It’s totally natural for beginners to start learning Japanese in just the present tense. But after a while you have to start learning how to conjugate verbs into their past tense as well, so that you can talk about the things that you’ve already done, or the things that have happened in the past. So, what is the past tense in Japanese?
Luckily for you, it is very simple to change a Japanese verb from the present tense, into the past tense.
Let’s start off with the easiest way first: the -masu form.
The Polite Past
Probably the most common form of Japanese that beginners learn about is the -masu form. It gets its name because all verbs end in ます (masu). This is by far the simplest one to change from present to past because all you have to do is replace the す (su) with した (shita) and you’re done!
です (desu) = The Copula “to be; is”
でした (deshita) = The Copula “was”
います (imasu) = To exist; is (people/animals)
いました (imashita) = Existed; was (people/animals)
あります (arimasu) = To exist; is
ありました (arimashita) = Existed; was
言います (iimasu) = To say
言いました (imashita) = Said
行きます (ikimasu) = To go
行きました (ikimashita) = Went
来ます (kimasu) = To come
来ました (kimashita) = Came
します (shimasu) = To do
しました (shimashita) = Did
So as you can see, it is super easy to change a verb to the past tense when it is in the -masu form. It is also pretty easy to change these kinds of verbs from the negative present tense, to the negative past tense.
Since the negative -masu form has all of its verbs ending in ません (masen) instead of ます (masu), all you have to do is add でした (deshita) to the end of the ません (masen) part of the verb.
ではありません (de wa arimasen) = The Copula “to not be; not”
ではありませんでした (de wa arimasen deshita) = The Copula “was not; wasn’t”
いません (imasen) = Does not exist; isn’t (people/animals)
いませんでした (imasen deshita) = Did not exist; wasn’t (people/animals)
ありません (arimasen) = Does not exist; isn’t
ありませんでした (arimasen deshita) = Did not exist; wasn’t
言いません (iimasen) = Do not say
言いませんでした (imasen deshita) = Did not say
行きません (ikimasen) = Do not go
行きませんでした (ikimasen deshita) = Did not go
来ません (kimasen) = To not come
来ませんでした (kimasen deshita) = Did not come
しません (shimasen) = Do not do
しませんでした (shimasen deshita) = Did not do
As you can see with the -masu form, it gets longer whenever you change it from the present to the past. Is also gets longer when you change it from positive to negative. Therefore, the negative past is WAY longer than the positive present.
Positive present: です
Negative past: ではありませんでした
The Casual Past
There are a few reasons why people typically learn the -masu form first. It’s a lot more uniform with verb endings (easier to learn) and it is of course polite. But the casual form, also known as the infinitive, is what gets used most often in anime and manga.
It’s also how Japanese people talk to those who are close to them like friends and family. Unfortunately, it’s a little more work to learn because it doesn’t have uniform rules like the -masu form does. Still, it’s important to learn it as you’ll need it for intermediate Japanese and higher.
Take a look at our list of seven verbs in the (casual) positive present compared to their respective past forms and then I’ll go over a few things that they have in common that should help you to learn them.
だ (da) = The Copula “to be; is”
だった (datta) = The Copula “was”
いる (iru) = To exist; is (people/animals)
いた (ita) = Existed; was (people/animals)
ある (aru) = To exist; is
あった (atta) = Existed; was
言う (iu) = To say
言った (itta) = Said
行く (iku) = To go
行った (itta) = Went
来る (kuru) = To come
来た (kita) = Came
する (suru) = To do
した (shita) = Did
The first thing you will notice is that the past forms will usually end in either た or った.
The second thing you will notice is that some verbs (言った and 行った) sound identical to each other. If you’re reading it, the kanji will give away the correct meaning. But in spoken Japanese, you will have to just pay attention and let the context of the conversation guide you to the right one.
And now we get to the negative past for the casual form of these verbs. Again, look over them first and then I will note some commonalities between them.
ではない (de wa nai) = The Copula “to not be; not”
ではなかった (de wa nakatta) = The Copula “was not; wasn’t”
いない (inai) = Does not exist; isn’t (people/animals)
いなかった (i nakatta) = Did not exist; wasn’t (people/animals)
ない (nai) = Does not exist; isn’t
なかった (nakatta) = Did not exist; wasn’t
言わない (iwanai) = Do not say
言わなかった (iwa nakatta) = Did not say
行かない (ikanai) = Do not go
行かなかった (ika nakatta) = Did not go
来ない (konai) = To not come
来なかった (ko nakatta) = Did not come
しない (shinai) = Do not do
しなかった (shi nakatta) = Did not do
So you’ll see that they pretty much all end in なかった (nakatta) which is basically a combination of the negative ない with the past tense かった. In fact, it’s really just the final い that gets changed.
Knowing how to change verbs in their simple (infinitive) form from present to past, and also from negative present to negative past, is actually going to help you out in another area as well: i-adjectives.
The i-adjective Past
As you may or may not know, there are a couple of different classifications for adjectives (words that describe nouns) in Japanese. One of these types is called i-adjectives because they all end in い (i). Here is an example with the i-adjective underlined:
(tabemono wa oishii desu.)
The food is delicious.
What’s interesting about these particular ones is that when you want to change the tense of the adjective (this isn’t really something that happens in English), you inflect the i-adjective itself and not the copula “to be” です. I will mention again that this is only with i-adjective and not any of the other kinds.
How do you conjugate it? The same way as you do for verbs in their simple form! Just modify that last い!
美味しい (oishii) = Is delicious
美味しかった (oishi katta) = Was delicious
美味しくない (oishi kunai) = Is not delicious
美味しくなかった (oishi kunakatta) = Was not delicious
In these types of situations, the です is either added to the end for politeness, or left off in casual situations.
Additional Words to Indicate the Past
But wait! There’s more! Of course (-_-)
You don’t have to rely solely on conjugating verbs and i-adjectives in order to talk about the past. There are lots of words that you can start off your sentence with to let the listener know that you are talking about something that has already happened. Here are some useful ones:
- 昨日 (kinou) = Yesterday
- 先の日 (saki no hi) = The other day
- 先週 (senshuu) = Last week
- 先週末 (senshuu matsu) = Last weekend
- 先月 (sengetsu) = Last month
- 去年 (kyonen) = Last year
- 最近 (saikin) = Recently
I’d love to hear from you now!
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