing to remember. Now let’s look at some examples so we can see how this works in practice.
Example sentences using “agemasu”「あげます」 and “kuremasu”「くれます」
Firstly, let’s start with a sentence describing “going” and then morph it slightly to be an act of “giving” instead:
I will go to Yūsuke’s house.
watashi wa yūsuke no ie ni ikimasu.
わたし は ゆうすけ の いえ に いきます。
I will give Yūsuke a book.
watashi wa yūsuke ni hon wo agemasu.
わたし は ゆうすけ に ほん を あげます。
Here these are in our sentence structure diagram:
- I, “watashi”「私」, am performing the act of giving, hence “watashi”「私」 is the topic marked by the particle “wa”「は」.
- The destination or end-point of each action is marked by the particle “ni”「に」:
- yūsuke no ie niゆうすけの家に = to Yūsuke’s house
- yūsuke niゆうすけに = to Yūsuke
The biggest difference is that in the “giving” sentence, there is another element – “hon”「本」, a book. This is the thing the act of giving is done to, so it is the object of the sentence, and therefore marked by the particle “wo”「を」.
We never have such an object in a sentence using “ikimasu”「行きます」 because, well, you don’t “go something” like you might “give something”.
Overall, the sentences have a very similar structure, and they both describe the movement of something (ie. “me” or a book) away from the person speaking.
Now let’s look at an example using “kimasu”「来ます」 and “kuremasu”「くれます」:
Yūsuke comes to my house.
yūsuke wa watashi no ie ni kimasu.
ゆうすけ は わたし の いえ に きます。
Yūsuke gives a book to me.
yūsuke wa watashi ni hon wo kuremasu.
ゆうすけ は わたし に ほん を くれます。
Here these are in diagram form:
If we put this side-by-side with our “agemasu”「あげます」 example, you can see that they are basically the same:
All we have done, really, is swap “watashi”「私」 and “yūsuke”「ゆうすけ」, and, since that changes the direction of the movement to be towards us, we use “kuremasu”「くれます」 instead.
So, in both cases, the structure is basically this:We just choose “agemasu”「あげます」 or “kuremasu”「くれます」 depending on whether we are the originator of the giving, or the destination.
The non-existence of indirect objects
As a bit of a side note, English has these fun things called indirect objects that allow us to express the same exact idea in two different ways. I only mention it because Japanese does not have an equivalent expression, so this might save you from wondering if there is.
Consider these sentences with perfectly equivalent meanings:
I will give a book to Yūsuke.
I will give Yūsuke a book.
Now, the first example is almost identical to how Japanese treats these situations.
- Subject = I (because it’s before the verb, “will give”)
- Object = a book (because it’s after the verb)
- Destination = Yūsuke (because the preposition “to” tells us so)
The second sentence, however, puts “Yūsuke” in between the verb and “a book”.
This is called an indirect object.
“A book” is still the object – or more precisely, the direct object – since it is the thing being given, but we can insert a person in between the verb and the object as an indirect object to tell us that that person is the recipient. This also works with verbs like “send” (I sent my friend a book = to my friend), or even “buy” (I bought my friend a book = for my friend).
In Japanese, of course, the sentence always looks like this:
The order of “yūsuke ni”「ゆうすけに」 and “hon wo”「本を」 doesn’t really matter, so although we do have two options for this sentence…
I will give Yūsuke a book.
watashi wa yūsuke ni hon wo agemasu.
わたし は ゆうすけ に ほん を あげます。
I will give Yūsuke a book.
watashi wa hon wo yūsuke ni agemasu.
わたし は ほん を ゆうすけ に あげます。
…the rules are no different to any other sentence.
Particles tell us everything we need to know, so as long as we attach the right ones, we don’t really have to worry too much about word order.
This is one example of why Japanese is so simple. English learners have to use word order to figure out if something is an object or an indirect object, and if they get it backwards, they end up giving people way instead of books. In Japanese, we just need to know which particle does what and that’s it.
Determining which direction applies in less-obvious cases
Most of the time, it is fairly easy to determine if the direction of the movement of an object is towards us or away from us, but there are a few potentially confusing situations we should clarify.
Firstly, as mentioned earlier, if you are talking about an act of giving that is directed away from yourself, or between two third parties, use the word “agemasu”「あげます」.
This is the same as if you were talking about someone going away from you, or between two distant locations (point A to point B) – you would use the word “go”.
You would only use the word “kuremasu”「くれます」 when the direction of the movement is towards you, just as you would only use the word “come” if the direction of the movement is towards you. This diagram sums it up:
Secondly, the use of the word “kuremasu”「くれます」 is not limited to discussion about yourself personally – it also applies to people in your group.
For example, if I am talking to Yūsuke about something that Asami gave to Yūsuke, I should use the word “kuremasu”「くれます」, even though I myself am not the recipient. I think we need another diagram:
The reason for this is because, since Yūsuke and I are in the conversation together, the direction of the giving is still towards me, relatively. Yes, it’s primarily towards Yūsuke, but because Yūsuke and I are together at the time of this conversation, from my perspective, the gift has moved in my direction.
Again, this is (in most cases) the same as the normal use of the word “kimasu”「来ます」 (come). If instead of a book, Asami herself moved towards Yūsuke, and I was with Yūsuke discussing this, I would describe this action using the word “come”, not “go”.
How to say “receive” in Japanese – Moraimasu
The words for giving and receiving are usually introduced together, and they are, of course, very much related, but we need to be clear about something.
The concept of “receiving” has absolutely no impact on your choice of the word for “giving”.
That’s why we haven’t mentioned it yet.
If you want to say that one person gave something to another person, you use one of the words that means “give”, and we now know how to choose the appropriate one.
Receiving is a different action.
Yes, the event of one person passing an object to another person is the same regardless of what word we use to describe it, but that’s irrelevant.
Because the person who performs the action is different.
This may seem very obvious, but when you GIVE something to someone, YOU give it, and THEY receive it. Those are two separate actions.
Consider this event:
We can describe this one of two ways:
Ken gives Tarō a pen.
ken wa tarō ni pen wo agemasu.
けん は たろう に ペン を あげます。
Tarō receives a pen from Ken.
tarō wa ken ni pen wo moraimasu.
たろう は けん に ペン を もらいます。
The topic of these sentences is different. One is talking about an action that Ken does, the other is talking about an action that Taro does. They are different actions, even if both refer to the same actual event.
Remembering this should help us a lot in choosing the appropriate particles.
Which particles to use with “moraimasu”
For the word “moraimasu”「もらいます」, the person performing the act of receiving is the topic. Here’s a basic example in the past tense:
If we want to say who the book was received from, then we need to include the origin. One way to do this is to use the basic origin element that uses the particle “kara”「から」:
I received a book from Yūsuke.
watashi wa yūsuke kara hon wo moraimashita.
わたし は ゆうすけ から ほん を もらいました。
Here’s this sentence in diagram form:
However, we can also (and generally should) use the particle “ni”「に」 instead of “kara”「から」. This probably seems like a strange choice, but there is a very good reason for it.
As we have already seen, one of the uses of the particle “ni”「に」 is to define the destination of an action involving movement. Here, however, it is describing the origin of an action involving movement – the exact opposite.
The reason for this is because the word “moraimasu”「もらいます」 is passive in nature. This is unlike most other regular verbs, which are active in nature.
A verb that is passive describes an action from the perspective of a person that didn’t actually have to do anything themselves. Instead, they had something done to them, and their role in the action was passive. Rather than do the action, they undergo it.
In the case of receiving something, a person can literally do nothing in the process of receiving. The person that actually moved their body to make something happen is someone else – the person that gave them something. So, Taro can just kick back while Ken does all the work:
Most regular verbs are active by nature, but they usually also have a passive form. This is the same in both English and Japanese. For example, the passive form of “to see” is, “to be seen”. In Japanese, too, the passive form of “mimasu”「見ます」(meaning “see”) is “miraremasu”「見られます」 (“to be seen”). This is not really a separate word, but just the passive form of a verb that is usually active. Most passive verbs are derived from active verbs in a similar way.
In the case of “moraimasu”「もらいます」, it could be argued that it, too, is technically an active verb, but its meaning is predominantly passive.
More importantly, the way we use it is consistent with passive verbs, particularly when it comes to choosing a particle.
The use of a passive verb effectively causes the meaning of the particle “ni”「に」 to flip, so instead of describing the destination, it describes the origin.
So, taking this into account, we can rewrite this sentence like this:
I received a book from Yūsuke.
watashi wa yūsuke ni hon wo moraimashita.
わたし は ゆうすけ に ほん を もらいました。
And we can represent this in our diagram as follows:
Now, let’s look again at the examples from earlier using the words “agemasu”「あげます」 and “kuremasu”「くれます」 (except this time in the past tense).
As you can see, the topic of these sentences is the GIVER, while the topic of our sentence with “moraimasu”「もらいます」 is the RECEIVER.
Meanwhile, the role of the particle “ni”「に」 is also flipped. It tells us the destination of the object being given when using one of the two active “give” words, “agemasu”「あげます」 and “kuremasu”「くれます」, but it defines the origin of the object being received when using the passive word “moraimasu”「もらいます」.
Lastly, as with the “giving” sentences, the order of the ‘Other Information’ – the origin and the object – does not really affect the meaning, so more generally, the structure looks like this:
An alternative way to think about “ni”「に」
Rather than thinking of “ni”「に」 as the particle for marking a destination or origin, we could think about it as marking a counterparty. That is:
When talking about giving and receiving, the particle “ni”「に」 defines the counterparty.
The counterparty is, of course, the receiver when the verb describes giving (agemasuあげます or kuremasuくれます), and the giver when the verb describes receiving (moraimasuもらいます).
This is simpler in some ways, but I have chosen the destination/origin description because these terms have a much more obvious sense of direction. They also align well with other situations where there is a verb involving movement, such as “go” and “come”, so it reduces the number of definitions for “ni”「に」 that we need to remember.
Of course, if “counterparty” makes more sense to you, use that!
Bonus: Super-polite verbs for giving and receiving
The basic, polite forms of these three verbs are the ones we have used thus far: agemasuあげます, kuremasuくれます and moraimasuもらいます.
The informal/dictionary forms of these verbs are very similar: ageruあげる, kureruくれる and morauもらう. These are simply a different conjugation of the same three verbs.
If, however, we go up another level from basic politeness to what we might call the “super-polite” form, the words change completely (well, two of them do anyway).
And, since the acts of giving and receiving are a fairly important part of Japanese etiquette and culture, you are likely to hear these more frequently than many other super-polite terms.
Here is the present/future tense of all three politeness levels together:
|Give (away from yourself)||ageruあげる||agemasuあげます||sashiagemasuさしあげます|
|Give (towards yourself)||kureruくれる||kuremasuくれます||kudasaimasuくださいます|
You might recognise two of these in particular:
- The word “kudasai”「ください」, meaning “please”, is from “kudasaimasu”「くださいます」. So, when you say something like, “matte kudasai”「待ってください」 (please wait), you are sort of saying, “give to me by waiting”.
- The word “itadakimasu”「いただきます」 is what Japanese people say before they eat. They are effectively saying, “I will receive (this food)”.
Anywho, we can use these verbs in a sentence by simply substituting them for their less polite equivalents:
Of course, given that you are describing giving/receiving something to/from someone “above” you, you would generally substitute “Yūsuke” for a more polite name or title, but that’s a whole other discussion for another day.
Describing giving and receiving in Japanese is quite simple if we internalise a few basic rules.
- There are two words for “give”: “agemasu”「あげます」 and “kuremasu”「くれます」
- “Agemasu”「あげます」 should be used when the direction of the giving is away from you, or between two third-parties. It has the same directionality as the word “go”.
- “Kuremasu”「くれます」 should be used when the direction of the giving is towards you, including situations where you are simply closer to the recipient than the giver. It has the same directionality as the word “come”.
- The giver is the topic/subject of the sentence. That is, the person who does the giving is the person performing the action described by “agemasu”「あげます」 and “kuremasu”「くれます」
- The particle “ni”「に」 defines the destination of the giving – that is, the recipient.
- There is one word for “receive”: “moraimasu”「もらいます」
- The receiver is the topic/subject of the sentence. That is, the person who does the receiving is the person performing the action described by “moraimasu”「もらいます」. This is the opposite of “agemasu”「あげます」 and “kuremasu”「くれます」.
- Since the verb “moraimasu”「もらいます」 is passive in nature, the particle “ni”「に」 defines the origin of the thing being given.