I am trying to understand how the plain form is used in novels set in the past through the explanations in the paper referenced below. I wonder if someone could explain how we should understand the Japanese version of the following examples:

Example 24:

(1) 広田さんは髭の下から歯を出して笑った
(2) わりあいきれいな歯を持っている/??持っていた

(1) hirota-san wa hige no sita kara ha o dasite warat-TA.
(2) wariai kireina ha o motte-i-RU/??motte-i-TA.

(1) Mr. Hirota SMILED showing his teeth below his moustache.
(2) He’D GOT good-looking teeth.

Example 25:  

(1) 「お出になりませんか」と聞くと、先生は少し笑いながら、無言のまま首を横に振った
(2) 子どものような所作をする/??した

(1) “odeni narimasen ka” to kiku to, sensei wa sukosi warai nagara, mugon no mama kubi o yoko ni hut-TA.
(2) kodomo no yoona syosa o su-RU/??si-TA.

(1) “Wouldn’t you like to go out?” asked Sanshiro, and then Sensei smiled faintly and SHOOK his head without saying a word.
(2) That WAS a childlike gesture.

Example 29:

(1) 「おしだ。」と信吾はつぶやいた
(2) ぎゃあっと言った蝉とはちがう

(1) “osida,” to singo wa tubuyai-TA.
(2) gyatto itta semi to wa tiga-U.

(1) “This one’s mute,” Shingo MUTTERED.
(2) It WAS different from the one that had sung so loudly.

My limited understanding is that:

  1. ta-form are main sentences about the foreground, plain form are about the background.
  2. In each case the English translation places the plain form sentence in the past tense and makes it part of the author's narrative but, as the paper explains, this is wrong. You lose the perspective of being there, conveyed by the plain form.
  3. In sentence 2 of example 24 the past tense does not work, but I am not sure why.
  4. Again in example 2 of example 25 past tense does not work, but I am not sure why.
  5. Sanshiro seems to be "thinking" sentence 2 of example 25 but I am not really sure.
  6. English translations do always help. Sometimes they feel unnatural. For example, in the second sentence of "Example 25", I am not sure why the author has used "That" instead of "It". "It" (as used in sentence 2 of "Example 29") would have been more natural if the sentence was written from the author's perspective. "That" would fit if sentence was from Sanshiro's perspective, but if it his unspoken observation or the narrative has switched, how are we supposed to tell?, what is the convention? There is a bit more to it than just: background, plain form = time of utterance.
  7. In example 29 we are told that sentence two is the "voice" of Shingo's: Are these his actual thoughts or observations, or even just what he could observe? I am confused.

My guess is that:

Possibly this writing can be likened to the frames in a US-Comic book(?) where:
- The authors narrative appears in the rectangular boxes?,
- the ta-form sentences represent the words appearing in speech bubbles?
- The plain form sentences refer to the images/pictures and the thoughts appearing in the "thought bubbles"?

But, I don't really know if this works. I have struggled with explanations in the paper (link below) but if somebody could explain in simple terms how to interpret the plain form sentences above I should be grateful.

Paper: TENSE-ASPECT CONTROVERSY REVISITED: THE -TA AND -RU FORMS IN JAPANESE Yoko Hasegawa; Link to paper: http://hasegawa.berkeley.edu/Papers/Hasegawa99.pdf

  • I am interested in this question because I speak a tense-less language and it is extremely hard for me to understand how tense works. I think I have seen the <background>suru. <foreground>sita. pattern. It is argued that a と after suru is omitted. <action>sita. <state>suru. is common too.
    – Yang Muye
    Jun 29, 2014 at 15:11
  • Very helpful answer to a similar question here but if anyone can add to my specific questions I'd be grateful:japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/3600/…
    – Tim
    Jun 30, 2014 at 0:43
  • 自由間接話法free indirect speech(描出話法representative speech)とか、自由直接話法(←日本語でよく使われるらしい)とか、そういうのじゃないんですかね・・・ 臨場感を出す、みたいな・・・ ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – user1016
    Jun 30, 2014 at 9:26
  • 2
    Timさんの貼られた論文を見ましたら、3ページ5行目に"historical/narrative present" が出てきますが、その下、...however, that not all sentences in narrative can be ended with -TA とか in sentences in the free indirect style — representing a character’s consciousness — exemplified by (25) ②, -RU resists replacement with -TA. の辺りを見ていくと、"free indirect speech" も言及されてますが、「た」を使うとただ語り手が事実を述べている感じ、「る」を使っているところは視点・意識が登場人物に移行した感じ(つまり「割合きれいな歯を持っているんだな」とか「子供のような所作をする人だなぁ」と、登場人物が思った、という感じ)・・・かな?と思います。
    – user1016
    Jul 1, 2014 at 6:02
  • 1
    We have a question about "free indirect speech": japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/16083/…
    – user1478
    Jul 2, 2014 at 0:12

1 Answer 1


To my understanding as a native speaker, in all of the three examples, sentence (1) is written from the author's perspective, and sentence (2) is written from the perspective of a character in the story. The switching of the perspectives is in fact, in these examples, is signalled by the change of the tenses.

The sentences in Example 24 could be written in the following way without losing the meaning:

  • (1) 広田さんは髭の下から歯を出して笑った。
  • (2) わりあいきれいな歯を持っている、とXは思った。

where X is the person who was in front of Hirota. However, without 'とXは思った', readers understand that it is X who thought 'わりあいきれいな歯を持っている'. By not stating 'とXは思った' explicitly, the sentence (2) is somehow, I think, high-lighted as X's impression. Besides, concise composition is preferred in Japanese text; Japanese readers are supposed to be always glad to bear the responsibility to understand the context.

Alternatively, these sentences could be written in the following way, too, without losing the meaning:

  • (1) 広田さんは髭の下から歯を出して笑った。
  • (2) わりあいきれいな歯を持っていた。

In this case, as you said, the sentence (2) is written from the author's perspective. Therefore, the two sentences give information to the readers on the same level, i.e., the author does not intend to highlight how shiny teeth Hirota had for the readers.

The three examples you raised have the rather clear effect, i.e., implicit switching of the perspective and highlighting the impression made in a character's mind. However, it is not unusual to mix past tense and present tense (or maybe it is better to say -ta form and -ru form because past and present are not distinguished literally by these forms in the example below), without much reason in Japanese story-telling. If sentences after sentences all end with -ta, I think readers feel the text boring. As long as it is clear that things in the past are described in the context, it is acceptable and probably natural to end a few sentences in the block of the description with -ru. For example, it would be difficult for anyone to explain why some sentences end with -ru and the others end with -ta in the following paragraph from "1Q84" by Haruki Murakami:


(IQ84 BOOK 1 <4月-6月> 前編, 新潮文庫 む-5-27, p.13, 村上春樹 2009)

Finally, I would like to stress that my comments above applies mostly to novels. For technical reports and research papers, there should be different standards and styles to tell facts accurately and precisely without any chance of confusion.

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