What is the past tense in Japanese? Well, it depends on if the word that gets conjugated (or inflected) is a verb or an adjective.
Furthermore, there is a different form of the word when the verb is casual or polite, and when the adjective is an i-adjective or a na-adjective.
We’re going to go over the verbs first and then move on to the adjectives later in this post. Keep reading to learn about the past tense, or 過去形 (kakokei), in Japanese!
When it comes to the casual forms of verbs, we know that they all end in a う (u) sound.
Sometimes it’s this single vowel sound like in the word “to meet” which is 会う (au), but other times it comes with a consonant like in the word “to eat” 食べる (taberu) or the word “to drink” 飲む (nomu).
These are also known as the dictionary forms of verbs, since this is how they appear when you look them up in a dictionary.
So when we want to use the past tense in Japanese for these types of verbs, we change them into their ta-form which is spelled in hiragana as た (ta). This can actually take on several forms depending on the word.
Rule: Drop the final う syllable (and its consonant if applicable) and replace it with た.
Sticking with our earlier group of verbs, we would have 食べた (tabeta) for “ate” which follows this new rule to the letter.
But a lot of times we will actually get the voiced version of た which is だ (da). This happens for phonetic reasons, as it is easier to say だ with certain words than it would be with た.
One such example is our word 飲んだ (nonda) for “drank” which has this phonetic change.
Another situation is when the verb actually changes to った (tta) which has a stop sound right before the final syllable. Keeping in line with our examples, we can see that 会った (atta) for “met” follows this pattern.
Giving the rules for when a particular verb uses one of these forms over another is beyond the scope of this post, but a good resource that you can use is this beginner book on Japanese.
The goal of today’s lesson is just to help you become familiar with the past tense so that you can recognize it when you encounter it in Japanese materials.
Something else that should be mentioned is that we have been talking about the past-positive so far, but there is also a past-negative form of these verbs.
To say “didn’t eat” we use 食べなかった (tabe nakatta) which replaces the た from the positive form, into なかった which is the negative form.
Again, we run into some slight differences with verbs in the casual form since 飲んだ turns into 飲まなかった (noma nakatta) for “didn’t drink” and 会った turns into 会わなかった (awa nakatta) for “didn’t meet” in Japanese.
In all of these cases we see the なかった for the past-negative, but sometimes we will see a different syllable used right before it just depending on how the dictionary form of the verb is constructed.
Again, a good tool to use is that recommend beginner book for the rules on when to use which.
Thankfully, things get a lot simpler in this next section.
As many people know, the mass-form of verbs is considered polite language in Japanese and is a safe one to default to so that you show proper respect to others when speaking Japanese.
The name comes from the fact that all the verbs end in ます (masu). Our three verbs then become:
- 食べます (tabemasu)
- 飲みます (nomimasu)
- 会います (aimasu)
These are mean the exact same thing as their dictionary forms did, the only difference is that these are considered polite whereas the dictionary forms are considered casual.
And as long as you know what a verb’s masu-form is, then you can change it to the past tense by following one simple pattern:
Rule: Change the ます to ました (mashita).
This means that we don’t have to learn multiple ways of conjugating verbs like we did in the first section. Instead, we can just make this one change on each verb and then say the following:
- 食べました for “ate”
- 飲みました for “drank”
- 会いました for “me”
Things are also pretty easy with respect to using the past-negative forms of mass-verbs since all we have to do a couple of changes that are, once again, the same for all verbs in this form.
First you change the ます of the present-positive into ません (masen) which is the present-negative form of the verb. Then you simply add on でした (deshita) which then turns it into the past-negative form.
With our three verbs of the day, we can then see them in this new form like so:
- 食べませんでした for “didn’t eat”
- 飲みませんでした for “didn’t drink”
- 会いませんでした for “didn’t meet”
While this might look a little tricky at first due to the length of each word, the fact that the majority of each one is ませんでした (masen deshita) makes them a lot easier to remember.
Now we get to イ形容詞 (i keiyoushi) which are known as i-adjectives in English. The reason they are called this is because they are adjectives that end in an い (i).
Their normal form is the present-positive (just like the dictionary form of verbs) and a good example of one is the Japanese word for delicious 美味しい (oishii).
Whenever we want to change an i-adjective into its past tense form we just drop the final い from it and add かった (katta) in its place.
In this case, that would give us 美味しかった (oishi katta) which means “was delicious” and is also a pretty common phrase.
Then if we want to get the past-negative version of one of these adjectives, we just replace that same い with くなかった (kunakatta) instead.
So, if you are a burger that was actually not that tasty, you could tell your friend 美味しくなかった (oishi kunakatta) which means that “it was not delicious” … which is a shame!
Something that is worth mentioning at this point is that all of these forms have been casual. If you wanted to be polite while saying them, then you would simply add です (desu) to the end any one of them.
In this particular situation the word です doesn’t mean anything, it just makes the entire sentence more polite.
Na-Adjectives and Nouns
Now we get to ナ形容詞 (na keiyoushi) which are known as na-adjectives. I’m sure you can guess why, based off of what we learned in the last section.
Pretty much because they all end in な (na).
These are handled differently from i-adjectives which is why I put them in a different section.
However, na-adjectives are very similar to nouns when it comes to conjugating them into different forms. That’s why I’ve included them together.
Let’s use the word 丈夫 (joubu) which means “durable” as our example word. When you want to use it as an adjective, you add on the な to it right before the noun.
- joubuna nuno
- a durable cloth
That being said, you can use these kinds of adjectives all on their own with the help of the verb “to be” in Japanese. That verb is だ (da) in the casual form, and です in the polite form.
Because of this, we can change the form of the verb to use the past tense with these adjectives.
If we want to say that something “was durable” we could use either 丈夫だった (joubu datta) when speaking casually or 丈夫でした (joubu deshita) when we want to be more polite.
Likewise, when we want to say that something “wasn’t durable” we can use either 丈夫じゃなかった (joubu janakatta) for the informal situations and 丈夫ではありませんでした (joubu de wa arimasen deshita) for formal situations.
Yikes! That last one was super long!
Something to note from these last two examples is that じゃ (ja) is actually a contraction of では (de wa) so you can use either of them interchangeably.
じゃ is more common is spoken language (since it’s easier to say) and では is more likely to be seen in writing. That being said, you will hear people say では so it’s good to know them both.
Finally, we can use any noun in place of the adjective examples above.
- neko ja nakatta.
- It wasn’t a cat.
It’s All In The Past Now
That’s all that I’ve got for you today. Hopefully this post has helped you to understand the past tense in Japanese, especially when it comes to both verbs and adjectives.
I’m sure the information was a little overwhelming to take in all at once, so feel free to stop back by anytime you have a question about it.
Or you can also leave a comment down below and I’ll be sure to get back with you as soon as I can.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: