I find that Japanese is a weird language for its learners, especially for those who've already learned English. In English one usually uses two tenses: present and past, however in Japanese there are accomplished and unaccomplished tenses, and these look strange if literally translated to English. For instance:

Literally "When I go to Japan, I bought a radio."

Here, the English sentence has two different parts which use two unrelated different tenses, so it's obviously logically wrong.

Another example:

Literally "When I went to Japan, I decide to buy a TV made in Japan."

And this sentence also sounds strange.

Can anyone explain how to think about Japanese tenses for sentences like these? I'm really puzzled by it.

  • 2
    I tried to fix the question up a little bit. Longer comments here: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/511/conversation/…
    – user1478
    May 14, 2015 at 18:08
  • I was searching for "相対テンス" on Google and happened to find a PDF with some interesting illustrations: kyorin-u.ac.jp/univ/user/foreign/nikodebu/lectures%28PDF%29/…
    – user1478
    May 14, 2015 at 21:08
  • 4
    Most linguists would say English has only two tenses.
    – user1478
    May 14, 2015 at 23:55
  • In relation to OP's question though, the Japanese itself doesn't seem to follow the way I was taught and thus to me the Japanese also seems to be wrong (by no means take this the wrong way, only as an opinion that I have not come across these examples before). Personally I would assume that the qualification before とき would normally be switched between the two examples (as the English translation provided would follow my understanding of the meaning behind the Japanese sentences). Do you happen to have a source for these at all? May 15, 2015 at 0:35
  • 5
    @TheWanderingCoder English doesn't have a future tense. Will is a modal auxiliary.
    – user1478
    May 15, 2015 at 6:23

1 Answer 1


Using the present tense in the subordinate clause:


This would mean 'I (will) buy a radio when I am going to Japan'. You'll probably buy the radio right before you fly to Japan. The past tense for this would be:


This means something like 'I bought a radio when I was going to Japan.' Note that the tense doesn't change in the subordinate clause (行く, not 行った). 

Using the past tense in the subordinate clause:


This would mean that you'll go to Japan and buy a TV there. The action 'buy a TV' happens after the action 'go to Japan', therefore you use the past form 行った. To convert the whole sentence to the past tense:


This is like 'I bought a TV when I went to Japan' (You bought the TV after you arrived in Japan). You don't change the tense in the subordinate clause (行った), regardless of the tense of the verb in the main clause (買う or 買った).

  • Would you not use 行った前 instead of 行くとき in the first example as well as 行った後 instead of 行ったとき in the third example? とき as being the point of something happening, thus "at the point of having left for Japan I have previously bought a radio" seems unnatural. Likewise "at the point of after having arrived in Japan I have a previously devised plan to buy a Japanese TV" seems similarly unnatural. May 15, 2015 at 4:47
  • @TheWanderingCoder 行った前 sounds unnatural. 行った後 might be OK to say 'after I went to Japan'.
    – chocolate
    May 15, 2015 at 4:58
  • @TheWanderingCoder 私は日本に行ったとき日本製のテレビを買う予定です。is not "at the point of after having arrived in Japan I have a previously devised plan to buy a Japanese TV", but "I have a plan to buy a TV at the point of having arrived in Japan." 日本に行ったとき does not modify 予定です but 買う.
    – chocolate
    May 15, 2015 at 5:02
  • Sorry, I have found a link and do agree 行った前 sounds strange. And the more I read 私は日本に行ったとき日本製のテレビを買う予定です the more it makes sense. I must have an odd reading voice in my head today. Apologies again, carry on. May 15, 2015 at 5:11
  • 1
    私は日本に行くとき、ラジオを買いました is a correct sentence that means "I bought a radio when I headed for Japan".
    – user4092
    May 15, 2015 at 12:23

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