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Novels in English are generally completely written in past tense, but Japanese narration is quite confusing because they constantly switch between past and present tense. For example, take this excerpt from a light novel I was reading.

加藤は、泣かない。
英梨々みたいに、泣く訳がない。
けれど、いや、だからこそ……
その、初めての叛逆が、まるで尖った木の枝で刺されたかのように、鈍く痛んだ。

From an English reader's perspective, such a paragraph is bizarre since it's a mix of present and past tense despite describing events happening at the same time. I have heard of sentences such as 私の言うことを誰も信じなかった, where only the end part of a sentence is past tense, but I am unsure if this applies to an entire novel. If I wrote an entire novel in present tense and only made the last sentence past tense, does that retroactively make the whole novel past tense?

There is also how the present tense of a verb often expresses something different from future tense or habitual action. For example:

まだ日も暮れない夕方の通学路を、駅に向かってゆっくりと歩く俺と加藤

A sentence like that is quite confusing because 歩く seemingly means "walking," the progressive form of "walk."


There are also many sections in songs where present tense is used. For example*:

諦めかけた夢がまた 波打つ
あの日のままで

It doesn't fit the usual definitions of the Japanese present tense. The best fit, I found, was wikipedia's definiton of the simple present tense for English where it says "In providing a commentary on events as they occur."

However, now I am in a conundrum. Is Japanese narration done in past tense, like English is usually done, or are they narrating as the event happens? In addition, now it is very difficult to distinguish between describing habitual actions and providing commentary as an event happens when reading Japanese.

*Link to song lyrics

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This rhetoric is called 史的現在, or historical present, which basically makes the sentence more vivid, and gives the feeling as if the reader were in the place. In particular, you can see this commonly happen in sport news.

I'm not quite sure how frequently this happens in the English literature, but I don't call it a Japanese-only phenomenon.

Related question: Why did the author briefly jump to present tense in this article?

  • That's interesting. I've heard of the historical present before, but it was mainly in an English context on how it was mainly for headlines. What puzzled me in Japanese was wikipedia described the present tense for uses like "In providing a commentary on events as they occur" and how songs written entirely in present tense might suit that instead. There are also how lyrics like 握る手が痛い in the song I posted use the present tense instead of something like 握っている. – Joe Jun 7 '15 at 8:21
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    While I think "加藤は泣かない..." is a typical example of 史的現在, I think the difference between 握った手 and 握る手 is a different issue. 握った手が痛い and 握る手が痛い are both perfectly fine in the lyrics of that song, but 握っている手が痛い would be unnecessarily lengthy. This may have something to do with perfect/完了, but I'm afraid I'm not good at this concept. – naruto Jun 7 '15 at 8:38

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