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First off, I understand the use of ~の時 (when). However, with my current knowledge, this doesn't make sense if I try to use it with verbs in phrases such as "when I woke up". It's probably quite obvious, but how would I structure "when [x] did [verb]" or "when [event/action] happened"?

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It's not quite so clear cut as you may hope, as with a large portion of Japanese which translates badly.

If you want "when" as a general sense, such as "When I was a student", append 頃{ころ} to it at the end.

学生{がくせい}の頃{ころ} When (I) was a student.

Generally, 時{とき} refers to what you want, which you use for verbs. There's no need for a の, just place 〜時{とき} after the verb. The issue comes with present or past tense verbs, and when to use which. Your sentence, just to point out at this point, is:

起{お}きた時{とき} When (I) woke up.

--Present vs Past Tense--

Use the past tense when you've already done an action. For instance, "Pay when you get off the bus" in English is ambiguous in Japanese. Here, there are 2 options, each with a different meaning.

バスを降{お}り時{とき}払{はら}ってください Pay when you get off the bus (ie, just before you walk out of the bus

バスを降{お}り時{とき}払{はら}ってください Pay when you have gotten off the bus (ie, once you're off the bus)

In this sense, use the past tense, even when something's happening in the future, but to show that something's already happened from the point of view of you in that frame of reference in the future. Confusing. Take another example:

日本へ行く時困りますか?

When you're talking about going to Japan, in your head, you're imagining yourself at that time. This sentence talks more about that you'll have trouble when you go to Japan, say at the airport. We can contrast this with 日本へ行った時困りますか?, which references that you'll have trouble after you've arrived in Japan. Even though both of these things from the POV of now are in the future, you aren't seeing it that way in Japanese, you're seeing it from the reference of you at that time.

Back to your sentence.

It makes no sense to say "when I woke up" as 起きる時 unless you're actually talking about the time when you were still asleep but just about to wake up. I'm pretty certain you didn't mean this. If you want to say "when i woke up this morning my cat (who we'll name "Nyan") was setting on my bed", you just put yourself into the shoes of your past self, who has already woken up, and has seen Nyan on their bed.

今朝起きた時ニャンがベッドに座っていました。

  • In your first example, is 学生の時 not also valid? – Eric May 7 '15 at 20:31
  • Yes, it is, but both can be used for 学生の時/頃 (just trying to vary my vocabulary) – sqrtbottle May 7 '15 at 20:37
  • 「日本に行く時、本を買いました。」 is not something a native speaker would say in any situation. I have no idea what it could mean. – l'électeur May 8 '15 at 2:28
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    Edited to change this – sqrtbottle May 8 '15 at 6:27
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Just use the past tense of a verb before 時. For example "When I woke up" would be 私が起きた時 or "When the game ended" would be 試合が終わった時.

Verbs can be used to modify nouns in this way. Like "the book I read" would be 私が読んだ本. The "when" issue is essentially the same, I think :)

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You can use verb-た時 or verb-たら. Both can also be used the same way for future events.

I'd like to add. You often see past tense, present tense but in japanese, you have accomplished and not-accomplished tense.
This is why it makes sense to say stuff like "駅に着いた時に連絡する。".

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