The future tense in Japanese and the "non-past"
In English, as in most other European languages, there is an explicit future tense. For example, we make a distinction between “I go” and “I will go”.
There is no such explicit grammatical distinction in Japanese.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot make statements about the future in Japanese. The present tense of the verb also functions as the future tense.
For example, the Japanese verb for “to go” is 行く/iku. The distinction between the present tense and the future tense is therefore somewhat fuzzy. The distinction is reliant on context, and certain time-related words that identify a specific time in the future.
At first this will seem a little strange to you: Japanese verbs don’t have a future tense—what’s up with that? you may understandably ask.
However, a native Spanish-speaker would note with equal surprise and indignation that our language lacks a specific conjugation for the subjunctive tense. Consider a sentence like the following:
I hope that you have a good time.
Since this is a statement of desire, the verb have would undergo a special subjunctive conjugation in Spanish. If you studied Spanish in high school, then you may recall the subjunctive tense from your previous lessons.
There is no explicit form of the subjunctive in English, but this doesn’t stop us from expressing an idea like “I hope that you have a good time.” The context and the surrounding words perform the function that the subjunctive fulfills in Spanish. (This is why the Spanish subjunctive tense seems superfluous to many English-speakers.)
In much the same way, Japanese speakers express future desires, events, and intentions without an explicit future-tense conjugation of the Japanese verb.
Let’s make a very simple sentence with行く:
Watashi wa iku.
The above sentence would usually be translated as “I go.” However, if this sentence appeared in a conversation about someone going someplace tomorrow, then it could also be translated as “I will go.”
To be specific about the time frame, a Japanese-speaker might say:
明日行く。/ Ashita iku = I will go.
(Recall that the subject need not be specified if it is understood from context.)
Since the present tense also functions as the future tense, this tense is often referred to as the non-past. This label reminds us of the dual functionality of the so-called “present-tense” of Japanese verbs.
Common Japanese Time Expressions
Since we’ve been talking about time and tenses, now is a good time to introduce you to some common time expressions in Japanese. These are essential and should be committed to memory: