japanese-past-tense

Learn the Japanese Past Tense with the How to (and How Not to) Guide

You can’t rewrite the past…

But you certainly can write about it! Checkmate, wise old proverb!

However, in order to do so, you must first master using the past tense.

Learning a foreign language usually begins with learning its past, present and future tenses. Without the knowledge of basic tenses, you won’t get far with Japanese—or any other language, for that matter.

Fortunately for us, present and future tenses are the same in Japanese. Learn one and you basically learn the other, too! But that’s a lesson for another day.

Today, we’ll be helping you to learn the basic past tense in Japanese.

So, buckle up for a blast from the past because this linguistic DeLorean is ready to carry you straight back to the place that defined you: the past!
 


 

Leap to the Past: Japanese Past Tense Rules Made Easy

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Types of Japanese Verbs

First thing’s first: Before we get down to business, let’s take a brief look at the basic verb types in Japanese.

To avoid confusing and complicating things needlessly, this will be the simplest and shortest possible overview of verb types.

Japanese verbs are split into two main groups. The 一段 (いちだん) — ichidan and the 五段 (ごだん) — godan verbs.

Ichidan verbs

Wanna see short?

Ichidan verbs are verbs that end with the る syllable.

Boom, done.

Godan verbs

Wanna see even shorter?

Godan verbs are the rest.

Boom, done again.

Of course, there are some exceptions, but you find those out as you learn, so we won’t spoil that surprise.

With this, the foundations are set.

japanese-past-tense

Before you dive into the next part, prep your language skills with some FluentU videos.

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. It’s a great way to hear authentic Japanese speech and reinforce it with flashcards, interactive subtitles, adaptive quizzes, and more.

Listen closely to the video (or videos) you choose to watch. Can you spot the past tense?

Now that your ears are attuned to the sounds of the Japanese past tense, you’re all set to begin learning.

Formal Japanese Past Tense: Ichidan Verbs

Now it’s time for the main dish, and we’ll be starting with the formal past tense.

Let’s take a look at how you can build this form when using ichidan verbs: Slice off that る ending and slap on a ました instead.

Check out these correct 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.

Common mistakes to avoid

Let’s see a few common mistakes as well so you’ll know to avoid them!

* ご飯を食べました。(ごはんを たべました。) — I “ated” the rice.

Don’t forget to drop the る! There’s no such thing as 食べるました in Japanese. Construct the form properly!

* 春が来ました。(はるが くました。) — Spring “camed.”

Again, those words don’t exist. Don’t build ichidan verbs as you would make godan verbs and vice-versa. Don’t forget that!

Formal Japanese Past Tense: Godan Verbs

Now that we’ve mentioned godan verbs, let’s turn to them and see how they’re built in the formal past tense.

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

Some examples will surely make things clear.

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.

japanese-past-tense

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.

If you wish to see some more examples, visit JapanDict’s page on the topic, where you’ll find a fairly large list of godan verbs with a る syllable ending.

Common mistakes to avoid

Try to avoid making mistakes like the following few.

* 本を読ました。(ほんを よました。) — I “readed” the book.

* りんごがあました。 — I “haved” an apple.

Don’t forget to add the -i syllable in place of the original ending syllable or you may end up with an entirely different meaning. 余す (あます) means “to save,” so in this case, you end up saying the complete opposite of what you wanted to say.

That takes care of the verbs in formal past tense. Now let’s quickly check out how some other words go through the change.

Formal Japanese Past Tense: Adjectives and Nouns

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 instead.

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

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. We’ll get back to this after some examples.

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.

So what happens if the adjectives aren’t at the end of a sentence? Let’s find out!

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.

With this, everything should be as clear as possible. So begone, clouds of potential confusion, for you have no power here!

Common mistakes to avoid:

Try to avoid these next few mistakes.

* りんごは安かったでした。(りんごは やすかったでした。) — The apple “was were” cheap.

There’s no need for double past constructions, so don’t put でした after a past tense form.

* りんごは安いでした。(りんごは やすいでした。) — The apple “was is” cheap.

This is a very common mistake and a lot of learners tend to make it. Adjectives must be in the past tense form if they’re at a past tense sentence’s end. Adding でした doesn’t achieve that. The word must be put into its proper past form. After that, です takes care of the politeness required for a formal form.

Informal Japanese Past Tense: Ichidan Verbs

Now that we’ve finished with the formal past tense, let’s proceed with the informal!

Ichidan verbs are built very similarly to the formal past tense. First, remove the final syllable. Then, instead of adding ました, simply add た.

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.

Common mistakes to avoid:

Avoid making mistakes similar to these next few.

* 野菜を食べるた。(やさいを たべるた。) — I “eated” the vegetables.

Make the changes to the verbs correctly. Don’t make these weird hybrid present-past tense words.

* ジョンが来たました。(じょんが きたました。) — John “was came.” (Or something as ridiculously wrong.)

Either use the formal past tense or the informal past tense. Don’t mix those two in the same sentence!

Informal Japanese Past Tense: Godan Verbs

Next up is the difficult part. The godan verb rules.

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 く or ぐ syllable, the ending changes into いた.
  • If the verb ends with a む or ぬ or ぶ, the ending becomes んだ.
  • If the verb ends with a る or つ or う, the ending becomes った.
  • If the verb ends with す, the ending becomes した.

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.

Common mistakes to avoid:

Now, let’s see some mistakes and incorrect examples.

* 絵を描きた。(えを かきた。) — I “dreweded” a sketch.

* 雑誌を読むた。 (ざっしを よむた。) — I “readt” a magazine.

* 金があた。 (かねが あた。) — I “haveded” money.

All three of these share the same mistake: They simply don’t follow the rules. Just make sure to transform each word depending on its last syllable and you’ll get it right!

Informal Japanese Past Tense: 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 at the end.

Adjectival nouns and adverbial nouns remain same but with だった 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.

Common mistakes to avoid:

As far as common mistakes go, just don’t do the following.

* パーティは完璧だだった。(ぱあてぃは かんぺきだだった。) — The party “waswas” perfect.

After the adjectival noun, put only だった and nothing else before it. Otherwise you end up with two だ, one in present tense and the other in past tense like in this case.

 

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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