Back in the day, everyone wore a watch to keep track of the time. Nowadays people just check their smartphone when they need to know. But what if you don’t have either of those on you? You’ll need to know how to say “what time is it” in Japanese.
In addition to that, you’ll need to know how to understand the answer, which is why I’ll provide some “time vocabulary” in today’s lesson. Be sure to check it out and become familiar with the new words.
How To Say “What Time Is It” In Japanese
So there you are in Japan without a watch and your phone has died. You need to know what time it is so that you can figure out what you need to do next on your busy schedule.
You flag down the nearest Japanese person, apologize for interrupting their day, and then ask them the following question:
- ima, nan ji desu ka?
- What time is it right now?
Let’s break this phrase down word by word so that you can understand every part of it.
First we start off with 今 (ima) which means “now; at the present time” in Japanese. Then we continue with 何時 (nanji) which means “what time.” Finally, we finish the question off with the “is it” part of the phrase with ですか (desu ka).
This phrase will serve you well so be sure to try it out a couple of times to help remember it.
How To Say “At What Time” In Japanese
What do you do if someone invites you to a party on Friday, but you’re not sure if you can make it because you’ve got something else going on that same day?
Well perhaps you can actually make them both depending on what time the party begins and ends at.
In this situation, you’ll need to know how to ask the other person what time the party starts at so that you can figure out if you can make it or not. Here’s how to ask “at what time” in Japanese:
- nan ji ni?
- At what time?
That’s a pretty good phrase that you can use, but if you wanted to be more specific and ask about the starting time, then this next one might be more helpful.
- nanji ni hajimarimasu ka?
- What time does it start at?
Let’s say that it starts at the same time as your prior engagement, so going at the beginning is out of the question. However, If the party continues on for long enough, you’re pretty sure that you can stop by before it’s over.
To figure this out though, you need to ask what time it ends at.
- nanji ni owarimasu ka?
- What time does it end at?
If you find out that you can make it to the party, tell your friend “yes, you’ll see them there!”
These phrases aren’t just limited to parties. They can really be used for any event that has a start and end time. So things such as business meetings, birthday parties, weddings, and so on.
However, in order to understand the answers that you receive from these questions, you’ll need to know several key Japanese words which we will go over next.
How To Say “O’Clock” In Japanese
In English when we talk about time, we tend to use the word “O’Clock” which is an abbreviation for “of the clock” in reference to what time something occurs at.
For example, “the party starts at two o’clock” is one way that you could say it. Another way is you could just say “the party is at two.”
However, in Japanese you can’t drop the “o’clock” part as it is an essential part of the phrase. The Japanese equivalent is the word 時 (ji) which is a suffix that attaches to the number.
Here’s a complete list of hours 1-12 in Japanese and their pronunciations:
- 一時 (ichi ji) = one o’clock
- 二時 (ni ji) = two o’clock
- 三時 (san ji) = three o’clock
- 四時 (yo ji) = four o’clock
- 五時 (go ji) = five o’clock
- 六時 (roku ji) = six o’clock
- 七時 (shichi ji) = seven o’clock
- 八時 (hachi ji) = eight o’clock
- 九時 (ku ji) = nine o’clock
- 十時 (jū ji) = ten o’clock
- 十一時 (jū ichi ji) = eleven o’clock
- 十二時 (jū ni ji) = twelve o’clock
Now, there are a couple of things I want to point out about this list.
The first thing is that you can replace each of the kanji numbers in the above list with their Arabic numeral counterparts. For example, you can write 一時 as１時 instead.
In fact, it’s probably more common to see time in Japanese represented using Arabic numerals rather than kanji.
The second thing is that the numbers 4 and 9 have special readings when referring to time. You probably caught it when reading that list, but just to emphasize the point ４時 is yo ji and ９時 is ku ji.
The last thing is that you’ll probably want to know the Japanese words for “AM” and “PM” so that you know which half of the day it is.
The Japanese word 午前 (gozen) is used for AM and the Japanese word 午後 (gogo) is used for PM. The way to remember the difference is to understand each kanji’s individual meaning.
- 午 = noon
- 前 = before
- 後 = after
So we can see that 午前 means “before noon” and 午後 means “after noon” which is more or less the same way we do things in English.
Where things get a little different is the placement of these words. In Japanese, they appear before the time, whereas in English they come after.
I’ll give you two examples and you should be good to go from there.
- 午前6時 (gozen roku ji) = 6AM
- 午後3時 (gogo san ji) = 3PM
The last thing to note is that it is common in Japanese for people to refer to 12:00 as 0:00. What this means is that instead of saying 12時 as jū ni ji they will instead say 0時 as reiji.
Japanese Word For Minutes
We’ve talked about time and the hours, but what if something falls in between? We must talk about minutes in order to get the timing exact.
There are basically two ways to tackle this problem. The first one is to say the exact time, such as 12:38. The other way is to go by quarters (12:15, 12:30, 12:45).
Let’s go over both of them now.
The Japanese word for minute is 分 (fun) and it attaches to the end of the number. So 15 minutes is 15分 (jū go fun).
In order to say a full time of day like 2:56 you would structure it as 2時56分 (ni ji go jū roppun).
Two things you will notice from that last example are that the full hour metric (2時) comes first and then then minute metric follows afterwards (56分).
The other thing you’ll notice is that the reading for 分 changed from its normal (fun) to (ppun) in the example.
This is because 分 is one of those Japanese words whose reading changes depending on which number precedes it. Here is a list of numbers 1-10 and all of their readings.
- 1分 (ippun)
- 2分 (ni fun)
- 3分 (san pun)
- 4分 (yon pun)
- 5分 (go fun)
- 6分 (roppun)
- 7分 (nana fun)
- 8分 (happun)
- 9分 (kyū fun)
- 10分 (juppun)
The reading of 分 only depends on the number that comes right before it, so 11分 is read as jū ippun and it takes the phonetic change of 1分 (ippun) while keeping the normal reading of the number 10 (jū).
This might seem like a lot to take in all at once, so a better strategy might be to go by quarters in reference to time.
This will require learning only three new words:
- すぎ (sugi) = after
- 半 (han) = half
- まえ (mae) = before
Put すぎ and まえ after 分 like in the following examples.
- ima, go ji jū go fun sugi desu.
- It’s a quarter past five now.
- ima, go ji jū go fun mae desu.
- It’s a quarter to five now.
Put 半 after 時 just like below.
- ima, go ji han desu.
- It’s five thirty right now.
The last thing to note is that you will sometimes see すぎ written in kanji as 過ぎ and you will sometimes see まえ written in kanji as 前 for these time expressions.
Also, it’s more common to read something like 3:30 as san ji han rather than san ji san juppun since it’s easier to say “half” in Japanese than it is “thirty minutes.”
It’s Time To End Today’s Lesson
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Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!
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