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To my understanding, the tense of subordinate clauses is relative:

私は泣いている人に会った。

I met a person, who, at the time, was crying.

私は泣いていた人に会った。

I met a person, who, sometime before our meeting, was crying.

Is it however possible for the tense of a subordinate clause to be non-relative given the right context?

If one were for example to have the following conversation:

A: 留学している友達がいるよ。

I have a friend who's studying abroad.

B: ええ, 誰ですか?

Huh, who's that?

A: 覚えていないの? 一緒に旅行した時 留学している友達に会ったじゃない

  1. Don't you remember? When we traveled together, we met my friend, who is currently studying abroad (but might not have been at the time).
  2. Don't you remember? When we traveled together, we met my friend, who, at the time, was studying abroad.

Which of the above interpretations are correct?

Are there situations in which the tense of a subordinate clause is not relative to that of the main clause?

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    ”留学している友達があるよ" -> ”留学している友達がいるよ”. "覚えないのか? 一緒に旅行した時 留学している友達に会ったよ" -> "覚えてない(の)? 一緒に旅行した時 留学している友達に会ったじゃない(の or か)" – eltonjohn Jul 18 '15 at 11:14
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    Misunderstanding that "to remember" translates into おぼえる doesn't easily fade away. – user4092 Jul 18 '15 at 11:44
  • @eltonjohn Thanks for the corrections, I edited as per your suggestions. – Daniel Safari Jul 18 '15 at 17:34
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私は泣いていた人に会った。

I met a person, who, sometime before [or even during] our meeting, was crying.

In regards to your question on context and interpretation,

To me #2 is more plausible because:

一緒に旅行した時 留学している友達に会ったじゃない

時 here is "The time when we were studying abroad together"

Thus, the rest of the sentence takes place in that time-frame.

The confusion arises because there are two interpretations like you have said, but I would alter your understanding by a smidge:

In this case, there can be 2 or 3 people pointed to by 一緒に旅行した時

If it points to 3 people together, then "our friend who was studying abroad at the time" makes logical sense.

If it points to the speaker and (only) the other person in the conversation, then it means that the third person is studying abroad now.

So it depends on the recipient's understanding of what 一緒に旅行した points to, and since he or she clearly does not remember the person in question, it most likely points to #2.

Are there situations in which the tense of a subordinate clause is not relative to that of the main clause?

Yes, many. If you were talking about something periodic like the rising of the sun, it would not really matter what the main clause said. It is probably not that common in spoken Japanese but I think you could find many examples in literature and novels.

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Both interpretations are possible. But the former is natural in this context. So, the answer is yes.

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