Japanese past and present tenses

Mastering the Japanese Past and Present Tenses: A Guide for Ichidan and Godan Verbs

Mastering the present and past tenses in Japanese is the stepping stone to having actual conversations.

But, besides learning how to conjugate godan and ichidan verbs in the present and past tense, you’ll also need to learn the different formalities to avoid a social faux pas!

Worry not! This post will give you a solid introduction to using the Japanese present and past tenses in both formal and informal speech.


Formal Japanese Present Tense

Ichidan Verbs

Ichidan verbs, also known as “Group 2 verbs,” are verbs that end in the syllable いる (-iru) or える (-eru) in their dictionary form.

Constructing the present tense with ichidan verbs is quite simple. Just remove the last syllable and add ます (-masu) or ません (-masen) for the negative form:

寝る (ねる)→ 寝ます (ねます)— To sleep

煮る (にる)→ 煮ます (にます)— To cook

捨てる (すてる)→ 捨てません (すてません)— (Negative) to throw

Here’s an example:

佳代子は御飯を食べます。 (かよこはごはんをたべます。)— Kayoko eats rice.

Wait a second. You may be wondering why the translation here isn’t “Kayoko is eating rice” since it’s in the perfect tense. But think about it: In English, when you say something in the present tense, you’re making a general statement rather than stating a current action (think “I drink tea” versus “I’m drinking tea”).

In Japanese, the rules are a little less rigid and you could actually translate the example sentence as “Kayoko is eating rice.” However, since we’ll be showing you how to build a continuous form later in this post, we’re making the difference between the two clearly visible from the start.

When you use the continuous form in Japanese, then you’re clearly pointing out that something lasts longer.

However, when you use the plain present tense, then that action is usually somewhat short lasting. Our friend Kayoko is eating rice but it’ll be over soon. If she’s seriously taking her time eating that rice and you wanted to bring attention to that fact, you’d use the continuous form.

Don’t worry about this too much right now, as it’ll all become clear later on in this post!

Having said that, all further examples will be translated to make the difference clear. Now let’s continue with the examples:

彼は父親に似ます。 (かれはちちおやににます。)— He looks like his father.

問題を見ません。 (もんだいをみません。)— I don’t see the problem.

今日は、先生が居ません。 (きょうはせんせいがいません。)— The teacher isn’t here today.

Remember to remove the last syllable before adding ます or ません at the end!

Godan Verbs

Godan verbs are known as “Group 1 verbs,” and they end in any other syllable besides いる (-iru) or える (-eru) in their dictionary form.

Godan verbs are just a little bit more complex to work with. To form the formal present tense, you transform that last syllable so it ends with an い (i), then add ます (-masu) or ません (-masen) for negations.

In other words, る(ru) becomes り(ri),(mu) becomes み (mi),(su) becomes し(shi) and so on.

Here are some examples:

泳ぐ (およぐ)→ 泳ぎます (およぎます)— To swim

書く (かく)→ 書きます (かきます)— To write

持つ (もつ)→ 持ちません (もちません)— (Negative) to carry

And here they are in use:

和夫は本を読みます。 (かずおはほんをよみます。)— Kazuo reads a book.

私は犬を飼います。 (わたしはいぬをかいます。)— I keep a dog.

何も聞きません。 (なにもききません。)— I don’t hear anything.

本当に知りません。 (ほんとうにしりません。)— I really don’t know.

That last verb ends with a る syllable but, as you can see, it’s a godan verb. There are quite a few verbs like that out there so keep that in mind!

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Informal Japanese Present Tense

Ichidan Verbs

This is a tough one. In order to conjugate ichidan verbs in the informal present tense, you need to… do nothing. I fooled you there, didn’t I?

That’s right: informal present tense ichidan verbs are completely unchanged.

There’s a small step to form the negative: remove the last syllable and add ない (-nai).

伝える (つたえる)→ 伝えない (つたえない)— (Negative) to transmit

勤める (つとめる)→ 勤めない (つとめない)— (Negative) to work

数える (かぞえる)→ 数えない (かぞえない)— (Negative) to count

Here they are in use:

雀の鳴き声がよく聴こえる。 (すずめのなきごえがよくきこえる。)— The sparrow’s cry can be heard well.

運転出来る。 (うんてんできる。)— I can drive.

質問に答えない。 (しつもんにこたえない。)— I won’t answer the question.

あのりんごは木から落ちない。 (あのりんごはきからおちない。)— That apple won’t fall from the tree.

Pretty simple!

Godan Verbs

Godan verbs, like ichidan verbs, also don’t change in the informal present tense.

The negative form is built by changing the last syllable to end with an a, then add ない (-nai). In other words, る (ru) becomes ら (ra),(ku) becomes か (ka),(tsu) becomes た (ta) and so on.

撮る (とる)→ 撮らない (とらない)— (Negative) to capture a photo or a video

作る (つくる)→ 作らない (つくらない)— (Negative) to create, to prepare

踊る (おどる)→ 踊らない (おどらない)— (Negative) to dance

Here are some examples:

僕はプールで泳ぐ。 (ぼくはぷうるでおよぐ。)— I swim at the pool.

光はギターを弾く。 (ひかりはぎたあをひく。)— Hikari plays the guitar.

ビールを飲まない。 (びいるをのまない。)— I don’t drink beer.

春奈は宝飾を買わない。 (はるなはほうしょくをかわない。)— Haruna doesn’t buy jewelry.

Formal Present Continuous Form

Ichidan Verbs

The continuous form of the present tense represents an ongoing action with a prolonged duration.

To make the formal continuous form for ichidan verbsis, you add ています (-teimasu) and ていません (-teimasen) for negations.

Remember the example sentence from earlier? Here it is again in the continuous form:

佳代子は御飯を食べています。 (かよこはごはんをたべています。)— Kayoko is eating rice.

By using the continuous form this time, you’re pointing out that the action lasts for a while. Maybe you’re waiting for Kayoko to finish her food so you can order dessert or maybe someone asked if they could speak to her but you want to let them know that she’s busy.

Here are a few more examples:

犬が私の顔をなめています。 (いぬがわたしのかおをなめています。)— My dog is licking my face.

あなたはこれを見ていますか? (あなたはこれをみていますか?)— Are you seeing this?

なんでゴミ捨てないのですか? (なんで ごみすて ない のですか??)— Why aren’t you throwing out the trash?

Godan Verbs

In order to create the continuous present form with godan verbs, you’ll have to transform their last syllable by following these rules:

  • Verbs ending with つ (tsu),(u),(ru) change to a っ (small tsu) syllable.
  • Verbs ending with む (mu), ぬ (nu),(bu) change to a (n) syllable.
  • Verbs ending with ぐ (gu) or く (ku) change to an い (i) syllable.
  • Verbs ending with す (su) change to a (shi) syllable.

Then, add ています (-teimasu) or ていません (-teimasen) for negative sentence at the end.

Remember that with the ん (n) syllable, the suffix becomes でいます (-deimasu) or でいません (-deimasen) for negative sentences.

Check out some examples:

和夫は本を読んでいます。 (かずおはほんをよんでいます。)— Kazuo is reading a book.

私は犬を飼っています。 (わたしはいぬをかっています。)— I’m keeping a dog.

何も聞いていません。 (なにもきいていません。)— I’m not hearing anything.

Informal Present Continuous Form

Ichidan Verbs

This form is very similar to its formal counterpart. The only difference is that instead of ています (-teimasu), you use ている (-teiru) and instead of ていません (-teimasen) you use ていない (-teinai) and you’re done!

Moving on to the examples:

雀の鳴き声がよく聴こえている。 (すずめのなきごえがよくきこえている。)— The sparrow’s cry can be heard well.

質問に答えていない。 (しつもんにこたえていない。)— I’m not answering the question.

あのりんごは木から落ちていない。 (あのりんごはきからおちていない。)— That apple isn’t falling from the tree.

Godan Verbs

Just like the previous section, this one’s very similar to its non-continuous counterpart. Only replace ています (-teimasu) and ていません (-teimasen) with ている (-teiru) and ていない (-teinai) and you did it.

And some examples:

僕はプールで泳いている。 (ぼくはぷうるでおよいている。)— I’m swimming at the pool.

光はギターを弾いている。 (ひかりはぎたあをひいている。)— Hikari is playing the guitar.

ビールを飲んでいない。 (びいるをのんでいない。)— I’m not drinking beer.

Formal Japanese Past Tense

Ichidan Verbs

To build the formal past tense when using ichidan verbs, slice off that る (ru) ending and add ました (-mashita) instead.

Check out these examples for a better understanding:

ご飯を食べる。 (ごはんを たべる。)— I eat rice. → ご飯を食べました。 (ごはんを たべました。)— I ate the rice.

春が来る。 (はるが くる。)— Spring comes. → 春が来ました。 (はるが きました。)— Spring came.

Godan Verbs

With godan verbs, you don’t slice off the last syllable. Instead, change the final sound into anい (-i) syllable, then add ました (-mashita). For example, む (mu) becomes み (mi), and then みました (-mimashita). Done!

Here are some examples:

本を読む。 (ほんを よむ。)— I (am) read(ing) a book. → 本を読みました。 (ほんを よみました。)— I read a book.

りんごがある。  — I have an apple. → りんごがありました。  — I had an apple.

Surprise! This verb ends with a る but it isn’t ichidan! As mentioned before, there are quite a few of these trap verbs which end with a る syllable but are in fact godan verbs.

Adjectives and Nouns

In Japanese,verbs aren’t the only part of speech that needs to be conjugated for the past tense.

If you have a Japanese adjective at the end of a sentence, drop the last syllable and replace it with かったです (-katta desu) instead.

The same goes for adjectival nouns or adverbial nouns. At the end of a sentence, just add でした (deshita) after the word and you’re done.

りんごは安かったです。 (りんごは やすかったです。)— The apple was cheap.

花は綺麗でした (はなは きれいでした。)— The flower was pretty.

If the adjectives are found in some other position in a sentence (that is, not at the end), they usually don’t go through a change, unless you want to achieve a certain effect or add emphasis.

Let’s take two random formal present tense sentences:

菊は綺麗な花です。 (きくは きれいな はなです。)— Chrysanthemum is a pretty flower.

あけびは特別な果物です。 (あけびは とくべつな くだものです。)— Akebi is a special fruit.

Now let’s see how they look in the past tense:

菊は綺麗な花でした。 (きくは きれいな はなでした。)— Chrysanthemum was a pretty flower.

あけびは特別な果物でした。 (あけびは とくべつな くだものでした。)— Akebi was a special fruit.

As far as adjectival nouns are concerned, nothing’s changed, despite the sentence transferring to the past tense. That’s because they’re modifying a noun and not located at the end of a sentence.

If they were at the end of the sentence, then they’d transform into the past tense by following the rules above:

菊は綺麗です。 (きくは きれいです。)— Chrysanthemum is pretty. → 菊は綺麗でした (きくは きれいでした)— Chrysanthemum was pretty.

あけびは特別です。 (あけびは とくべつです。)— Akebi is special. → あけびは特別でした。 (あけびは とくべつでした。)— Akebi was special.

There’s no need for double past constructions, so don’t put でした after a past tense form! This is a very common mistake and a lot of learners tend to make it.

Informal Japanese Past Tense

Ichidan Verbs

Informal ichidan verbs are built very similarly to the formal past tense. First, remove the final syllable. Then, instead of adding ました (mashita), simply add た (-ta).

野菜を食べた。 (やさいを たべた。)— I ate the vegetables.

ジョンが来た。 (じょんが きた。)— John came.

Remember not to mix up formal and informal in the same sentence!

Godan Verbs

As seen in previous cases, godan verbs go through a change by means of transforming their last syllable. However, there are certain rules regarding this in the informal past tense.

  • If a verb ends with a(ku) or ぐ (gu) syllable, the ending changes into いた (-ita).
  • If the verb ends with a(mu),(nu) or ぶ (bu), the ending becomes んだ (-nda).
  • If the verb ends with a(ru),(tsu) or う (u), the ending becomes った (-tta).
  • If the verb ends with (su), the ending becomes した (-shita).

Let’s see some examples.

絵を描いた。 (えを かいた。)— I drew a sketch.

雑誌を読んだ。 (ざっしを よんだ。)— I read a magazine.

金があった。 (かねがあった。)— I had money.

Adjectives and Nouns

Words that aren’t verbs go through much smaller changes.

Japanese adjectives in the informal past are pretty much the same as they are in the formal past tense, but without です (desu) at the end.

Adjectival nouns and adverbial nouns remain same but get だった (-datta) at the end.

スープは美味しかった。 (すうぷは おいしかった。)— The soup was tasty.

宿題は退屈だった (しゅくだいは たいくつだった。)— Homework was boring.


When you start using the Japanese past tense, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s perfectly natural! The key is to learn from them, and avoid making the same mistakes next time.

Other than that, just follow the rules and everything will go smoothly. Smoothly to the past!

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