ほうこうどう (directional verbs)

In Japanese there exist three pairs of verbs used for describing the act of giving and receiving and it is perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of Japanese for foreigners to master. Only one pair is used for receiving, the other two pairs are used for giving. Their usage is a bit more complex than in English since the speaker must account not only for the relationship between the giver and receiver, but also the relationship between the speaker and the parties involved. This is called speaker empathy and refers to the speakers identification with a person/thing that participates in the event that the speaker describes. When the speaker is the recipient or is someone close to the recipient (such as a family member) and wants to describe the giving act, the verbs くれる and くださる are used. If the speaker is the giver or is neither the giver nor the receiver (a neutral party), then the verbs やる and あげる are used. Which among each pair of verbs to use is determined based on the giver's social status compared to the receiver, that is whether the giver is a 目下 [meshita, subordinate/inferior] or a 目上 [meue, senior/superior]. In terms of giving and receiving, one should always consider ones own family as inferior when the opposite party is not related. The following charts should explain more clearly. In the status column G=Giver and R=Recipient so G<R would mean the Giver is inferior to the Recipient:

To give (recipient)
くれる and くださる are used when the speaker is the recipient or is close to the recipient.
Status Giver Particle Recipient Particle Verb
G<R
He/She
They/You
 が 
me/us
them/you
him/her
 に  くれる
 G>R   くださる 
  1. いぬわたしにボールをくれました。 The puppy gave me the ball. [G<R, speaker is receiver]
  2. せんせいわたしははつうしん簿くださいました。 The teacher gave my mother the report card. [G>R, speaker is close to receiver]

An exception to the rule is when the giver is a family member, but the person being spoken to is a non-family member. However the rules still apply when speaking to a family member:

  1. ちちおとうとにボールをくれました。 My father gave my little brother the ball. [G>R but listener is non-family member]
  2. とうさんはおとうとにボールをくださいました。 My father gave my little brother the ball. [G>R and listener is a family member]
To give (giver or neutral party)
やる and あげる are used when the speaker is the giver or a neutral party.
Status Giver Particle Recipient Particle Verb
G>R
I/We
They/You
He/She
 は 
him/her
them/you
 に  やる
G?R* あげる
  1. いぬえさをやりました。 I gave the puppy food. [G>R, speaker is giver]
  2. せんせい宿しゅくだいをあげました。 I gave the teacher my homework . [G<R, speaker is giver]

*The situations in which やる is used are much more strict than with くれる and もらう because it is used when the recipient is someone other than the speaker. One should remember only to use やる when the recipient is unquestionably inferior (one's child, younger sibling, pet or inanimate object), and to use あげる in all other cases:

  1. せんせいがくせい宿しゅくだいをあげました。 The teacher gave the student homework. [G?R, speaker is a neutral party]
To receive
もらう and いただく are used in all cases of receiving regardless of speaker empathy.
Status Recipient Particle Giver Particle Verb
 R>G 
I/We
They/You
He/She
 は 
you/them
him/her
に or
から
もらう
R<G  いただく 
  1. ボールをいぬにもらいました。 I received the ball from the puppy. [R>G]
  2. がくせい宿しゅくだいせんせいにいただきました。 The student received homework from the teacher. [R<G]

Like with くれる/くださる the exception to the rule is when the giver is a family member, but the person being spoken to is a non-family member. The rules still apply when speaking to a family member:

  1. いもうとはこのおもちゃをちちからもらいました。 My little sister got this toy from my father. [R<G but listener is non-family member]
  2. いもうとはこのおもちゃをおとうさんからいただきました。 My little sister got this toy from my father. [R<G and listener is a family member]

Consider the following sentence:

けんあけチョコをくれたのであけにフルッツバスケットをやった。
Akemi gave Kenji girichoko so Kenji gave Akemi a fruit basket.

This sentence contains two subjects, one primary and one auxiliary, each giving to the other. If the speaker were close to one subject over the other than it would be clear which verb to use for each. But what happens when the speaker is not close to either subject (neutral empathy)? One might think to use やる for both subjects, however that would be incorrect. The sentence shows what Kuno and Kaburaki1 propose is a principle of verb choice in respect to speaker empathy:

Ban on Conflicting Empathy Foci: A single sentence cannot contain logical conflicts in empathy relationships.

Of course such a situation is relatively uncommon, but when it occurs how does one decide which subject takes which verb? While a native Japanese speaker may know by way of what sounds “natural,” it can be difficult for a non-native speaker to make the call without guidelines. Kuno2 describes several additional principals that govern empathy placement including:

Speech Act Empathy Hierarchy: The speaker cannot empathize with someone else more than with himself.

Topic Empathy Hierarchy: Given an event or state that involves A or B such that A is coreferential with the topic of the current discourse and B is not, it is easier for the speaker to empathize with A than B.

Surface Structure Empathy Hierarchy: It is easier for the speaker to empathize with the referent of the subject than with the referents of other NPs (Noun Phrases’) in the sentence.

Descriptor Empathy Hierarchy: Given descriptor x (e.g., John) and another descriptor f(x) (e.g., John’s brother), the speaker’s empathy with x is greater than with f(x).

Oshima3 further adds:

Animacy Empathy Hierarchy: It is easier for the speaker to empathize with animate objects than with inanimate objects.

These should provide enough of a guideline for the student of Japanese to discern the correct verb usage in the afore mentioned scenarios.

1Kuno, Susumu. 1987. Functional syntax: anaphora, discourse, and empathy.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
2Kuno, Susumu and Etsuko Kaburaki. 1977. Empathy and syntax. Linguistic Inquiry 8:625–672.
3Oshima, David Y. 2004. Syntactic direction and obviation as empathy-based phenomena: a typological approach. Stanford University

Directional verbs are commonly seen following て form and causative て form verbs as auxiliaries. When used in this way they imply that the agent performing the action is doing the recipient of the action a favor of some sort:

  1. あねいちばんきなガムをってくれました。 My big sister bought me my favorite gum. [G<R, speaker is recipient]
  2. せんせいへんおとこほんんであげました。 The teacher read a book to the strange man. [G?R, speaker is neutral]
  3. いもうとこうえんあそばせてやりました。 I let my little sister play at the park. [G>R, speaker is giver]
  4. いもうと団子だんごべさせてもらいました。 My little sister let me eat her dango. [R>G, speaker is recipient]

Although much effort is required to master directional verbs, it really is worth the effort since they are used so frequently in the Japanese language. The most difficult part is remembering how the dynamics change when family is involved but beyond that the rules are pretty straight forward.