Verb Tenses

Verbs are words that tell us about an action (run, dance, eat), an occurrence (become, change, happen) or a state of being (like, seem, be).

Unlike in English, Japanese often omits the subject of a sentence (the person doing the verb). This means that it can be both natural and correct to have a sentence consisting only of a verb.

The three types of Japanese verbs

Japanese verbs always end with a sound that includes the vowel う, such as: す、く、ぐ、ぶ、む、ぬ、る、つ or even う itself.

From this we get three categories:

  • Type 1 (う) verbs, which always end in a mora that includes う
  • Type 2 (る) verbs, which always end in an える or いる sound
  • Two irregular verbs
Type 1 (う) verbsType 2 (る) verbsIrregular verbs
話す(はなす・ to talk食べる (たべる・to eatする (to do)
聞く (きく・to listen消える (きえる・to disappear)来る (くる・to come)
泳ぐ (およぐ)to swim落ちる (おちる・to fall)
呼ぶ (よぶ・to call見る (みる・to see/look
飲む (のむ・to drink)寝る (ねる・to sleep
死ぬ (しぬ・to die答える (こたえる・to answer)
作る (つくる・to make)出る (でる・to leave)
待つ (まつ・to wait)始める (はじめる・to begin)
払う (はらう・to pay)決める (きめる・to decide)

The copula “to be”

A copula links the subject of a sentence to the rest of the sentence. In English, this is accomplished via the word to be. Although the particle は might seem to translate to is/am/are, especially in simple sentences, the Japanese copula is actually だ・です.

FormCasualPolite
Non-pastです
Pastだったでした
Non-past negative(では・じゃ)ない(では・じゃ)ありません
(では・じゃ)ないです
Past negative(では・じゃ)なかった(では・じゃ)ありませんでした
Te-formN/A
Volitionalだろうでしょう

これはメロンパン! This is melon bread!
子供だった春田は立派な大人になった。The child that was Haruta became a fine adult.
いや、正解はBじゃないです。No, the correct answer is not B.

Verbal inflections

Verbs in Japanese are very flexible. Each verb has several different stackable forms which communicate information such as:

  1. tense
  2. polarity ( do vs do not )
  3. honorifics/politeness ( yes vs yes, sir )
  4. verbal voice ( eat vs be eaten )
  5. verbal transitivity (I open the door vs the door opens)
  6. verbal mood ( eat vs can eat vs could eat vs would eat vs should eat vs eat! ... )
  7. others ( eat vs want to eat vs while eating…)

Verb Tenses

There are only two tenses in Japanese: past and non-past. In other words, Japanese verbs tell you whether something has happened or not.

Simple non-past tense

The simple non-past tense shows that a given action is not yet done. Time words and other grammar are used to show whether an action is happening now, soon or at some other point in the future.

I eat a banana. 私はバナナを食べる
He is going to Tokyo today. 彼は今日東京に行く
He will go to Tokyo next year. 彼は来年東京に行く

Type 1 (う) verbsType 2 (る) verbsIrregular verbs
話す 食べるする
聞く 消える 来る
泳ぐ落ちる
呼ぶ見る
飲む寝る
死ぬ答える
作る 出る
待つ始める
払う 決める

Simple past tense

The simple past tense shows that a given action is already done; it happened.

Type 1 verbs: See chart.
Type 2 verbs: Replace る with た.

I ate a banana. (私は)バナナを食べ
He went to Tokyo. 彼は東京に行っ
Leaves fell to the ground. 木の葉が地面に落ちた

Type 1 (う) verbsType 2 (る) verbsIrregular verbs
話す ー 話した食べる ー 食べたする ー した
聞く ー 聞いた消える ー 消えた来る ー 来た(きた)
泳ぐ ー 泳いだ落ちる ー 落ちた
呼ぶ ー 読んだ見る ー 見た
飲む ー 飲んだ寝る ー 寝た
死ぬ ー 死んだ答える ー 答えた
作る ー 作った出る ー 出た
待つ ー 待った始める ー 始めた
払う ー 払った決める ー 決めた

Progressive tense

The Japanese progressive tense has two main purposes. It can show that:

  1. An action itself is ongoing (similar to “to be + [verb]~ing”)
  2. A certain state has come about as the result of an action and that this resultant state is ongoing/persistent.

To use this tense, add いる to the て form of a verb.

I am eating a banana. 私はバナナを食べている
I am fat. 私は太っている
I became and am, currently, fat. I am in the state of being fat.
*Leaves are (laying on) the ground. 木の葉が地面に落ちている
{% trans "* Note the simple past sentence where leaves fell to the ground. This previous sentence referred to the action of falling, whereas this one refers not to the action of falling itself but rather the result of that falling: the persistent state that is “lying on the floor”. Having fallen, the leaves are thus currently on the ground. " %}

Type 1 (う) verbsType 2 (る) verbsIrregular verbs
話す ー 話している食べる ー 食べているする ー している
聞く ー 聞いている消える ー 消えている来る ー 来ている(きている)
泳ぐ ー 泳いでいる落ちる ー 落ちている
呼ぶ ー 読んでいる見る ー 見ている
飲む ー 飲んでいる寝る ー 寝ている
死ぬ ー 死んでいる答える ー 答えている
作る ー 作っている出る ー 出ている
待つ ー 待っている始める ー 始めている
払う ー 払っている決める ー 決めている

Polarity

Japanese does not use a separate word ( do eat vs do not eat ) to say whether an action happens or not. It instead employs one verb form to show that an action happens and another to show that an action does not happen.

I eat a banana. 私はバナナを食べる。
He went to Tokyo. 彼は東京に行った。
I am fat. 私は太っている

Verbal negation

If a verb is in the negative form then it does not take place..

Type 1 verbs: add ~ない to the 未然形 (みぜんけい)verb stem. This stem ends with ~あ.
Type 2 verbs: replace ~る with ~ない.

Type 1 (う) verbsType 2 (る) verbsIrregular verbs
話す ー 話ない食べる ー 食べないする ー しない
聞く ー 聞ない消える ー 消えない来る ー 来ない(こない)
泳ぐ ー 泳ない落ちる ー 落ちない
呼ぶ ー 読ない見る ー 見ない
飲む ー 飲ない寝る ー 寝ない
死ぬ ー 死ない答える ー 答えない
作る ー 作ない出る ー 出ない
待つ ー 待ない始める ー 始めない
払う ー 払ない決める ー 決めない

To create the negative form of past tense verbs, replace ない with なかった.

I didn’t eat a banana. 私はバナナを食べなかった。
He didn’t go to Tokyo. 彼は東京に行かなかった。
I was not fat. 私は太っていなかった。

Honorifics

Just as Japanese verbs change to show tense, they also change depending on the social status of the person you’re talking to. Physically different language is typically required to communicate the exact same information to a professor versus a classmate.

There are three broad categories of respectful language: polite language, language that raises the status of the person you’re talking to and language that lowers your own personal status.

Polite speech (~ます・丁寧語)

Using the teineigo (丁寧語) form of verbs gives your speech a polite and civil-sounding tone. It is generally used with strangers and people who are older than you and/or of a higher social status. It is typically not used with friends.

Type 1 verbs: Add ~ます to the 連用形(れんようけい)verb stem. This stem ends with ~い.
Type 2 verbs: Replace ~る with ~ます.

Type 1 (う) verbsType 2 (る) verbsIrregular verbs
話す ー 話ます食べる - 食べますする ー します
聞く ー 聞ます消える ー 消えます来る ー 来ます(きます
泳ぐ - 泳ます落ちる ー 落ちます
呼ぶ -呼ます見る ― 見ます
飲む - 飲ます寝る ー 寝ます
死ぬ - 死ます答える ー 答えます
作る - 作ます出る ー 出ます
待つ - 待ます始める ー 始めます
払う - 払ます決める ー決めます

There isn’t a difference in meaning so much as a difference in feeling.

それ、食べるの? You’ gonna eat that?
それ、食べますか?Are you going to eat that?
To create the past tense polite form, replace ~ます with ~ました.
To create the negative polite form, replace ~ます with ~ません.
To create the negative past polite form, replace ~ます with ~ませんでした

Respectful speech (尊敬語)

Respectful speech is used when talking about the actions of someone in a higher status than you or the group you represent ー perhaps someone older than you, your boss or a customer/client. Most verbs follow a simple rule to become respectful:

Statements: お (polite prefix) + the ~ます stem of a verb + adverbial copula に + なる
Commands: お (polite prefix) + the ~ます stem of a verb + ください

こちらの資料をご覧になりますか?Would you take a look at these documents, please?
少々お待ちください。Please wait a little bit.
社長はもう新入社員にお会いになりましたか Has the manager already met the new recruits?

The passive form of a verb may also be used in place of the above structures.
Furthermore, a number of verbs have special respectful forms that must be memorized.

Dictionary form of verbRespectful form of verb
行くいらっしゃる
来るいらっしゃる
いるいらっしゃる
食べる、飲む召し上がる (めしあがる)
言うおっしゃる
見るご覧になる(ごらんになる)
知るご存じだ
言う申す(もうす)
するなさる、される

Humble speech (謙譲語)

Humble speech is used when talking about your own actions, or the actions of a group you are a part of, to someone of a higher status ー perhaps your boss or a customer/client. Most verbs follow a simple rule to become humble:

(polite prefix) + the ~ます stem of a verb + します・しましょう

荷物をお持ちましょうか? May I take/carry your bags?
弊社のパンフレットをお送りします。I will send you our company’s pamphlet.
それでは、発表させていただきたいと思います。With that, I’d like to begin my presentation.

Alternative structures are sometimes employed, as in the third example sentence.
Again, a number of verbs have special humble forms that must be memorized.

Dictionary form of verbHumble form of verb
行く参る(まいる
来る参る
いるおる
食べるいただく
飲むいただく
聞く伺う(うかがう)
見る拝見する(はいけんする)
会う ー to meetお目にかかる(おめにかかる)
言う申す(もうす)
するいたす
知る ー to know存じる(ぞんじる)
あげる ー to give 差し上げる(さしあげる)
もらう ー to receiveいただく
わかる ー to understandかしこまる

Voice

Grammatical voice shows how the subject of a sentence is related to the verb. Different voices are used when the subject does the verb (it eats), when the subject has the verb done to them (it is eaten) and when the subject is made to do the verb (it is made/allowed to eat).

Active voice

Verbs are things that are “done” and the active voice is used when the subject of a sentence is the one who does it. Sentences in the active voice are very direct and make it explicit exactly who performs a given action.

Because the subject performs an action on something, we mark this “something” with the direct object marker を.

はバナナを食べている。I am eating a banana.
は家を建てた。He built a house.
私の弟は猫の尾を踏んだ。My little brother stepped on the cat’s tail.

Passive voice

The passive voice is used when the subject of a sentence does not personally “do” the verb but rather has the verb “done” to them - X is Y’d. Because what is done is more important than who does it, the subject does not need to be stated in passive sentences. This voice is more indirect than its active counterpart and can sometimes seem vague or wordy.

Just as English uses “by” to show who performed the action in question, Japanese uses に. When changing from an active to a passive sentence, を becomes は and は becomes に.

バナナを食べた。I ate the banana.
→ バナナは私食べられた。The banana was eaten by me.
→ バナナは食べられた。The banana was eaten.

この家は約100年前に建てられた。This house was built about 100 years ago.
* No subject is mentioned; we either don’t know or don’t care who built this house.
What is important is that the house was built and it is here.

The Sufferer Passive

The passive voice in Japanese works much like in English but has a further dimension, referred to as「迷惑の受け身」or the “sufferer passive”. As the word “sufferer” suggests, the passive voice in Japanese often conveys a nuance that you were negatively affected - caused to suffer - by the action in question.

猫の尾は私の弟に踏まれた。The cat’s tail was stepped on by my little brother
* Note how “my little brother” and “the cat’s tail” swap places.
It’s obvious that the cat, upon having it’s tail stepped on, suffered.
(私は) 彼に殴られた。I was hit by him.
{% trans "Although it wouldn’t be grammatically incorrect to use the active 彼は私を殴った (he hit me), a Japanese person would probably use the passive case here and in similar situations. The active voice sounds indifferent -- it’s merely a statement -- but in this case, you are probably not indifferent. You were hit, you suffered from being hit, and will emphasize/communicate this suffering by using the “sufferer’s” passive voice. " %}

奥さんに死なれて悲嘆に暮れている。 My wife died and my heart is broken.

{% trans "* Why is the english translation in the active voice if the Japanese verb is passive? That’s because “to die” is an intransitive verb and, in English, intransitive verbs can’t be passive. This is a good example of 迷惑の受け身 - placing 死ぬ in the passive form changes this from an objective statement into one that emphasizes the fact that you suffered as a result of the action: “I was died on by my wife and I’m suffering”. " %}

Type 1 verbs: Replace ~る with ~られる
Type 2 verbs: Add ~れる to the 未然形 verb stem. Just as with ない、this stem ends in ~あ.

Type 1 (う) verbsType 2 (る) verbsIrregular verbs
話す ー 話れる食べる ー 食べられるする ー される
聞く ー 聞れる*消える ー 消えられる来る ー 来られる(こられる)
泳ぐ ー 泳れる*落ちる ー 落ちられる
呼ぶ ー 読れる見る ー 見られる
飲む ー 飲れる*寝る ー 寝られる
*死ぬ ー 死れる答える ー 答えられる
作る ー 作れる出る ー 出られる
待つ ー 待れる始める ー 始められる
払う ー 払れる決める ー 決められる

* These words are a little complicated, so let’s look at them one by one.

死ぬ・消える・寝る are intransitive verbs. Intransitive verbs can not have an object, meaning they can not have a passive tense. The object of an active sentence becomes the subject of a passive one. We would not say I was died, I was disappeared or I was slept in English.

消える・寝る can not exist in the passive form. That being said, verbs can take ~られる to create a respectful or potential (able to…) form.

待たれる means something like “await” in English. (何かの)完成が待たれる carries a feeling of “looking forward to”; you’re (eagerly) awaiting the completion of something.

Causative voice

The causative voice is used when one thing is made or allowed to do something - to make X to Y. Japanese doesn’t distinguish between make/let as English does, but if someone is being allowed to do something, the causative form of a verb does tend to be followed by 「あげる」or「くれる」, a pair of verbs meaning “to give”.

Causative sentences look like this:

Commander Commandeeを 未然形(みぜんけい)stem verb + (さ)せる。
→ If the commandee is made to do something, this something is marked with を and the commandee instead takes に.

今日、仕事を休ませてくれました。( I ) was allowed to take the day off (by my boss).
→ It’s omitted, but there is an understood 社長私に here.

料理をしたくなかったので、私夫にピザを食べさせた。
I made/let my husband eat pizza because I didn’t want to cook.
→ If he’s happy to eat pizza, let. If he’s unhappy to eat pizza, made.

オオカミの遠吠え背筋を凍らせた。The wolf’s howl sent a shiver down my spine.
→ The commander doesn’t need to be a person; it can be a situation, too.
子供たちを椅子に座らせた。I made the children sit down (on their chairs).

Type 1 verbs: Add ~せる to the 未然形 verb stem. Just as with ない、this stem ends in ~あ.
Type 2 verbs: Replace ~る with ~させる.

Type 1 (う) verbsType 2 (る) verbsIrregular verbs
話す ー 話せる食べる ー 食べさせるする ー させる
聞く ー 聞せる*消える ー 消えさせる来る ー 来される(こされる)
泳ぐ ー 泳せる*落ちる ー 落ちさせる
呼ぶ ー 読せる見る ー 見させる
飲む ー 飲せる*寝る ー 寝させる
*死ぬ ー 死せる答える ー 答えさせる
作る ー 作せる出る ー 出させる
待つ ー 待せる始める ー 始めさせる
払う ー 払せる決める ー 決めさせる

Causative-Passive voice

The causative-passive voice is a mix of the causative and passive voice and means “to be made to do something”. This can be seen as an inversion of a causative sentence: He made me sing (causative) vs I was made to sing by him (causative-passive). Inverting the sentence like this changes the focus from the commander to the commandee. These sentences tend to carry a negative feeling. If you were made to do something then it means that you didn’t want to do it on your own accord.

Commandee Commanderに 未然形-stem verb + (さ)せられる / される

( 私は ) 先輩に蛙にキスさせられた。I was made to kiss a frog by my senpai.
学生たちはコーチに走らせられた。The students were made to run by the coach.
同僚の田中さんは社長に待たされた。My colleague, Tanaka, was made to wait by the boss.
→ 待たされた is an abbreviated version of 待たせられた。

Type 1 verbs: Add ~せられれる to the 未然形 verb stem. This stem ends in ~あ.
Type 2 verbs: Replace ~る with ~させられる.

Type 1 (う) verbsType 2 (る) verbsIrregular verbs
話す ー 話させられる食べる ー 食べさせられるする ー させられる
聞く ー 聞かせられる消える ー 消えさせられる来る ー 来されられる
(こされられる)
泳ぐ ー 泳がせられる落ちる ー 落ちさせられる
呼ぶ ー 読ませられる見る ー 見させられる
飲む ー 飲ませられる寝る ー 寝させられる
死ぬ ー 死なせられる答える ー 答えさせられる
作る ー 作らせられる出る ー 出させられる
待つ ー 待たせられる始める ー 始めさせられる
払う ー 払わせられる決める ー 決めさせられる