An interesting Japanese expression about hunger

By | August 1, 2022

Learning useful day-to-day expressions is often one of the first priorities of a student of a foreign language, and being able to express being hungry (something which should happen to everyone daily) is pretty high on that list.

The typical way we learn to express hunger is お腹が空く (onaka ga suku), which literally means “the stomach becomes empty”. Let’s look at an example sentence:

  • 朝の10時になるといつもお腹が空くんだよね。。。 (asa no juuji ni naru to itsumo onaka ga suku n da yo ne…)
  • At 10 am I always get hungry, you know?

The above example talks about how someone becomes hungry under a certain condition. To describe being hungry, you can use either the past tense (お腹が空いた [onaka ga suita] ) or the “-te iru” form (お腹が空いている [onaka ga suite iru), where the second focuses more on the ongoing state of being hungry.

Now in this post I wanted to focus on a related expression that is also commonly used to express hunger. Let’s look at an example sentence:

  • 子供がお腹を空かせましたのでレストランに寄っていきました (kodomo ga onaka o sukasemashita node resutoran ni yotte ikimashita.)

At first, this expression seems a bit strange. Not only are we now using the “o” (“wo”) particle that indicates the object of a transitive verb, but the verb is (空かせる)“sukaseru”, which happens to be the causative form. Literally, this means “to make or let something become empty”. So if we translate the entire sentence literally we get:

  • (My) child made his stomach empty, so I/we stopped by a restaurant.

So what is going on here? As is often the case when learning a language, actual meaning is not the same as literal meaning. Most of the time, you can interpret this as simply meaning “to get hungry”, which yields a simple translation of:

  • (My) child got hungry, so I/we stopped by a restaurant.

The real question though is when to use this versus the typical “onaka ga suku” that we talked about above. After checking with a few native speakers, the main nuance here is that “onaka o sukaseru” is usually used with other people, and “onaka ga suku” is usually used for oneself. 

But there is a little more to it. In casual conversation, “onaka (ga) suku” is going to be more common. So even if you are talking about another person, you would say: (note “ga” is omitted because it is casual language and it is not needed in this case)

  • お腹すいた? (Onaka suita?)
  • Are you hungry?

Using “sukaseru” for this scenario just sounds weird.

Conversely, when talking about a more formal situation, perhaps a children’s story or something like that, “sukaseru” is more commonly used. For example:

  • 森に行くとお腹を空かせた鹿がいました。 (mori ni iku to, onaka wo sukaseta shika ga imashita)
  • When I/we went to the forest, there was a hungry deer.

Using “onaka wo sukaeru” as an adjectival (describing) phrase is actually the most common way I have seen or heard this used.

Although I mentioned earlier that you can generally interpret “onaka wo sukaseru” as meaning “to get hungry”, it’s good to keep in mind the literal meaning of “to make one’s stomach empty”. Here is one example where this literal meaning is more relevant:

  • 子供たちがたくさん運動をしてお腹を空かせました。 (kodomotachi ga takusan undou wo shite, onaka wo sukasemashita)

Understanding this sentence as “The children did a lot of exercise and got hungry” is OK, but the underlying nuance here is that the exercise caused them to get hungry, essentially that the children made themselves hungry by exercising. 

While we are talking about ways to express hungry, an even more casual expression is 腹が減る (hara ga heru), which literally means “the stomach decreases” (though you should treat this as a special meaning that is somewhat apart from the literal meaning). Keep in mind that this expression has a bit of a rough or crude tone, so if you are not sure if it is safe, I would generally recommend sticking with “onaka (ga) suku”. 

Finally, hunger as a noun can be expressed using the word 食欲 (shokuyoku), which refers more to the desire to eat food (as in “appetite”). The word 空腹 (kuufuku) means “empty stomach”, and 満腹 (manpuku) means “full stomach”.

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