In the comments to this question I learnt that




have the same meaning, although 会った is more common.

With my current understanding, that the tense in a subordinate clause is relative to that of the main clause, I would have expected 会った to be the only correct choice, since I cannot return the book to 林さん before I've met up with him.

I was advised to post a separate question about this, so here it is. Could someone please explain how these sentences can have the same meaning and how it fits in with the relative tense rule.

2 Answers 2


Both are indeed correct, but I would understand とき slightly differently in those two sentences.

林さんに会っとき refers to a specific point in time. The speaker will be with Hayashi-san then and he will return the book when that time has come. This is a typical example of relative tense.

I would understand 林さんに会とき as referring more to an occasion than a specific point in time, or, in other words, a longer span of time than in the sentence with 会った. It sounds like the speaker will return the book taking advantage of the occasion to go out and meet Hayashi-san.

The probability of him returning the book to someone other than Hayashi-san seems to increase in this case. He might drop by a library on his way to the meeting, or meet the owner of the book after the meeting with Hayashi-san is over. He might as well return the book to Hayashi-san when the two meet, of course.

I think this can be seen as a case of absolute tense being used in a noun-modifying clause (recently discussed here), with とき being the modified noun.


I leave practically useful explanations to @aguijonazo's answer.

Linguistically this た does not indicate past tense, but perfect aspect. So this is outside any tense rule.

For example, this article cites the following:

松下(1930)は、「た」は動作性活用の語の第二活段へ附いて完了の意を表すものである。 現在、過去、未来、不拘時の何れにも用ゐられて其の完了を表す。

1 御覧なさい、綺麗な月が出ました。 現在の完了

2 私は子どもの時は国に居りました。 過去を完了に表す

3 借りたものは還さなければならない。 不拘時の事件の完了

4 明日伺ったらばお目に掛かれましょうか。 未来の事件の完了

The た in the question is the same as 4. The same article seems to discuss further how to sort out usage of た consistently, but for the current question, I suppose it is enough to note that た is not necessarily a tense marker.

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