According to the book I'm reading, both of these sentences translate to: “I bought a bag when I went back to my country”.

  1. 国へ帰るとき、かばんを買いました。
  2. 国へ帰ったとき、かばんを買いました。

Now the nuance, if I understand correctly, is that

  • #1 is saying that "on the way" to the country, she bought a bag. In other words, she bought the bag en route but before she arrived at her country.
  • #2 is she arrived at her country and then bought the bag.

Is my understanding correct?

  • Yup. I learnt it the same way (maybe even from the same book; I vaguely recognize the phrase). Apr 12, 2013 at 9:27
  • 5
    Just remember that verb does not have present/past tense but rather unaccomplished/accomplished tense.
    – oldergod
    Apr 12, 2013 at 10:06
  • 1
    @oldergod It's actually controversial whether that is true or not. See Tense and Aspect (draft) by Toshiyuki Ogihara for details. (Link taken from faculty.washington.edu/ogihara)
    – user1478
    Apr 22, 2013 at 23:39
  • 1
    @dotnetN00b この、Tonkyさんの回答が参考になりそうな気がします forum.wordreference.com/…
    – user1016
    May 23, 2013 at 12:27

2 Answers 2


I'm Japanese. I hope to improve my English and use English more often, so I'll answer your question.

As Darius-san wrote, 2 is ambiguous, and most Japanese think that she arrived in her country and then bought the bag. But if I translate these sentences without thinking well, I might do both to "I bought a bag when I went back to my country." Given this, I come to think that this English sentence is also ambiguous. When do you think the speaker bought a bag?

By the way, the sentence "国へ帰る時、かばんを買いました。でもやっぱり帰りませんでした" Darius-san wrote is pretty strange. Japanese never say so.

If you say this, it is correct:

I bought a bag to return to my country. But it turns out that I never actually got home.

Your first sentence necessarily implies that she got home.

My English may prevent you from understanding. Sorry.

  • kerochanさん、この文をどう思いますか?「国へ帰る時、かばんを買いました。でも、結局、帰国できませんでした。」(Chocolateさんが書いてくれた文です。)結局こういうのはちょっとおかしいかもしれません、僕はもう分かりません。 Apr 17, 2013 at 5:52
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    – kerochan
    Apr 18, 2013 at 6:04

I do not think the nuance you listed gives the full picture.

  1. 国へ帰るとき、かばんを買いました。

    This can be said if you bought the bag before you returned (i.e., on the airplane, in the departure airport, etc.).

  2. 国へ帰ったとき、かばんを買いました。

    This can be said if you bought the bag before you returned, or when you completed returning.

So, the natural reading of the second sentence is probably that the bag was bought when you returned, but it's rather ambiguous and could easily mean before you returned.

There is a more important difference between the sentences though, which is that the former sentence does not necessarily imply that you got home:

"When I was returning to my country, I bought a bag. But, it turns out that I never actually got home."

Semantically invalid, 帰った conflicts with 帰りませんでした.

As mentioned, your first sentence does not necessarily imply that you got home, which is why you can add でもやっぱり帰りませんでした.

Note, that behavior of the plain form in relative clauses only works like that for a state-change verb (e.g., 帰る), not for action verbs (e.g., 走る).

道を(毎日)走る時、宇宙人を見たことがありました。 "Back when I was running the streets (every day), I saw an alien."

When your embedded verb (走る) is an action verb in plain form, if the matrix predicate (ある) is past-tense, the embedded verb is forced to take on a habitual reading.

In this case adding でもやっぱり走りませんでした, "but I never ran" does not make sense semantically.

  • (書き直してから聞くのもなんなんですが。。)「走る」を「走っている」としてしまったら、説明文に不都合がありますか?
    – user1016
    Apr 16, 2013 at 13:07
  • @Chocolate I did mean to use 走る, not 走っている, but my usage/explanation was very unclear... I think it should be better now. Apr 16, 2013 at 17:21

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