Guide to Past Tense in Japanese

Let’s say you’ve mastered greetings and you have your jikoshoukai or self-introduction down. This means that you can successfully talk about where you’re from, your favorite foods, your hobbies and your interests. When it comes time to tell your coworkers that you did, in fact, watch your favorite movie over the weekend, you find yourself in need of the very handy past tense. 

How do you express something that has happened in the past in Japanese? Knowing how to make the past tense will expand your vocabulary and your knowledge of Japanese, as you flex that conjugation muscle. 

Contents

Introduction to Japanese Past Tense

There are two basic ways that the past tense is used: to make positive and negative statements and to ask questions. Japanese verbs do the bulk of the work here. Making the past tense, then, is a matter of changing the endings of verbs. Verbs are grouped according to how they are conjugated, and making the past tense differs by the verb group.

Japanese verbs in the past tense normally end with た (-ta) in the informal form and ました (-mashita) in formal form. Sometimes た (-ta) changes to った(-tta) or だ (-da) depending on the type of verb. You may know by now that Japanese is a language heavy on polite forms, so it is also useful to know how to work some politeness into your past statements or questions.  

Before we get to the point, we want to make sure that you already have a strong foundation for Japanese verbs. This will be a simpler guide, where we won’t be diving into verb modifications and grammar rules. For that, check out our Japanese verb guide.

Overview of Japanese Verbs

Let’s take a look at the categories of verbs in Japanese. Verbs can be divided into three groups: ichidan (いちだん) or ru-verbs, godanごだん or u-verbs and irregular verbs. Basically, the dictionary or plain form of ichidan verbs end in る and godan verbs end in う. There are exceptions and the differences become finer when you examine how they are conjugated, but that’s the basic principle. Irregular verbs don’t conform to those rules. Thankfully, they are few!

Examples of ru verbsExamples of u verbsCommon irregular verbs
たべる taberu (to eat)
みる miru (to see
のむ nomu (to drink)
かく kaku (to write)
はなす hanasu (to speak)
かう kau (to buy)
する suru (to do)
いく iku (to go)
くる kuru (to come)

Japanese Past Tense of Ru-verbs

To make the past tense of ru verbs, cut the ‘ru’ and replace it with ‘ta’. For example:

EnglishPlain FormTransformationPast TenseExample
To eatたべる たべ + たべパスタをたべた。
Pasuta o tabeta.
I ate pasta.
To seeみる + えいがをみた。
Eiga o mita.
I watched a movie.

Japanese Past Tense of U-verbs

There are more things to remember when making the past tense of u verbs

You will most likely insert a syllable before ‘ta’. Sometimes ‘ta’ will be become ‘da’.  What syllable comes before ‘ta’ will change depending on how the plain form of the verb ends.

Plain TenseEnglishPast TenseEnglish
のむ (nomu)To drinkのんだ (nonda)Drank
そそぐ (sosogu)To pourそそいだ (sosoida)Poured
かく (kaku)To writeかいた (kaita)Bought
はなす (hanasu)Talkはなした (hanashita)Talked
かう (kau)Buyかった (katta)Bought

U verbs are conjugated in one of the above four ways. At first, you will probably just memorize them, but as you get more comfortable, you will be able to conjugate verbs you’ve never even heard before!

てがみをかいた。
Tegami o kaita.
I wrote a letter.

ジュースをのんだ。
Juusu o nonda. 
I drank juice.

ともだちとはなした。
Tomodachi to hanashita.
I spoke with my friend.

かばんをかった。
Kaban o katta.
I bought a bag.

Check out 100 essential Japanese verbs here.

Past Tense of Irregular Verbs

These irregular verbs are so commonly used that you will be able to recognize and recall them in no time. As you can see, there are some similarities with verbs in the other two groups. These verbs are considered irregular due to how they are conjugated in general, not just in the past tense. You will also see some more pronounced differences when making the past negative

EnglishPlain FormRomajiPast TenseRomaji
To doするSuruしたShita
To comeくるKuruきたKita

Thankfully, there are only two irregular verbs: 来る (kuru) and する (suru), meaning “do”. する (suru), in particular, can be combined with verbs of Chinese origin and other loan words to form compound verbs.

よやくした。
Yoyaku shita.
I made a reservation.

ジャマイカからきた。
Jamaica kara kita.
I’m from Jamaica.

Turning Past Positive Tense to Past Negative Tense

Great news: making the past negative tense is the same for all verbs. You just change the verb to the negative or nai form, cut the ‘i’, and add ‘katta’. 

Plain TenseNegative TenseTransformationNegative Past Tense
食べる (taberu)食べない (tabenai) たべな + かった食べなかった (tabenakatta)
飲む (nomu)飲まない (nomanai)のまな + かった飲まなかった (nomanakatta)
する (suru)しない (shinai) しな + かったしなかった (shinakatta)
くる (kuru)こない (konai)こな + かった来なかった (konakatta)
ある (aru)ない (nai) + かったなかった (nakatta)

Example sentences:

おさけをのまなかった。
Osake o nomanakatta.      
I didn’t drink any alcohol.

しゅくだいをしなかった。
Shukudai o shinakatta.     
I didn’t do my homework. 

ひるごはんをたべなかった。
Hirugohan o tabenakatta. 
I didn’t eat lunch.

The not-so-great news:  How to change to the negative form depends on the verb group. You might be starting to see a pattern here. Great news again: Patterns can be mastered.

How to Express the Past in Japanese in Polite Forms

So far, we’ve been using the plain form of verbs. This is usually used in friendly or informal conversations between people who know each other. Using the ‘masu’ form of verbs adds a touch of politeness to your interactions. While there are, again, rules about changing to the ‘masu’ form according to the verb group, changing it to the past tense is pretty straightforward. 

Keep the ‘ma’, cut the ‘su’, add ‘shita’. 

Plain TensePolite FormTransformationPast Tense (Polite form)
食べる (taberu)食べますたべま + した食べました
飲む (nomu)飲みますのみま + した飲みました
する (suru)しますしま + したしました
くる (kuru)来ますきま + した見ました
ある (aru)ありますありま + したありました

Negative Past Tense in Formal Form

For the past negative ‘masu’ form, first change ‘masu’ to the negative, ‘masen’. After that, add ‘deshita.’ 

Plain TensePolite FormTransformationNegative Past Formal Tense
食べる (taberu)食べますたべませんたべませんでした 
飲む (nomu)飲みますのみませんのみませんでし
する (suru)しますしませんしませんでした 
くる (kuru)来ますきませんきませんでした
ある (aru)ありますありませんありませんでした

A Note on だ (Da) and です (Desu)

You’ve no doubt met da/desu, which functions in a similar way to ‘to be in English. It is used with other words, often nouns. The plain form is だ (da) and the polite form is です (desu). (ですis also used in many informal situations.) In the past tense, だ becomesだった (datta) and ですbecomes でした( deshita.)

To make the past tense of this helping verb, we first need to make the negative form. To do that, we can call upon the nai form that we met when discussing the past negative of other verbs. In the non-past tense, the negative of da is じゃない(janai). 

To make じゃない past tense, we follow the same rule for all other verbs. Keep the な (na), nix the い (i) and add なかった (nakatta). 

じゃない じゃなかった
Da Ja nai Janakatta

For the polite form, we change desu to its negative form, じゃありません (jaarimasen), and add deshita. 

です じゃありません じゃありませんでした
Desu Ja arimasen Ja arimasen deshita

わたしじゃなかった。
Watashi janakatta.
It wasn’t’ me. 

わたしじゃりませんでした。
Watashi jaarimasen deshia.
It was not me. 

For past questions, you almost need to remember nothing except to change your intonation when asking a question. 

How to Ask Something in Past Tense

パスタをたべた。
Pasuta o tabeta.
I ate pasta. 

パスタをたべた?
Pasuta wo tabeta?
Did you eat (the) pasta?

See, nothing is structurally different. The difference lies only in intonation. Except with more polite questions in the past tense. Here, you only need to remember one other thing: か (ka). And you add it at the end. 

えいがをみました。
Eiga wo mimashita.
I watched a movie.

To ask about something that has happened in the past, you will just need to add the か (ka).

えいがをみました
Eiga wo mimashita ka?
Did you watch a movie?

Conclusion

How to make the past tense depends on the verb group, but the past negative form is the same for all verbs. You always need to look out for irregular verbs, but you don’t need to change much to make past questions. This might seem like a lot to digest in one go, but as you get more comfortable using Japanese, your ignorance of this very useful tense will become a thing of the past.

FAQs

How can I talk about nouns in the past tense?

Just add datta or deshita to the noun, and you’re good to go. 

What if I can’t remember how to conjugate the verb? Any other ways to show that I’m talking about something that’s done?

Yes, you can use time markers such as yesterday, last year, etc. 

How about adjectives? Are there any rules for making the past tense of those?

The past forms of adjectives are very commonly used. Generally speaking, the past form of ‘i’ adjectives, is made by cutting the ‘i’ and adding ‘katta.’ (さむい to さむかった). This Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Adjectives: な and い Adjectives is one place to start learning more about adjectives.

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