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How to Talk About the Future in Japanese

In Japanese, the future is now.

By 5 min read

With the New Year celebrations behind us, it’s time to forget about our past mistakes and look forward to the future.

Talking about our New Year’s resolutions in Japanese isn’t so easy though. Mastering the future tense is as arduous as finishing an entire osechi bento including those… unidentifiable fishy bits.

One of the biggest problems with talking about the future tense in Japanese is that, one could argue, Japanese doesn’t really have a “proper” future tense like other languages.

A common example of this is 大学だいがく which can mean anything from the present (I’m going to university [and am a student now]) to the future (I will go to university [and I am not a student now]).

Forming the future tense in Japanese with nouns

Japanese accomplishes a lot of what English accomplishes with “will” and “be going to” by attaching nouns instead of verbs to the verb in question.

The most commonly attached nouns are つもり (“intention”) and 予定よてい (“plan”). For example, if there was likely to be any ambiguity about whether the speaker was talking about the present or the future when they said 大学へ行く they may add つもり to make 大学へ行くつもり (“I intend to go to university”) or 予定 to make 大学へ行く予定 (“I plan to go to university”), which may help to clear up any misunderstandings.

The ことに form

So far so good? Things get just a bit trickier when we want to project into the future. For that, we need to use the ことに forms. The most common of these are ことにする and ことになる.

ことにする implies you’ve “decided to” do something. In this case, you’ve made the decision (in the past) to do something (in the future). Make sense?

Let’s look at some examples.

  • かれ意見いけんくことにする = I will listen to his opinions
  • わたしをつけることにする = I will be careful

Of course, this grammar can also be used to state your New Year’s resolutions or goals for the year. So someone like myself with a fondness for Christmas cake might say: これからケーキはべないことにする (“From now on I won’t eat cake!”) Don’t quote me to that in a month from now…

ことになる, on the other hand, is a similar grammar point that is instead used when the decision has been made by someone else or is beyond your control.

  • ながあいだいることになる = It will be there for a long time
  • たいへんなことになる = It will be tough

In both these sentences, the speaker has no control over how long the event will be or how tough said activity will be.

The ~になる form

ことになる is not the only grammar point like this, as the ~になる form can also be used to look into the future. While ことになる is usually added to verbs or adjectives, になる is often added to nouns to mean that “~ will become ~” such as 種子しゅしはなになる (“This seed will become a flower”).

While になる is debatably future tense as it can also be used to make general statements about something, it is often found with だろう or でしょう to make it clear that the speaker is talking about the future.

かれ医者いしゃになるだろう (“He will become a doctor”) or 天気てんきになるだろう (“The weather will be good”), for example, are often used to make suppositions about a future event.

でしょう and だろう

でしょう and だろう are two examples that also serve as future tense equivalents as they are often used to make guesses about what will happen, often based on current information.

The problem is that current information works both ways and it is often possible to infer about things that happened in the past using these forms.

So while 彼はるだろう (“He’ll come”), 明日あしたあめだろうか (“Will it rain tomorrow?”), あらしになるだろう (“It’ll be stormy tomorrow”), and 彼も行くでしょう (“He will go too”) are all similar to “will”; it would be difficult to argue that when だろう/でしょう is attached to past tense sentences such as 馬鹿ばかだったんだろう (“I was a fool”).

Talking about the near future

Another common form is にいく and にくる. These are often used for expressing the near future.

勉強べんきょうしに (“Came to study”) or 手伝てつだいに行く (“Go to help”) are two examples of this where the action will take place in the near future.

Expressing probability

One of the slightly less commonly used grammar forms is 可能性かのうせいがある (Probability of something happening).

Take, for example, 今夜こんやゆきになる可能性がある (“There is a probability it will rain tonight”).

Of course, this falls apart when 可能性がある is used to describe a general statement such as この機械きかい爆発ばくはつする可能性がある (“This machine has a probability of exploding”) which is obviously a statement about the nature of something rather than a future tense.

Another possible contender is かもしれない as in the sentence 明日は雨かもしれない (“It may rain tomorrow”).

Like most probability grammar, it can also be used for statements of common fact such as それは本当ほんとうかもしれない (“That is probably true”) which makes it a poor contender for a true future tense.

Adding adverbs to make future tense sentences

Ultimately, one of the most useful ways to make future tense sentences is by attaching an adverb to the verb that indicates that the verb will be happening in the future. まもなく, もうすぐ, すぐに and many others are all added as adverbs to mean that something will happen soon, for example.

Therefore our quest for a true future tense in Japan has proved not entirely fruitless but not exactly bountiful either, as many of these forms only function as future tenses in certain specific situations and there are many exceptions.

So what are your plans for this year? Let us know in the comments and bonus points if you can use one of these grammar points!

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