Usage of the past tense


Grasping the concept of the past tense is crucial for anyone starting their journey into the Japanese language.

It allows you to recount events, share memories, and describe situations that happened before now.

This guide aims to demystify the past tense in Japanese, making it approachable for absolute beginners by breaking down its formation and application in detail.

Detailed Breakdown of the Past Tense

1. Transforming Verbs to Express Past Actions:
The Japanese language categorizes actions into verbs that end in “る” (ru) and those that do not. Each category has a simple rule to follow to talk about the past.

For “る” ending verbs (Ichidan Verbs):

  • These verbs are often related to actions like eating (“食べる” – taberu) or seeing (“見る” – miru).
    To express these actions in the past, simply replace “る” with “た”. Hence, “食べる” becomes “食べた” for “ate,” and “見る” becomes “見た” for “saw.”

For verbs not ending in “る” (Godan Verbs):

  • This category includes a diverse range of actions, and the transformation involves a slight modification based on the last consonant of the verb.
    • Verbs ending in “う,” “つ,” and “る” change these endings to “った.”
      For example, “買う” (kau – to buy) becomes “買った” (katta – bought), and “待つ” (matsu – to wait) changes to “待った” (matta – waited).
    • If a verb ends in “く,” it changes to “いた” in the past tense, making “書く” (kaku – to write) into “書いた” (kaita – wrote).
    • Verbs ending in “ぐ” transition by changing to “いだ,” turning “泳ぐ” (oyogu – to swim) into “泳いだ” (oyoida – swam).

2. Expressing Negative Past Events:
Conveying that something did not happen is equally straightforward.

Begin with the negative form of the verb and add “なかった” to shift it into the past negative. – Thus, “食べない” (do not eat) becomes “食べなかった” (did not eat), and “書かない” (do not write) changes to “書かなかった” (did not write).

3. Special Verbs to Note:

A few verbs defy the regular conjugation patterns, such as “する” (to do) and “来る” (to come), which become “した” (did) and “来た” (came), respectively.

Practical Usage of the Past Tense

Narrating Personal Experiences and Historical Events:

The past tense is your go-to tool for telling stories about your life or historical occurrences.

It’s useful for sentences like “去年、京都を訪れた” (Last year, I visited Kyoto), enriching your narrative with depth and time-specific details.

Describing Past Conditions or States:

It’s also perfect for painting a picture of how things were, whether it’s about the weather, emotions, or settings, such as “子供の時、よく公園で遊んだ” (When I was a child, I often played in the park).

Key Points and Common Mistakes to Avoid

1. Verb Ending Attention:

One common mistake among beginners is the misclassification of verbs based on their endings, which can lead to incorrect past tense conjugations. It’s vital to recognize whether a verb is an Ichidan (one-row) verb, typically ending in “る” (ru) and often easily converted into the past tense by changing to “た” (ta), or a Godan (five-row) verb, which requires a consonant shift before adding “た”.

2. Special Cases Mastery:

Some verbs don’t fit the regular conjugation rules and are known as irregular verbs. “する” (to do) and “来る” (to come) are the primary examples, changing to “した” (did) and “来た” (came), respectively. Additionally, pay attention to verbs like “ある” (to be, for inanimate objects), which becomes “あった” in the past tense, indicating something existed or was present.

3. Contextual Clarity:

Grasping the context in which you’re using the past tense is crucial for accurate communication. Unlike English, where the present perfect tense (“I have eaten”) and simple past tense (“I ate”) can imply different meanings, Japanese uses the past tense to convey both concepts, depending on context.


By focusing on verb endings, recognizing special verbs, accurately identifying verb groups, avoiding overgeneralization, and considering the narrative context, you can significantly improve your use of the past tense in Japanese.

Regular practice, coupled with active listening and reading, will enhance your understanding and help solidify these concepts, making past tense conjugation second nature.