Japanese adjectival clauses

By | April 28, 2014

One of the big grammatical differences between Japanese and English is the way adjectival clauses are formed, and getting familiar with this will help you on the road to better understanding of Japanese, and more advanced sentence creation.

The basic use of single-word adjectives is the same in Japanese in English, and the reverse in other languages like Spanish.

  • English: A clean city
  • Japanese: 清潔な町   (清潔=せいけつ)
  • Spanish: una ciudad limpia

Notice that in English and Japanese the adjective comes before the word it is modifying, whereas in Spanish it comes after the word.

But when you want to use a clause as an adjective, suddenly things in Japanese are reversed. If you’re not familiar with a term ‘clause’, it generally refers to a group of several words where there is one subject and a predicate, though in Japanese there doesn’t have to be a subject. You can think of a clause as a verb with optional subject or objects in front of it.

  • 僕が毎日観てる番組
  • The (TV) show that I watch every day.

As you can see from this example, in Japanese the same pattern is used in both a simple single-word adjective and longer adjectival phrase, but in English the grammar is changed to use a word like ‘that’, ‘which’, ‘who’, ‘where’, or ‘why’ after the noun, followed by the phrase itself. I have italicized the adjectival phrases in both sentences above so you can see where they lie. Note that the above sentences are not complete since they only have a subject, not a predicate. This was done for simplicity and I’ll give a more complex example next.

  • 僕は、君が好きゲームはしないよ。
  • I don’t play games you like.

Again we can see the adjectival phrase is before the noun (games) in Japanese, and after it in English.

Once you get the hang of it this, you can start to formulate your own sentences, though at first it may take some time to reverse things in your head.

The challenging thing is learning to do this process automatic, when speaking, reading, listening, or writing, such that you don’t have to ferry back and forth between Japanese word order and English word order in your head. In particular, when speaking you need to have the adjectival clause of the sentence prepared before the noun itself so you can speak it in that order. If you think in English first, you’ll find it’s difficult to do this smoothly. Also if the word ‘that’ or ‘where’ pops up in your head you’ll have no where to put it in Japanese, since there is no parallel or for it in that language in this case. In this sense I feel Japanese is a bit more efficient since it avoids this (mostly) unnecessary word.

As with most things, mastery of this aspect of the language will come with time. Good luck!


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4 thoughts on “Japanese adjectival clauses

  1. Pingback: Japanese Grammar – What’s it all about? | Self Taught Japanese

  2. bugman123

    Thanks for the blog post. This is very helpful.

    I came across a sentence that I’m struggling to understand the structure of. I know what it means. But in terms of analysing how it fits together, I find it difficult:


    I think what confuses me is there way that there’s no verb in between が and 神社, unlike your example “僕が毎日観てる番組”.

    It’s like “多い” has a direct connection to “初詣に行く人”. Is there any way to explain this…? Just struggling to find other examples of this kind of usage.


    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment and for the question! I’ll do my best to explain the grammar in the sentence you gave.

      I’ll start by building up from simplest grammatical elements to more complex, and also use some spaces and parenthesis to help understand how things fit together.

      人が多い 神社は Xです。 (The shrine with many people is X)

      初詣に行く人が多い 神社は Xです。(The shrine with many people going to it for ‘Hatsumoude’ is X)

      初詣に行く人が (いちばん)多い神社は、 Xです。(The shrine with the most people going to it for Hatsumoude is X.)

      初詣に行く人が(日本でいちばん)多い 神社は、(東京にある)明治神宮です。(The shrine with the most people in Japan going to it for Hatsumoude is ‘Meiji Jingu’ in Tokyo.)

      Grammatically, the noun 神社 is being modified by the adjective 多い, which is in itself being modified by a bunch of other things. If you look at my first sentence above,
      It has a similar pattern to the “僕が毎日観てる番組” example you referred to, except in that example a verb is used to modify 番組, not an adjective.

      My guess is that the thing that confused you here is the phrase ”日本でいちばん”, which is why I put it in parenthesis above.

      Here is a slightly similar sentence with similar grammar, see if you can figure out it is put together.

      日本語が分かる人が一番少ない国はカナダです。 (Note: I don’t think is true, I just guessed a random country (: )

      Let me know if my explanation helped or if you have any further questions.

      1. bugman123

        Wow, thanks for the help. I understand now. Makes perfect sense!


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