Japanese Expressions of Time (and when to use the particle “ni”)
Time expressions are incredibly useful in any language. Sometimes, even if you can’t say much else, the ability to refer to different points in time can make a world of difference.
In this article, we’ll go over the basics of how to specify different points in time in Japanese, including the most important part – how to use these expressions in a sentence.
Before we get started, however, we need to be clear about one thing…
Expressions of time are often lumped together into a single group, but the reality is there are different types of time expressions. The main three are:
- Timing = when something happens
- Frequency = how often something happens
- Period/duration = how long something happens for
In this article, we will be focusing on the first one – timing.
(For a detailed explanation of all three, with tons of examples, check out chapter 6 of my book).
Where time expressions fit into a sentence
This is a topic where it makes a lot of sense to start at the end and work backwards. The reason for this is because there are, broadly speaking, two types of time expressions, and what differentiates them is how we use them in a sentence.
First, let’s see where time words fit into the overall picture, using this diagram from my Sentence Structure Cheat Sheet:
As the diagram shows, one of the places “Time” appears is in the ‘Other information’ section. Generally speaking, information appearing in the ‘Other Information’ section can be included in a sentence in any order – as long as we use the right particles.
What’s more, unlike most other key elements in basic Japanese sentences, time expressions also often appear before the topic. (Others can too in certain cases, but it’s less common).
This basically means that time expressions can appear anywhere in a Japanese sentence, as long as it’s before the verb.
First, let’s see a couple of examples:
Today, I will go to work by train.
kyō, watashi wa densha de shigoto ni ikimasu.
きょう、 わたし は でんしゃ で しごと に いきます。
My older brother did some shopping in Ueno on Thursday.
ani wa mokuyōbi ni ueno de kaimono wo shimashita.
あに は もくようび に うえの で かいもの を しました。
In the first example, we have the time expression before the topic, and in the second, it comes after the topic [+waは]. We could have easily changed this order, but again, that’s something we’ll worry about a bit later.
First, we need to address the other major elephant in the room that these two examples highlight – when do we need to include the particle “ni”「に」?
Basically, there are two types of words or phrases that describe points in time, and whether or not “ni”「に」 is needed depends on which category a given time phrase belongs to.
Let’s take a close look at that now, and put any lingering confusion about this topic well and truly behind us.
Types of time phrases (and deciding which time phrases need “ni”)
Broadly speaking, we can divide words that describe timing into two types:
- Time words that describe a point in time relative to “now”
- Time words that rely on context for specificity
The reason we want to understand what these two groups mean is pretty simple. When used in a sentence:
- Relative-to-now time phrases should not be followed by “ni”「に」
- Context-dependent time phrases should be followed by “ni”「に」
So, let’s see what these two groups really are. We’ll use English examples in most of our explanations here since a) that’s easier, and b) this concept applies to both English and Japanese.
Time words relative to “now”
Words in this category describe points in time based on when they are/were relative to the moment when they are said.
“Now” itself is the obvious one. If I say “now” at 2pm on Friday, it means 2pm on Friday, but if I say it at 5pm on Saturday, it means 5pm on Saturday. Obviously.
The exact point in time it refers to changes according to when I say it.
The same is true for a word like “tomorrow”. It means the day after the current one, so depending on when the current day is – when “now” is – the exact timing of “tomorrow” varies.
In English, words in this category do not need one of the prepositions of time – in, on, at – when used in a sentence. For example, we wouldn’t say “at now” or “on tomorrow”.
In Japanese, words in this category do not need the particle “ni”「に」 when used in a sentence. Here are some of the most common ones:
Notice that all of them refer to a specific point or span of time that will change as time progresses.
Time words that depend on context for specificity
Words of this type do not depend exclusively on when “now” is, but rather on the context within which they are used. The reason for this is because these time units are repeating.
For example, the word “Tuesday” could be used to describe exactly 1/7th of all days that have ever been or ever will be. There have been and will be many, many Tuesdays, so if we want to use the word “Tuesday” in a sentence, we need to give it context in order to know which Tuesday we are referring to.
In English, words like this need a time preposition – in, on or at – to be used in a sentence. In the case of “Tuesday”, that would be “on”, while for times we use “at” (eg. at 6 o’clock) and for months we use “in” (eg. in March).
In Japanese, time words that depend on context need to be followed by the particle “ni”「に」 when used in a sentence.
The particle does get omitted sometimes colloquially, but for a sentence to be grammatically correct and complete, it should be included.
Now, in both English and Japanese, we also need to provide sufficient context, but how do we do that?
One way, of course, is to say something like “on Tuesday the 5th of November 2019”. The date gives us the context we need in order to understand exactly which Tuesday we’re talking about.
Usually, however, it’s much easier than that. Much of the time, the context needed is actually implied to be “now”, such as in this example:
On Tuesday, I played golf.
watashi wa kayōbi ni gorufu wo shimashita.
わたし は かようび に ゴルフ を しました。
In both languages, it is implied here that the Tuesday being referred to is the most recent one. Now, yes, this is relative to now, but consider this similar example:
On Tuesday, I will play golf.
watashi wa kayōbi ni gorufu wo shimasu.
わたし は かようび に ゴルフ を します。
The time expression…
…is identical to the previous example, but the Tuesday being referred to is different. So how do we know which Tuesday it is?
To be clear, there are two “pieces” of context in these examples:
- “On Tuesday”/“kayōbi ni”「火曜日に」 lacks more detail other than that it is a Tuesday, and this virtually always means “on the nearest Tuesday to now”. The only time it doesn’t is when there is – you guessed it – more context provided.
- The verb tense – play/shimasuします vs played/shimashitaしました – tells us if it is the nearest Tuesday in the future or past.
Both of these pieces of information are necessary to understand which Tuesday is being referred to.
By contrast, if we just said, “tomorrow”, then even if we used the wrong verb tense, we would know that the golfing is happening on the day after the current one. We don’t need any more context than that.
In fact, you could spontaneously walk up to someone in the street and say “Tomorrow!”, and they would immediately know what day you are talking about. (Please try this and report back.)
Another way to describe context-dependent time phrases would be to say that the points in time they refer to do not shift as time progresses.
For example, if we are talking about a specific Tuesday, it doesn’t matter when we say it – it will start and end at the same time regardless of whether we talk about it now, tomorrow, or five years into the future. We just have to make sure we provide enough context for it to be clear which Tuesday we are referring to.
This is clearly not the case with words like “tomorrow”, however, as the day we call “tomorrow” will start and end at a different time each day.
This helps explain why, for example, we need to use the particle “ni”「に」 with years. Here’s an example:
In 2012, Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister of Japan.
nisen jūni nen ni, abe shinzō ga nihon no sōridaijin ni narimashita.
にせんじゅうにねん に、 あべしんぞう が にほん の そうりだいじん に なりました。
We generally need to include “ni”「に」 after the year for this to be grammatically correct. Either rule can explain why:
- The year 2012 doesn’t shift as time passes, so this make sense.
- It’s less obvious how this is dependent on context, though that rule can still be applied. Put simply, 2012 in this case refers to 2012 AD on the Gregorian calendar – not 2012 BC, or 2012 on some other calendar. But how do we know this for sure? Because in the context of the world we live in, it is extremely unlikely to be anything else – at least, not without… more context!
So with that, the main time expressions that do need to be followed by “ni”「に」 when used in a sentence include:
- The time of day
- The days of the week
- The days of the month
- The months of the year
- A few other words such as, “morning”, “afternoon”, “evening” and “night”
Notice that they are all repeating, context-dependent expressions of time that do not shift as time progresses.
Without going into too much detail, here is how we express each of these:
Days of the week
Vague times of day
Months of the year
Time of day
The time of day is expressed as follows:
[Number of the hour] + ji時 + [Number of minutes] + fun分
Here’s an example:
jūichi ji nijūgo fun
じゅういち じ にじゅうご ふん
Please note, however, that the pronunciation of the minutes, “fun”「ふん」, is changed to “pun”「ぷん」 for certain numbers.
If there are no minutes, the time phrase just ends with “ji”「時」, for example, 11 o’clock would be simply “jūichi ji”「１１時」.
Also, __:30 can be expressed as “half-past” by substituting “han”「半」 in place of the minutes, so 11:30, for example, can be expresses as “jūichi ji han”「１１時半」.
Days of the month
The first ten days of the month, plus the 14th and 24th, are expressed as follows:
The remaining days of the month are expressed instead like this:
[Number of the day] + nichi日
Years are expressed simply as follows:
[Number of the year] + nen年
Importantly, the number of the year is pronounced like a normal number, not broken into chunks as is often done in English where we might say, “twenty nineteen” or “nineteen eighty-four”. Here’s an example:
nisen jūkyū nen
にせん じゅうきゅう ねん
For a much more detailed explanation of numbers and counters, including those used in time expressions, check out my book.
Hopefully it is clear now when it is (and is not) necessary to use the particle “ni”「に」 after a time expression in a sentence. Now, let’s put this to use and build some real sentences.
Using Japanese time expressions in a sentence
Now that we know when and when not to use the particle “ni”「に」, let’s go back to our sentence diagram and try building a few sentences using each type of time expression.
As we said, the timing expression can basically go anywhere, as long as it’s before the verb. Let’s try it with some examples.
Here are a few ways we can express this:
Yesterday, I ate sushi in Tsukiji.
kinō, watashi wa tsukiji de sushi wo tabemashita.
きのう、 わたし は つきじ で すし を たべました。
watashi wa kinō, tsukiji de sushi wo tabemashita.
わたし は きのう、 つきじ で すし を たべました。
watashi wa tsukiji de kinō sushi wo tabemashita.
わたし は つきじ で きのう すし を たべました。
Let’s try another one:
At 8 o’clock, I will watch a movie with my friend.
watashi wa hachiji ni tomodachi to eiga wo mimasu
わたし は はちじ に ともだち と えいが を みます。
watashi wa tomodachi to hachiji ni eiga wo mimasu
わたし は ともだち と はちじ に えいが を みます。
watashi wa tomodachi to eiga wo hachiji ni mimasu
わたし は ともだち と えいが を はちじ に みます。
Now, although time expressions can basically appear anywhere, for more natural-sounding sentences, its best location tends to be either before the topic, or as the first thing after the topic. Check out my article about Japanese word order for more about typical, natural word order in Japanese sentences.
Here are some more example sentences that include various timing phrases from both categories. For all of them, the time expressions can be moved elsewhere in the sentence like in the examples above.
Yesterday, I went to the library.
watashi wa kinō toshokan ni ikimashita.
わたし は きのう としょかん に いきました。
Miho will go to Nagoya by bullet train next week.
raishū, miho wa shinkansen de nagoya ni ikimasu.
らいしゅう、みほ は しんかんせん で なごや に いきます。
(Read more about the Japanese expressions for giving and receiving here.)
On Monday, I received a souvenir from my colleague.
watashi wa getsuyōbi ni dōryō kara omiyage wo moraimashita.
わたし は げつようび に どうりょう から おみやげ を もらいました。
Kazuya will graduate from university in March.
sangatsu ni kazuya wa daigaku wo sotsugyō shimasu
さんがつ に かずや は だいがく を そつぎょう します。
Combining Japanese time phrases
Sometimes it’s enough to just use one timing word, but often we need two or more. To make sure we don’t get confused, I’m going to break this section into two parts:
- How to combine Japanese time expressions
- How to use time expression combinations in a sentence
This way, we can focus on learning how to say things like, “Sunday night”, and then worry about fitting this into a sentence later.
How to combine Japanese time phrases
Here are some examples of the types of time expressions we can create when we combine multiple individual time words or phrases together:
- Last Thursday
- Next September
- 6pm tomorrow
- The first of January
- Monday evening
- Yesterday morning
- July 24th, 2020
- The last day of next month at 9am
The way we combine time expression varies a little bit depending on the type of time expressions we are combining.
For most time expression combinations, we need to show that one of the time phrases is a subset of the other time phrase using the particle “no”「の」:
Last Thursday (Thursday of last week)
senshū no mokuyōbi
せんしゅう の もくようび
In general terms, the particle “no”「の」 works like this:
A non-time-related example of this would be:
watashi no namae
わたし の なまえ
The thing after “no”「の」, “namae”「名前」 belongs to the thing before “no”「の」, “watashi”「私」. In other words, the name belongs to me, hence it is “my name”.
The same idea applies to time phrases like our example:
senshū no mokuyōbi
せんしゅう の もくようび
The Thursday belongs to last week, so it is “last week’s Thursday”, which in English we shorten to simply “last Thursday” (there is no such alternative phrasing in Japanese).
When we combine time expressions using “no”「の」 like this, the most important thing to remember is this:
Time expressions linked by “no”「の」 should be in order from largest to smallest.
Last week, a 7-day period, is “larger” than Thursday, a single day. The Thursday must belong to last week, not the other way around, so “senshū”「先週」 needs to be before the “no”「の」, and “mokuyōbi”「木曜日」 after it. Here are a few more examples showing this:
rainen no kugatsu
らいねん の くがつ
getsuyōbi no yūgata
げつようび の ゆうがた
ashita no asa
あした の あさ
The afternoon of last Thursday
senshū no mokuyōbi no gogo
せんしゅう の もくようび の ごご
As you can see, the “larger” (or less specific) time expressions are always first, with each subsequent one being “smaller” (or more specific) than those that come before them.
Situations where we don’t use “no”
There are a few situations, however, where “no”「の」 is not required, the main two being dates and times. To express dates, for example, we simply string together the year, month and day in that order – no “no”「の」 is needed:
July 24th, 2020
nisen nijū nen shichigatsu nijū yokka
にせん にじゅう ねん しちがつ にじゅう よっか
Similarly, if we want to express a time of day, we just say the hour then the minutes, without “no”「の」 in between:
rokuji jūgo fun
ろくじ じゅうご ふん
Now, if we want to combine dates and times with each other, or with anything else, we generally would include “no”「の」 between those “chunks”. Here’s an example combining a date and a time:
6:15 on July 24th, 2020
nisen nijū nen shichigatsu nijū yokka no rokuji jūgo fun
にせん にじゅう ねん しちがつ にじゅう よっか の ろくじ じゅうご ふん
Here are a few examples that combine dates or times with other time expressions:
Tomorrow at 4:30
ashita no yojihan
あした の よじはん
July 24th next year
rainen no shichigatsu nijūyokka
らいねん の しちがつ にじゅうよっか
The afternoon of July 24th
shichigatsu nijūyokka no gogo
しちがつ にじゅうよっか の ごご
The afternoon of July 24th next year
rainen no shichigatsu nijūyokka no gogo
らいねん の しちがつ にじゅうよっか の ごご
July 24th next year at 4:30 in the afternoon
rainen no shichigatsu nijūyokka no gogo no yoji han*
らいねん の しちがつ にじゅうよっか の ごご の よじ はん*
- when combining non-number-based expressions, join them with “no”「の」
- dates don’t need “no”「の」 within them
- times don’t need “no”「の」 within them
- when combining two or more chunks together, we generally need to join them with “no”「の」
- always express them from largest to smallest (or least specific to most specific)
There are so many permutations and colloquialisms that it’s impossible to cover absolutely every possible situation, but stick to the above few rules and you’ll almost always be right.
How to use time phrase combinations in a sentence
Using time expression combinations in a sentence is really no different to the way we use simple time expressions.
Firstly, they can appear in the same locations – that is, before or after the topic, usually closer to the beginning of the sentence.
Secondly, the rules for whether or not to use “ni”「に」 are the same too – we just apply it to the last word or phrase in the overall time expression. Let’s see an example:
senshū no mokuyōbi
せんしゅう の もくようび
This ends in “mokuyōbi”「木曜日」, and “mokuyōbi”「木曜日」when used alone would require “ni”「に」, so the time expression as a whole requires “ni”「に」. The fact that “senshū”「先週」 wouldn’t need “ni”「に」 if used by itself is irrelevant.
It’s actually even easier than this – you virtually always need “ni”「に」 with time expression combinations because, by definition, time words that express time relative to “now” can’t really be used after “no”「の」; it generally just doesn’t make sense. Let’s try it:
Next week’s now?
raishū no ima?
らいしゅう の いま?
Last year’s tomorrow?
kyonen no ashita?
きょねん の あした?
When we join time expressions together in a chain, the whole reason we do so is so that the less specific time expressions give us the context we need to better understand the more specific ones.
Relative-to-now time expressions have this context built in, so they shouldn’t ever need further context, and we never need to anchor them to other time expressions.
So, since all time word combinations should end in a context-dependent time phrase, these combinations should always be followed by “ni”「に」 when used in a sentence. Here are some examples:
Shun bought a new car last Thursday.
shun wa senshū no mokuyōbi ni atarashī kuruma wo kaimashita
しゅん は せんしゅう の もくようび に あたらしい くるま を かいました。
I start work on April 1st.
watashi wa shigatsu tsuitachi ni shigoto wo hajimemasu
わたし は しがつ ついたち に しごと を はじめます。
The Tokyo Olympics start on July 24th next year.
tōkyō orinpikku wa rainen no shichigatsu nijū yokka ni hajimarimasu
とうきょう オリンピック はらいねん の しちがつ にじゅうよっか に はじまります。
Hopefully you now have a solid understanding of time expressions in Japanese, how to use them in sentences, and when we need to use the particle “ni”「に」. Here are the key points from this lesson:
- Though they can appear almost anywhere in a sentence before the verb, the most common place for time expressions is immediately before or after the topic (and particle “wa”「は」).
- Time expressions that express a time relative to now, such as “ashita”「明日」 (tomorrow), “raishū”「来週」 (next week) and “ima”「今」 (now) itself, do not need to be followed by the particle “ni”「に」 when used in a sentence
- Time expressions that are repeating, do not shift as time progresses, and therefore depend on context for specificity, such as the time of day, days of the week, or months of the year, should always be followed by the particle “ni”「に」 when used in a sentence
- When combining time expressions, most should be joined together with the particle “no”「の」, in order from largest to smallest. The main exceptions are dates and times, which do not need “no”「の」 within themselves to join the year, month and date, or the hours and minutes. With combinations, use “ni”「に」 at the end if the last word in the phrase would normally need it.