Actually, Japanese has future tense! Kind of…

Studying Chinese got me thinking about tense recently and how it’s expressed in different languages. That’s when I realized my concept of present tense was over-simplified and that yes, future tense does exist in Japanese… in a way.

At first glance, the idea of tenses seem very simple. You have past, present, and future to describe when something happens well… in the past, present, and future. However, if you think about it, present tense cannot exist as a single point in time because it is changing every minute, second, millisecond, ad infinitum. In other words, you can say, “I ate yesterday.” and “I will eat tomorrow.” but you cannot say, “I eat now.” because by the time you are finished saying it, that present is already in the past and the future is already the present. The only way you can talk about anything close to the present tense is by defining a span of time that started in the past and is continuing into the future. That is why you would say, “I am eating now.” instead. But that is the present progressive or the gerund of the verb. Hence, my original concept of the three tenses being, “ate”, “eat”, and “will eat” was oversimplified.

So I looked up what is considered present tense in English and found this very informative page about simple present with time lines for different cases. Let’s look at how they translate into Japanese.

USE 1 Repeated Actions

This case represents a repeated action not in any specific time frame. There is no specific information on when these repeated actions occur, which is exactly the same as the plain verb form in Japanese.

I play tennis. – テニスをする。

USE 2 Facts or Generalizations

This case represents a fact that is continuously true. There is no specific information on the time period the statement purports to be true. Again, exactly the same as the plain verb form in Japanese.

California is in America. – カリフォルニアはアメリカにある。

USE 3 Scheduled Events in the Near Future

Scheduled events in the future are expressed in simple present in English exactly the same as Japanese

The party starts at 8 o’clock. – パーティは8時に始まる。

USE 4 Now (Non-Continuous Verbs)

This case is a bit tricky because the English verb “to have” is a continuous state disguised as a non-continuous verb. In Japanese, this is always a continuous state of holding something or 「持っている」. But besides this special case, most examples are again exactly the same.

Do you have your passport with you? – パスポートを持っている?
I am here now. – 今ここにいる。

Conclusion

If you consider the fact that the present tense in the sense of an action happening exactly at the present point in time really does not exist in either English or Japanese, this opens up a whole new way of thinking. What does present tense mean and how is it expressed in each case? Is it so strange that Japanese has one more case where the plain form also expresses all future actions? Especially since the plain form is used to express so many different time frames same as the present tense in English. As USE 3 shows, even English uses the present tense for future events in some situations.

Grammatically, Japanese does not have a future tense in the sense of a verb form reserved strictly for the future. However, that’s because the whole idea of present tense is ambiguous. It’s more accurate to say there is no present tense and the plain form is the future tense in addition to other usages. What we commonly think of the present tense as expressing what’s happening now is really the present progressive which Japanese clearly has in the 「~ている」 form.

8 thoughts on “Actually, Japanese has future tense! Kind of…

  1. Ooh, that’s insightful. I think that’s a great idea to map spans of time to verb forms. Much, much more useful than “Japanese has no future tense”.

    It makes so much sense! We don’t think in tenses, we think in terms of time. Rather than counting tenses in different languages, compare descriptions of time.

    Good stuff.

  2. As a Dutch speaker it is not at all so strange that the future tense doesn’t exist in Japanese. Here is why.
    Formally in Dutch there is a present tense and a future tense. But the future tense, similar to English, is actually being phased out.
    An example:
    I will come tomorrow.
    Ik zal morgen komen. ‘I will tomorrow come’.

    But what people actually say is:
    Ik kom morgen. ‘I come tomorrow’.

    As in Japanese you use the simple present for future actions as well, besides your USE1-2-3.

  3. good post.. when i started learning japanese, i always had this problem.
    I have my passport – 私はパスポトを持っている。
    but motte iru means having,
    so does that mean, i am having my passport!!
    so i used to make the mistake of saying パスポトがあります。

    • I know this was years ago, so it’s probably a little strange to mention it NOW, but ‘motte iru’ is the present tense. It means to ‘have’ at that moment, so it could be translated as HAVE or HAVING. That would translate the sentence (you were using) like this: ‘I’ – ‘passport’ – ‘have’ ~ ‘Motte iru’ is just the informal, or as some of them would say, rude way of saying MOTTE IMASU.

  4. Good job thinking cross-linguistically, but you made a few over-generalizations. Let me at least give you one thing to chew on:

    “If you consider the fact that the present tense in the sense of an action happening exactly at the present point in time really does not exist in either English…”

    Not true. There is a class of verbs known as “performatives.” These verbs, rather than describe events, are events unto themselves. These are pretty clear-cut instances of a punctual present tense interpretation. Examples:
    “I apologize for my behavior.”
    “I swear I do not know the man.”

  5. This remembers me to what Susumu Kuno was saying in “The Structure of Japanese Language” (1973), when he referred to the affirmative form of non-stative verbs as the future tense rather than the present and said in a footnote the same would apply to English as well.

  6. You are confusing with .
    All the English sentences you mentioned has as a kind of grammatical category, but each sentence is used as means to expressing various time references.

    In conclusion, there is no future tense in Japanese but it does not deny that Japanese has some linguistic means to expressing, talking about future time.

    For more details on the concept of grammatical tense , refer to by Randolph Quirk et al, or by Rodney Huddleston et al.

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