近年 and 近日 and 〜年来

I just unlocked the words 近年 and 近日 and I’m having a bit of trouble differentiating between their translations, as 近日 seems to refer to a date that has yet to arrive, while 近年 refers to a date that has already passed.

But because of the way we have 近 + (日・年) I keep thinking of them interchangeably, and incorrectly put in “in a few years” for 近年 or “recent days” for 近日. It makes perfect sense that 近日 is translated as “soon” or "in a few days”. But by this logic I keep thinking that 近年 could also mean "in a few years”. Conversely, I keep thinking 近日 could also mean "recent days” (even though we have 先日 which ). Why is one referring the the past and the other to the future?

It probably doesn’t help that 〜年来 being “for some years” or “for years” since the 来 part usually indicates a future date as in 来週, 来月, and 来年. (Plus I’m much more used to phrasing like 五年前 or 十年後.)

Any thoughts on a different way to think about this so I can learn them properly?

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I’ll quote myself on this: Time indicators - I'm struggling
It’s quite a long post that runs through an entire list of words like the ones you mentioned, so take your time. I cover 近日 and 近年 right at the end. 年来 gets covered a bit higher up. The short version though:

  • 近日 can actually refer to both the past and the future. The future version is more common, but it’s not wrong to use it to refer to the past either. The reason the usage that refers to the past is less common is probably due to overlap with words like 先日, which you mentioned.
  • 近年 most likely doesn’t get used to refer to the future because it’s hard to project yourself several years into the future. That’s my opinion.

Basically, however, the 近〜 phrases you’ve mentioned probably had their meanings determined by usage.

  • 年来: I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – ‘What comes before modifies what comes after.’ It’s a near-universal rule in Japanese and Chinese, especially when kanji are involved. 来年 and all the other 来〜 phrases have 来 come first, so they definitely mean ‘coming 〜’. The noun gets modified by 来. When you change the order, it’s 来 that gets modified by 年. I know I said something slightly different in the post I linked to above, but now that I think about the 〜来 phrases I know in Chinese (because that’s where this expression comes from, I’m pretty sure: we use 年来 in Mandarin as well (yes, I’m a Chinese speaker))… basically, 来 is a verb or an indicator of the direction of movement (specifically ‘towards the speaker’), and 年 is an adverb indicating duration. Think of Japanese phrases like 十年勉強してきた (‘I’ve been studying for ten years’): that きた is a form of 来る! Years have passed, and the time has come. It’s been ‘years coming’, as I said in the other post.

I hope all that makes more sense now. All the best!

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This is great! I really appreciate the detailed response.

I considered adding “a few days ago” to my user synonyms for 近日 but I couldn’t find any dictionary entries or sentences that translated it that way. I can think of some instances where I’d want to project something years in the future, a good example being college students due to graduate in four years or interest-bearing bank accounts where you’re talking about how many years they take to mature or something like that.

I’m definitely coming to understand that sometimes one meaning of a particular kanji will make more sense than another in the context of a word (Like 日本 is more like sun’s origin than day’s book). So in the case of 近日 I might want to think about it in terms of “soon day” rather than “close day” because soon is in the future. Even if it can be used for recent days, it seems that “in a few days” is the more common usage. Of course, that thought doesn’t really work for 近年. I wonder if I could find any research papers on this.

I think thinking about 年来 in terms of the phrase 十年勉強して来た (Do they use kanji for this grammatical structure or just hiragana?) is a good way to explain it. If I think about it that way, similar to an ongoing action it makes a lot more sense. Like “years that have come to pass” or “years that have (already) been”.

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The reason is that these definitions are all in Japanese. Here are a few: https://kotobank.jp/word/近日-481223. You’ll see this further down the page:

精選版 日本国語大辞典の解説
〘名〙

① ごく近い過去の日。また、ごく近い過去から現在までの日々。最近。近頃。この頃。

※田氏家集(892頃)下・喜晴「近日天顔黒、今朝日脚紅」

※随筆・文会雑記(1782)附録「予近日雲洞上人の徒然草を読て驚嘆しき」

② 今から後、幾日もたたないうち。近いうち。そのうち。ちかぢか。近々(きんきん)

※太平記(14C後)二「俊基朝臣は〈略〉近日に鎌倉中にて斬奉るべしとぞ被レ定ける」
[…]

It’s definition ①. In 大辞林 (which is sadly no longer online), you have this:

きんじつ【近日】
① 将来のごく近い時。今から数日の間。近いうち。近々。「―上映」「―中に発表する」
② 過去のごく近い時。過去から今日までの数日間。「当今御謀反の企て―事已に急なり」〈太平記•2〉
Definition ② refers to the recent past. I guess it’s probably a little less common that the meaning that refers to the near future though.

Oh, most certainly, but what I meant is that it’s hard to make statements related to what will happen a few years down the road with certainty. That or, well, perhaps the future has a tendency to feel further away? That might be why 近日 is fine, but 近年 might intuitively feel a little strange if used to refer to the future. 近い means ‘close’, after all.

You can do that if you like. It sounds helpful. My personal approach would be to remember that 先日 exists as well, and that in languages, competition has a tendency to push one word out of the way. But that’s because I want to remember that both meanings exist, especially since they both exist in Chinese (which I also speak).

Perhaps. I’ve never tried searching for papers on this sort of usage. I’ve found some on more widespread structures like 〜ば and the way it’s used in different contexts.

Technically speaking, you use hiragana for きた here, because it only has a grammatical function here, and doesn’t preserve its original meaning (‘to come’, as a physical movement from one place to another). (You could probably keep the kanji form for something like 行って来る though, since the literal meaning is preserved.) It’s the same reason you technically should write こと and not 事 unless you’re using an expression like 事を起こす (‘to cause trouble’), because こと is usually just a nominaliser and nothing else. In practice though, these technical rules aren’t very important outside of perhaps formal contexts. (I have no idea if I’m right though, because I’ve never studied Japanese business correspondence.) What I can tell you is that the plastic entrance chips they give you at the Hamarikyuu Gardens in Tokyo clearly use 「下さい」after a て-form (I took a photo of it), whereas you should technically only use the kanji version with after a noun, so frankly, people probably don’t care too much.

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It wasn’t until I read the last sentence that I realized what you meant. If it’s years in the future then it’s no longer close. (Incidentally, it came up in a review a minute ago and I put “a few years ago”. I should just keep at it with “recent years” until it gets into my memory.)

This is really helpful, because it takes a bit of getting used to in order to learn which words are not written in kanji.

I’ve been to Hamarikyuu…but I don’t remember the entrance chips. I DO remember learning that you could write 下さい in my first Japanese class and being very excited about it.

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