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In this question, there is a sentence

私はローマに住んでいた時に子供でした。

My question is: do we need to consider relative tense here?

Can we say 住んでいる時 to mean that the event that I was living in Rome (A) and the then fact that I was a child (B) happened simultaneously (at least living in Rome didn't come before being a child)?

In this link, I found two example sentences

ご飯を食べている時、山田さんがうちへ来ました。

ゆうべ寝ている時、地震がありました。

Both use 〜ている時 instead of 〜ていた時 to mean "was doing something". So why do we use 住んでいた時 rather than 住んでいる時 to mean "was living"?

3

Some key points to consider when analysing your sentences:

1. Using the terminology of the Dictionary of Japanese Grammar series, your sentences are of the format S1 toki S2 (Sentence 1 とき Sentence 2).
2. According to that dictionary's explanation (p493 of 'A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar'), when S2 is past tense and S1 expresses a state, you can use either past or nonpast in S1.
3. The verb 'live' is usually considered to be a stative verb (a verb that expresses state), at least in English (here, for example).
4. Therefore, since S2 is past (でした) and S1 expresses a state (住む), the verb in S1 can be either past (住んでいた) or nonpast (住んでいる). The meaning is identical for the phrases, according to their definition.

5. While your examples are grammatically correct, it would still be more natural to use the sentence 子供の時、ローマに住んでいました, as pointed out by another user. This construction emphasises that you are talking about a period of time in childhood. The 'living in Rome' time period is a subset of the total 'childhood' time period, not vice versa. As an analogy, consider how a similar restructuring might sound in English:

(A) I lived in Rome and I was a child.
(B) I was a child when I lived in Rome.

These are not direct translations of your sentences but the point is that show that while both are grammatically correct, Sentence A sounds strange because of the emphasis on living in Rome. Sentence B sounds natural because the relationship between the elements is correct.

6. The rules are different if the S1 expresses an action.

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  • But does not ていた function like English Past Perfect, I have seen a different examples and in all of them English Grammar Principles apply (still not 100% sure), unlike ている. Since you are a native speaker I will skip the rule of Past Perfect in English. So, if we go by the sample principles, doesn't use of ていた, make living in Rome prior to speaker being a child, as per the English Past Perfect (which as per my little knowledge applies). So, is not ている a better choice? Also, The same was there in the question "at least living in Rome didn't come before being a child" for using ている and not ていた – APK Aug 11 at 16:23
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    ていた might be similar to the past perfect in some conditions, but it's more useful to see it in the context of Japanese examples. As outlined in my answer, since the right conditions apply, ている and ていた mean the same thing in your sentence. – kandyman Aug 11 at 16:32
  • Just seeking a clarification, Can 子供の時、ローマに住んでいました imply that we are living there technically from our birth, as after birth (not going into literal term of infant) one is considered as a child whereas, in the ている case it is means that I lived there when I was a child, removing the nuance of by birth? Just another question; does English Past Perfect principles, always apply in case of ていた, or is there some other rule governing them as well (Any link attached would be useful. I tried searching for different links on stackexchange but all of them followed English Past Perfect Rules). ありがとう – APK Aug 11 at 17:03
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    It doesn't necessarily imply 'from birth', just that during an ongoing period of time (of unknown duration) in childhood, they lived in Rome. To specify 'from birth' would need a clarification like 生まれてから. – kandyman Aug 15 at 9:36
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I am not a Japanese grammar expert but just a native Japanese speaker.
I think you can say 「ローマに住んでいる時、子供でした。」.

ローマに住んでいた時、子供でした
ローマに住んでいる時、子供でした

I personally think there is no difference between the meanings.

However, as the comment of the original question mentioned, the sentence 「ローマに住んでいる時、子供でした。」is a little bit wired even though it is grammatically correct.

「子供の時、ローマに住んでいました」is I think most natural way to say it.
Or if you want to put 「子供でした」at the end of the sentence, you can say 「ローマに住んでいた(る)時は、子供でした。」

The reason why I feel the original sentence is wired is I think that

  1. A part before "、" is much longer than the rest of the sentence(or sentence after "、" is too short compare with the former part).
  2. Usually, the information "you were a child at the time" is less important than the information "where you lived in your childhood". So If you add "は" after "時", I can smoothly understand the information that "You were child at the time" is main theme of this sentence and I can feel the sentence more natural
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