I had previously asked something similar in the past, and was convinced for a while that the the question was caused by a misquote. While that could still be part of it, I think I'm now able to distill the question down to its essence. Examples are from Tatoeba.

Side assumptions #1: 先 can either be さき or さっき

I'm not sure about this, but both are listed as 先 in Jisho.org

Side assumptions #2: when written as さっき in kana, it always refer to something in the past.

さっき電話が鳴ってた The telephone was ringing just now

さっきなぜかマイクが入らなかった For some reason the microphone didn't work earlier.

Now to the bulk of the question. Why can 先{さき} also refer to an event in the future, and how do you tell when it does or does not?

の事など誰にも予想できない You never can tell what'll happen in the future

卒業式は二ヶ月だ The graduation is two months ahead.

This is confusing for me as I used to think that 先 always referred to the past because of words like 先週 and 先日.

To further add to my confusion,

5年先を見る (5 years after)

5年先に生まれた (5 years ago)

What is going on here? Are my assumptions correct? Is there a mechanism to determine if the topic in question is in the future or past, or can it only be determined via context?

  • Maybe: Noun -> Future & Adverb -> Past? Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 15:30

1 Answer 1


OK this is probably something between a comment and an answer. I'm probably going to get something wrong. So from the native speakers please point out how I'm getting this wrong.

That said, I too struggled for a long time understanding 先. The word seemed contradictory to me. And, if I look it up in one of my dictionaries (角川国語辞典) I see the following definitions:

  1. 前の部分。先頭。
  2. 進んでいく方。先方。
  3. 前途。将来。
  4. はし。末。
  5. 過去。以前。
  6. 相手。先方。
  7. 目的の所。 到着する場所。
  8. より早く位置をとること。
  9. 先物。

It would seem that definitions 3 and 5 contradict one another. But, I think that's only if you try to take this word a bit too literally. Generally, context should point out the desired meaning. And, it's possible something could be translated into English in two different ways depending on how one thinks about things.

Yet overall, for myself, what I've found helpful with this seemingly confounding word is to think of it along of the lines of that which lies in front/ahead.

When you're talking about events that haven't yet happened, then they still lie in front of us. Hence they are in the future. This would be like your example sentence


You don't predict what already happened; you predict what has yet to come. So what lies ahead is the future.

It's much the same with


Then there are set phrases like 先週 and 先日 where it's perhaps just best to memorize them and to try to avoid overanalyzing them.

With expressions like




I would take two things into consideration: (1) the form of the verb and (2) the logic of the sentence.

  • If the verb is non-past then 先 most likely refers to something yet to come (something that lies ahead of us).
  • If the verb is past, then most likely you're talking about something that preceded the moment now.

Regardless of what the particular meaning of 先 might be, it's a relative term, relative to a particular point of view that needs to be discerned. So that's what needs to be teased out: what's the perspective of this sentence.

As I've already mentioned above, it's also perhaps useful to learn certain fixed expressions and then be able to extrapolate from them. For example,


means, After you! not me first!

Shift the context slightly and


which means I'd like to leave before you (well, really it's an announcement, not a request). Getting hung up on the before/after aspect here is to miss the point. お先に refers to the person being spoken to; in a manner they take precedence.

I would think the best thing to do is to go old-school and open up one of those relics of the past, a printed and bound Japanese-English dictionary. They're organized very well. They often provide a wealth of example sentences under headers for the different senses of a particular entry. Memorizing these for words like 先 can help build your intuition about how to discern the meaning and contexts.

Regarding on-line or electronic dictionaries, they tend not to clearly organize example sentences (if at all) in a manner that facilitates teasing out nuances. (If someone knows of a good on-line dictionary that does so, please rely that information in the comments.) For example, Jisho.org provides sentences but not nicely organized by subheadings or different senses of the same word. My Apple Japanese Dictionary does a bit better job, but I still find my print version has much better examples.

  • 1
    And I’m confused with “forward” and “back” when talking about a change of schedule.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 16:46
  • 1
    @aguijonazo OMG. A pet peeve of mine. Language can be so unclear. People say all the time, "Let's move the meeting up/back" or "Push the date forward". It's extremely unclear. And two people in the same office can have opposite ideas of what is being said. So, if/when I must use these phrases I also always supply the date. But I desperately try to avoid these very words when it comes to scheduling because the language is not consistently used.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 16:50
  • Nothing wrong with your answer but your dictionary seems to lack the definition of “earlier (than sth)” in which is used in 5年先に生まれた and お先に. It could be #8 but I don’t understand what 位置をとること is supposed to mean. Definition #5 is different because in that sense is pronounced with a high-low accent as in 先の戦争 in reference to WWII.
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 17:26
  • 1
    スーパー大辞林 is clearer. Where it explains the difference in accent, [0] means 平板 (low-high in the case of a two-syllable word) and [1] 頭高 (high-low).
    – aguijonazo
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 17:42
  • @aguijonazo Thank you for recommending that dictionary. Very nice reference.
    – A.Ellett
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 18:01

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