I read a lot of posts here saying that Japanese has this thing called "aspects". e.g.

Must I use past tense before 後?

ありがとうございます vs. ありがとうございました

I am confused with Japanese tense

Since Japanese is heavily influenced by Chinese, which seems to only have aspects, not tenses, it is only natural for Japanese to have aspects.

However, every English website that teaches Japanese that I have seen mentions nothing about aspects. They always say "食べた is the past tense of 食べる".

Then, I started to wonder whether all these tenses are just a lie to make westerners understand Japanese easier. The websites simplified the aspect system which is unfamiliar to westerners.

Question: Does every verb in た-form actually mean the "completed" aspect (sorry I don't have a better word here)? If you are a Chinese speaker, what I mean is the aspect that 了 denotes. Is my hypothesis correct?

  • 10
    "Since Japanese is heavily influenced by Chinese, which seems to only have aspects, not tenses, it is only natural for Japanese to have aspects." ← Chinese has had essentially zero influence on the relevant portion of the Japanese language.
    – user1478
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 17:49

3 Answers 3


The real lie is in the assumption that the Japanese language is genetically related to Chinese. There is long cultural contact, and heavy lexical/morphological borrowing, but the underlying structures of the two languages remain distinct.

To answer your question, we need to first define tense and aspect. Tense is a morphological change in verbs to denote when an event took place (past, present, future). Aspect is the addition of morphological elements to denote the manner in which an event took place (to completion, on-going, etc.).

Japanese verbs most certainly have a past tense. It cannot be related to the Chinese 了, because 了 cannot be applied universally to all verbs, whereas every Japanese verb has a ~た form.


J: する → した、行く → 行った、頼む → 頼んだ

E: have → had, play → played, pay → paid, drink → drank

C: N/A

Now, consider the following set of sentences (parentheses denote comments):

(1) "I was Thomas" (but not anymore)

(1Ca) *我是了Thomas 'I was Thomas' (ungrammatical)

(1Cb) ?我是Thomas了 'I am already Thomas' (non-past)

(1J) 私がThomasでした。 'I was Thomas'

1Cb fails to show that the event is in the past; and 1Ca illustrates an even more important issue -- the aspective 了 doesn't have to attach to the verb. In order to achieve the preterite sense of 'be' in Chinese, you have to insert a time adverb like 以前 (我以前是Thomas)。

Preterite (simple past tense) た can't exist on its own, like English preterite -ed can't. It's an internal change to the verb form itself that makes the important distinction between tense and aspect. (Hence, technically, English has no future tense, since it employs modal verbs in order to achieve futurity.)

However, you are correct in that the preterite form also tends to subsume a completion interpretation, because of a lack of any other intervening aspects.

'I ate something' (past tense, but also interpreted to mean it's completed)

'I have eaten something' (I tried something, but maybe didn't eat the whole thing)

'I was eating something' (I was in the process of eating -- not finished)


It is a bit controversial whether Japanese really has tenses or aspects, but it may be more correct to think of them as aspects, as Japanese tends to refer to changes in state. Either way, there are only two main "tenses," which, like most conjugations in Japanese, are shared across verbals, nominals, and adjectivals.

The imperfective: The "default" tense, i.e. the dictionary/citation form of a verbal (動詞), which refers to a state that has not reached completion - perhaps a present state, or perhaps a future state. It is of course, then, incorrect to call this a "present" tense.

The perfective: As you mentioned, the perfective tense/aspect refers to actions that have been completed (this is sometimes called the "perfect" tense, though not without controversy, and is also sometimes colloquially called the past tense in some textbooks that like to equate Japanese to English).

At least one of the links you gave also makes this "completed" vs "incomplete" distinction, and notes that the tense vs aspect debate has not been settled. These tenses refer to actions that are, if not actually in those states, are at least in those states with respect to the (possibly hypothetical) discussion at hand. Hence, you can find predicates like: する前に知りませんでした to refer to something that happened in the past and できた後で、呼んで下さい to refer to something that will be actualized/completed at some point in the future.

A couple great resources on this are Samuel Martin's "A Reference Grammar of Japanese" and Jorden's "Japanese: The Spoken Language".

Other references (note that although the first Wikipedia article refers to "aspect," it also clarifies that there is no consensus on terms, and that the Japanese learn their language in different terms as well): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_verb_conjugation#Imperfective https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_aspect#Aspect_vs._tense https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%B4%BB%E7%94%A8#%E6%97%A5%E6%9C%AC%E8%AA%9E%E3%81%AE%E6%B4%BB%E7%94%A8

Personally, I think for the beginning learner, it's easier to think of Japanese in terms of itself (and certainly not to compare it to Chinese outside of its writing system and some words it borrowed from Chinese, which are mostly nominals, i.e. not grammar), and to think in terms of the complete vs incomplete distinction, or else "past vs present/future;" and only later, at the intermediate or advanced stages of fluency, attempting to trace its grammar, and to do so out of interest in the history, rather than out of an attempt to fit modern Japanese into some other terms. I mostly recommend this because of the lack of consensus on many of these matters, which will leave you without many answers; whereas it is well documented in many textbooks (and poorly documented in many as well) how modern Japanese is best interpreted, independent of other languages or high-level grammatical concepts. So, at the end of the day, tense versus aspect is a bit of a "moot" question (in the sense that it is "open to debate").

  • 2
    This is a good answer and I upvoted, although I disagree strongly that characterizing the Japanese -(r)u / -ta contrast in terms of tense is merely the result of thinking of Japanese in terms of English. Of course, -ta can express tense, aspect, and modality, and deciding which type of meaning is primary (if any) to pick a label is not necessarily an easy task.
    – user1478
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 21:22

There is one expression of たform(過去形) which is used as future tense.


Which means,

I will buy when I am at Europe.

The subject has yet to be at Europe, but planning to buy(something) when he/she is there. 

  • Why is this 行った時 and not 行く時?
    – obskyr
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 8:48
  • 1
    @obskyr Because it means you buy that thing after you arrived in Europe. If it's ヨーロッパに行くときに買います, it means you buy the thing when you plan to go to Europe, before leaving. As a native to Japanese, I know we use た for both the sense of perfective and perfect. There's other ways to distinctly express a completion or an experience or a state because of a past event as a present fact(state). My understanding of the perfect is completion of English 'present perfect' in premises of conditionals.
    – karlalou
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 22:29

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