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。
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.