The Japanese Future Tense, or How to Fake It

Forget the laws of physics and let’s travel to the future using the power of words!

We can travel to the future with a single sentence, all thanks to the future tense—take that, Albert!

But maybe you’ve heard that there’s no Japanese future tense at all.

Let’s find out if we can even travel to the future in Japanese!


Does Japanese Have a Future Tense?

How do you go to the future if there is no future?

Actually, you already do it every day.

Tenses change verbs to imply the time, duration and end of an action. For example, here’s an English verb with a few of its conjugations:

to go → went, had gone, going, will go

Wait a minute, that last tense didn’t get conjugated, it just got a helping verb attached to it. What’s going on? The fact is, just like Japanese, English doesn’t have a real future tense. Instead, Japanese and English both categorize their tenses as “past” and “non-past.” 

Then, how do you speak about the future? How do you make it clear that you’re talking about things that haven’t happened yet and not about the present?

It’s pretty simple, actually: You need to imply it. You need to make a sentence which cannot be mistaken for anything other than a future-tense sentence. This post will show you how to do that!

The Japanese Future Tense, or How to Fake It

There are a few methods for forming the Japanese future tense. You can do it through context, using time words or through some special grammatical constructions.

Naturally, you can also use all the methods in one sentence. I’m not your mom, I can’t tell you what to do!

Forming the Japanese Future Tense with Context

Forming a future tense sentence via context means creating a sentence which implies that its action is set in the future.

Enough with the talk, let’s get to work, shall we? Everything will clear up once we see some examples, first using formal and then informal speech.

(この しゃつは きれい なので、かいます。)
This shirt is pretty so I’ll buy it.

You might be saying, “but that sentence could also be translated as present tense!” Sure it can, but will it make sense? You’re either buying something right now or you’ll buy it in the future (or you bought it already, but the past is irrelevant here since it has a clear form).

Would you really say “this shirt is pretty so I buy it” in English? Not if you were born in the past 5,000 years or so. It would just sound plain weird.

And so, through context, we can deduce that this sentence is using the future tense!

(じゅうぶんな おかねが あれば、ふらんすへ りょこうします。)
If I have enough money, I’ll travel to France.

Once again, this sentence implies your future intentions. You can try translating it into the present tense again, but it doesn’t make any sense: “If I have enough money, I travel to France.” Does that sound right to you? No it doesn’t, my friend. Future tense it is, then.

(かのじょに こくはく します。)
I’ll confess my love to her.

You can’t say this sentence could be translated in the present tense this time. Would you seriously be talking to a different person while you confess your love to a girl? Maybe Naruto could, since he can make clones of himself… but I think he probably doesn’t read these posts. (Or do you, mister Uzumaki?)

(ぼくは はいゆうに なります。)
I’ll become an actor.

And with the flip of a switch, I become an actor! But seriously, you can’t become something instantly. This one’s definitely in the future tense!

Let’s move on to the informal talk. This time, we’ll be using the same examples as we used in the formal part, just so we don’t stir up some confusion by accident.

(この しゃつは きれい なので、かう。)
This shirt is pretty so I’ll buy it.

(じゅうぶんな おかねが あれば、ふらんすへ りょこうする。)
If I have enough money, I’ll travel to France.

(かのじょに こくはく する。)
I’ll confess my love to her.

(ぼくは はいゆうに なる。)
I’ll become an actor.

This method works only if you have enough context to decide if a sentence is in the present or future tense. Take this sentence, for instance:

(だいがくへ いきます。)
I’ll go to college. / I go to college.

This statement is vague since you might mean that you plan to go to college or you might just be stating that you currently attend college. Make sure to always include enough context so listeners know what you mean!

Forming the Japanese Future Tense with Time Words

The other method of forming the Japanese future tense is to simply add a time word or phrase. This is easy to see in an example:

(あしたは、らーめんを たべます。)
I’ll eat ramen tomorrow.

Just by adding the word “tomorrow,” you take what could’ve been a vague sentence and place it firmly in the future. Here’s another example:

(らいねん、そつぎょう します。)
I’ll graduate next year.

Next year is definitely in the future and this sentence is definitely future tense. No confusion here!

You can also place the action forward in time through context, instead of using a specific time:

(しごとの あとで いざかやへ いきます。)
After work, I’ll go to an izakaya.

Going to an izakaya is set in the future thanks to the context that it’ll happen “after work.”

Here are the examples using informal speech:

(あしたは、らーめんを たべる。)
I’ll eat ramen tomorrow.

(しごとの あとで いざかやへ いく。)
After work, I’ll go to an izakaya.

I’ll graduate next year.

Forming the Japanese Future Tense with に

If relying on context isn’t specific enough for you, there are also some simple grammatical constructions you can use. The first one’s made by placing に between two verbs. The other one’s formed with つもり at the end of a sentence.

Let’s start with the first one. This construction indicates a future intention. It’s made by taking a verb in its -masu form, adding に after it and then adding a verb again after that particle.

Examples will clear everything up, as always:

(ははを てつだいに いきます。)
I’ll go and help mom.

The speaker has an intention to help his mother, which is why he’ll go to her.

(ともだちが べんきょうしに きます。)
My friend will come to study.

Your friend’s intention is to study, and that’s why he’ll come.

(きゃばくらへ のみに いきます。)
I’ll go to the cabaret to drink.

As you can see, this form takes all the potential confusion out of stating future intentions.

Here are the same examples in informal Japanese this time:

(ははを てつだいに いく。)
I’ll go and help mom.

(ともだちが べんきょうしに くる。)
My friend will come to study.

(きゃばくらへ のみに いく。)
I’ll go to the cabaret to drink.

Be careful when using this construction not to mix in the past tense. For example:

* 友達が勉強しに来た。
(ともだちが べんきょうしに きた。)
My friend came to study.

Whoa there, that can’t be future tense. It’s in the past form so you blew it. Don’t put verbs in past tense if you want to talk about the future. Other than that, you should be good to go!

Forming the Japanese Future Tense with つもり

The つもり method has basically the same meaning—depiction of intention—but it’s constructed a bit differently.

It’s pretty complicated and hard to understand, so stay focused. Ready? Here it is: You construct it by putting つもり at the end of a sentence.

Oh, did I say it’s difficult? I meant ridiculously easy, sorry. As a bonus, the formal and informal versions are practically the same, with the formal taking です at the end.

(うみへ いく つもり です。)
I plan to go to the sea.

There’s really nothing more to it, so here are some more examples:

(むらかみ りゅうの ほんを よむ つもり です。)
I intend to read Ryuu Murakami’s book.

(かれーを つくる つもり です。)
I plan to prepare curry.

Just remember not to use the formal conjugation of a verb, like in this incorrect example:

* 本を買いますつもり。
(ほんを かいます つもり。)
I plan to buy a book.

This is wrong! The correct sentence would say:

(ほんを かう つもり です。)
I plan to buy a book.

We won’t write out the informal versions because they’re the same just without です at the end. Simple!


Languages have always been and always will be the best means of discussing the past, present and future. After all, that’s the core of language, along with its power of connecting people.

Now you can travel into the future with the Japanese language!

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