Before, During and After in Japanese: 前 (Mae), 後 (Ato), とき (Toki), 間に (Aida ni)

Knowing how to use time markers such as before, after, and during in Japanese, can give you a strong foundation for communicating. When you’re a Japanese beginner learner, you might find yourself confronted with the different ways to use these time markers. 

These Japanese grammar points are covered at the JLPT N4 for good reason. Understanding them is essential for making your interactions in Japanese smoother. In this lesson, we’ll explain how to use 前に (mae ni, before), ~てから (te kara, and then/after/since), 後で (ato de, after),  とき (toki, when) and 間に (aida ni, while) when talking about time.

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Expressing After in Japanese using 後 (あと)

In the Japanese language, using 後で (ato de), alongside its other variations, is very common to express one action that takes place after another action. It’s simply a conjunction to express, “After X occurs, Y occurs.”  To express something that has happened after something, we use the past verb tense (~ta form) or a noun, followed by あとに (ato ni), あとで (ato de) or あと (ato). 

How do you know which one should you use? あとに (ato ni) refers to a specific point in time, while あとで (ato de) refers to a time after an event in general.  In casual speech, で may drop after あと.

Keep in mind that while あとで indicates a second action after the first is completely finished,  does not necessarily imply that one event immediately follows the other. You will want to use 後で (ato de) when the second action is not under your (or the subject’s) control.

Verb past form + あとで
Noun + の + あとで

Example sentences with verbs 

友達と会ったあと、昼ごはんを食べました。
Tomodachi to atta ato, gohan o tabemashita.
I saw my friend, and then I had lunch.

In the example above, 友達と会った後昼ごはんを食べました, the actions are seeing the friend and eating lunch. Seeing the friend takes place, and is completely finished before lunch. 

宿題が終わったあと、テレビを見ます。
Shukudai ga owattaato terebi o mimasu.
I’ll watch TV after I’m done with my homework. 

Example sentences using 後 (あと) with nouns 

仕事のあと、同僚と飲みに行きます。
Shigoto no ato douryou to nomi ni ikimasu.
After work, I’ll go drinking with my colleagues.

Now let’s break it down a bit. The た form of verbs is usually made by dropping the ます (masu) and adding た. For example:

Dictionary FormMasu (polite) formた form
食べる食べます食べますた→食べた
終わる終わります終わりますた→終わった
見る見ますますた→見た

The た form of verbs is overwhelmingly used to express the past tense. Check out this guide to making the past tense in Japanese to refresh your memory. 

Place the た-form of a verb before 後で to indicate that the action before is completely finished before the action that comes after. This pattern always references two or more actions, split before and after the grammar point itself. 

To use 後で with nouns, don’t forget the の.

会議の後, お客様に電話します。
Kaigi no ato de, okyaku sama ni denwa shimasu.
After the meeting, I will call the guest. 

In this case, also, action A is completely finished before action B is started. Contacting the customer will take place after the meeting is finished. 

Expressing ‘After’ in Japanese using てから

This grammar point is also used when talking about something that takes place after another action. It is quite similar to 後で and can sometimes be used in its place, but not always. Understanding the nuances of each point will help you decide when to use which.

The key point about grammar てから (te kara) is that it emphasizes the order in which actions occur. In other words, action A is necessary in order for action B to take place. 

Be careful not to confuse あとで with てから. てから implies that an action will take place immediately after, while あとで implies any span of time following some action, and therefore has less immediacy. 

準備をしてから寝ます。
Junbi wo shitekara nemasu.
After getting everything ready, I’ll go to bed.

In this case, you’re trying to express that you will sleep immediately after you study. Thus, てから is appropriate and あとで is not.

Unlike 後で, this can only be used with verbs.  We also want to avoid てから when the event that occurs after is not under your control. To better understand it, let’s take a look at another example. 

うちへ帰ったあとで雨あめが降った。
Uchi e kaetta ato de ame ga futta.
After I got home, it rained.

In this case, てから is unacceptable because rain isn’t something we can control. 

Let’s look at some example sentences.

日本に来てから日本語の勉強を始めました
Nihon ni kitekara nihongo no benkyou wo hajimemashita.
I started studying Japanese after coming to Japan. 

ここをよく読んでから、サインをして下さい。
Koko wo yoku yondekara, sain wo shite kudasai.
Read this carefully, then sign it. 

友達と会って、昼ごはんを食べます。
Tomodachi to atte, hirugohan wo tabemasu. 
I’ll meet up with my friend, then we’ll have lunch. 

This Japanese grammar point is formed by adding から to the て form of verbs: Verb て-form + から. In Japanese, the て form is used in many ways, including linking actions and in sentences giving an order or instruction. Refer to this te-form conjugation guide for some detailed help. Here’s a quick look at making the te-form for some commonly used verbs. Note, some of these verbs are irregular. 

Dictionary FormMasu Form- polite formTe Form
食べる食べます食べます→食べて
来る来ますます→来て
会う会いますいます→会って
読む読みますみます→読んで

To use てから, remember that in order for B to take place, A is necessary. 

Expressing “Before” in Japanese Using 前に (Mae Ni)

前に (まえに) is used to say something occurs before something else. One of the great things about this grammar point is that no fancy conjugation is required. You can use this with verbs (dictionary form) and nouns. It can also be used to indicate the physical location (in front of)

Example sentences:

寝る前に準備します。
Neru mae ni junbi shimasu
I’ll get things ready before going to bed. 

昼ごはんの前に、友達と会います。
Hirugohan wo taberu mae ni tomodachi to aimasu.
I’ll meet my friend before lunch. 

日本に来る前に日本語を勉強しませんでした。
Nihon ni kuru mae ni nihongo wo benkyoushimasen deshita. 
I didn’t study Japanese before coming to Japan. 

Verb dictionary form + 前に
Noun + の + 前に

The dictionary form of verbs is the plain form before any endings are added. All groups of verbs can be used as is with 前に. There is no tense change to the verb before 前に. The tense at the end of the sentence should indicate when the action takes place. 

Using の前に to indicate location or place

This grammar point can also be used to indicate that something is located in front of something else. As this is usually used with nouns, の comes before 前に.

家の前にお寺があります。
Ie no mae ni otera ga arimasu.
There is a temple in front of my house. 

目の前に美味しそうなケーキが置いてあります。
Me no mae ni oishisou na keiki ga oite arimasu.
There is a yummy-looking cake right in front of me. 

Expressing ‘When’ in Japanese Using とき (Toki)

This handy grammar point is often written in hiragana, but sometimes the kanji 時 is used. In a sentence with parts, とき shows a relationship between them: When A (happens), then B. とき (toki) shows a relationship between two parts of the sentence and can be used with nouns, verbs, and な and い adjectives

Let’s look at some examples.

レストランを決めるとき、いつもレビューを見ます。
Restoran wo kimeru toki, itsumo rebyuu o mimasu.
When deciding on restaurants, I always read reviews. 

私はいつも寝るとき、電気を消します。
Watashi wa itsumo neru toki, denki o keshimasu. 
I always turn off the lights when going to bed. 

眠いとき、コーヒーをのみます。
Nemui toki koohii o nomimasu.
When I’m sleepy, I drink coffee. 

暇なとき、ネットフリックスを見ます。
Hima na toki netofuriksu wo mimasu. 
When I have free time, I watch Netflix. 

田中さんは30歳のとき、結婚しました。
Tanaka san ha san ju sai no toki, kekkon shimashita.
Ms Tanaka got married at 30. 

VerbsDictionary Form + とき決めるとき
い adjectivesAdjective +  とき眠いとき
な adjectivesAdjective + な+とき暇な
NounsAdjective + の+とき30歳のとき

とき can be used with the past tense form of verbs. In such cases, it is added to the た form of verbs. For example:

行ったとき、だれもいなかった。
Ittat toki, daremo inakatta.
There was no one there when I went. 

結婚したとき、30歳でした。
Kekkon shita toki sanjusai dehita.
I was 30 when I got married. 

とき can be used with the negative or ない form of verbs. 

日本語が分からないとき、翻訳翻訳アプリを使います。
Nihongo ga wakaranai toki, jisho apuri wo tsukaimasu.
When I don’t know something in Japanese, I use a translation app. 

お金がないとき、納豆を食べます。
Okane ga nai toki, nattou wo tabemasu.
When I don’t have any money, I eat natto. 

How to say ‘During’ or ‘While’ in Japanese Using 間に

間に (あいだに) references something that takes place within a set space of time, or at the same time something else was going on. It is close in meaning to ‘while’ or ‘during’. This grammar point can be used with verbs, nouns and adjectives. Rather than just simply describing an action in fixed time, it 間に sometimes carries the nuance that doing that action means taking advantage of that fixed time

We’ve covered the grammar point of aida ni in greater detail in another article! Check them out here. 

日本にいる間に富士山に登りたい。
Nihon ni iru aida ni Fuji san ni noboritai.
I want to climb Mt Fuji while I’m in Japan. (Taking advantage of this time, as I might soon leave.)

先生がいない間にお菓子を食べます。
Sensei ga inai aida ni okashi o tabemasu. 
I’m gonna eat a snack while the teacher is still out. (Taking advantage of the absence.)

食事中にインターホンがなりました。
shokuji chuu ni intahone ga narimashita.
The doorbell rang while we were eating. 

明るいうちに散歩しましょう。
Akarui uchi ni sanpo shimasu.
While it’s still bright outside, let’s go for a walk. (Taking advantage of the light.)

元気なうちに色々な国に行ってみたいです。
Genki na uchi ni iroirona kuni ni itte mitai desu. 
I want to visit many countries while I’m still in good health. 

VerbsDictionary Form + + 間にいる間に
い adjectivesAdjective +  間にご飯の間に
な adjectivesAdjective + な+間に明るい間に
NounsAdjective + の + 間に元気な間に

間に can be used with the negative form of adjectives as well. For example:

暗くならないうちに、遊びましょう。
Kurakunaranai uchi ni asobimashou.
Let’s play before it gets dark.

安いうちに、苺をたくさん買いたい。
Yasui uchi ni ichigo takusan kaitai. 
I want to buy a lot of strawberries before they get expensive. 

Conclusion

Ubiquitous time markers あとで、てから、まえに、とき and あいだに are indispensable for your journey toward fluency in Japanese. Use あとで to describe an action that takes place after another. Use てから to emphasize the order in which actions occur. Use まえに to say ‘before’, ときに to say ‘when’, and あいだに to say ‘while’.

To learn grammar points covered on the N4 Exam, you can check out the below articles on basic Japanese Grammar for free:

In addition to the resources mentioned above, Coto Academy offers offline and online classes to help you through your studies. Offline classes are offered at our schools in Tokyo and Yokohama.

To sign up for and enroll in classes, visit this page and you will be directed to schedule a free interview!

How can I know when to use てから or あとで?

Be careful not to confuse あとで with てから. てから implies that an action will take place immediately after, while あとで implies any span of time following some action, and therefore has less immediacy. 

What does aida ni, 間に (あいだに), mean in Japanese?

間に (あいだに) references something that takes place within a set space of time, or at the same time something else was going on. It is close in meaning to ‘while’ or ‘during’.

How do you use とき (toki) in Japanese?

In a sentence with parts, とき shows a relationship between them: When A (happens), then B.


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