Before? After? In front? Behind? Soon? Recent?

So I’ve been struggling a bit with concepts of before/after/behind/soon/recent as I’ve learned more words with 近, 後, and 前. Does Japanese have different concepts of what it means to be “before” or “after” compared to English, and is there a trick for helping me wrap my head around it?

Earlier on when I learned 先 I was a little confused that it could be used in words like “previous,” but also “ahead.” It seemed contradictory in my English-speaking brain, but it made some sort of sense when the mnemonic for “sensei” suggested that a teacher has previous life experience. I suppose “senpai” is probably similar - they are ahead of you, and thus have previously been where you are. I’m not sure if that actually has anything to do with the real origins of these words, but it helped for the time being. But it still gets confusing - for example, a sign in a video game might say 先 to let you know about something that is in front of you. Well, I’m not there yet, so why is it “previous,” or “past”? I guess it was there before I got there? It feels like a foreign way of thinking about it. Maybe I just have to always think of 先 as something I’m not yet caught up to, but it’s probably not that simple.

But like I said, now that I’m learning a lot of words with 近, 後, and 前, I can’t help but think there’s definitely something backwards from English in terms of how you must think about these concepts from English - or maybe I just take these words for granted in English and don’t think about it anymore.

Here’s one of the trickiest so far - how is 近年 “recent years” while 近々is “soon”? In one case, the events have already passed, while in the other, they are yet to come! Why do they both use 近?

The other day 以前 and 以後 came up in my lessons. They mean “after this” and “previously” respectively, [EDIT: I’m corrected on this below, but it just goes to show how I’m confused!] but that feels backwards compared to what I learned with 午前 and 午後, which mean “morning” and “afternoon” respectively. In one case, 前 is used to describe an event that is yet to come, and in the other, it’s the earlier event! The reverse is of course true of 後… something occurred previously, but then the same kanji is used for a later time of day.

Granted, I guess similar conflicts exist in English - if there is a grassy meadow “before you” then it is in front of you. But if you’ve done something “before,” then that means, chronologically, it is behind you. So maybe I’m crazy and Japanese doesn’t actually have a different concept of what is before/after/front/back, and it’s just as messed up as English is… it’s just that it seems to mix things up in a different way and it forces me to over-think concepts of when it happened and where is it positioned relative to me that I don’t have to think about in English.

Any tips welcome!


近 is just the concept of “near”. It doesn’t indicate any kind of direction.

I think you have that backwards. 以前 refers to a past time, while 以後 refers to a future time.

That’s how I usually explain away 先 since it’s very similar in that way. But I don’t think the others are that confusing.

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You just summarized my leech list into a forum post!

I’ll keep an eye out for answers here, since I’m basically just trying to hack my way through whenever they show up in reviews. A proper, logical reason would really come in handy. Soon, before long, previously, recently, - I’ve long accepted them as my archenemies and will probably be the last ones standing til after I burn the rest of WK. (And don’t even get me started on why 先日 means the other day but 先週 and 先月 means last week and last month, respectively. Don’t. Just… /deep breaths/ let it go…)


I suppose that is true. I guess I was equating it with “it’s near, so I’ll be there soon,” but maybe imposing a time element on it was just confusing me.

Ah, you’re right! Just goes to show that I really do have this backwards for some reason. For example, if 以後 is not yet to come, then it just feels weird to me to think of 後ろ as being something physically behind me. See what I mean? Sometimes the “third dimensional meaning” and the “fourth dimensional meaning” (a.k.a. time) feels at odds with each other if you visualize past time as being behind you and time not yet to come as being in front of you.


Yeah, I see what you mean. Thankfully, a lot of these are really common words, so as you use the language more you’ll get used to many of them. You’ll never mess up 後ろ, because you’ll have seen it thousands of times.


Hello Try4ce. I totally feel your pain. I posed a similarish question recently too, and I’m not sure if any of it truly went in my head (as this morning i found myself sending half of the words you mention back to apprentice again) but people’s erudite answers are here Time in the mind's eye in Japanese if you want a look.
I’m hoping those words are going in slowly! But I do find them confusing, I agree.


I’m wondering if the issue isn’t related to another concept of Japanese - the fact that in western languages like English we always need a person as the actioning entity. In Japanese, when a book is being read, the book is just the actioning entity, whereas in English we need a passive construction to express the same thing.

When we talk about time in English, we say the future is in front of us and the past behind us, but if you leave the person out of it and just look at the timeline itself, events that came first, or in front, are more in the past and events that come later, or are behind, come in the future.

But I’ve also wondered if the English/western way of writing (left to right) doesn’t have something to do with it. Traditional Japanese is written top down and right to left. It makes me wonder what a language like Arabic does with in front/behind and relative times.

I usually steer clear of the word ‘before’, which is a horribly duplicitous word :slight_smile: It’s meaning is relative to either you (before you) or an action/verb (before you do) and its meaning feels shifted based on that, again because of the slightly egocentric nature of western language.


I think there’s already been some good answers in here but, I remember being confused by 先 when I first learned it on WK but I feel like it makes more sense to me now. It’s kind of like 近 where it refers to a distance rather than a direction. Spatially speaking, 先 refers to the end or “point” of a long distance. Think like the tip of a spear. You can point the spear in different directions, but whichever way it’s facing, the pointy side is always the tip or the さき. And in fact, there’s a word later on in WK, 矛先 which literally means “spear tip.” This is why when speaking temporally, it can refer to both the past or the future, though confusingly it refers to a recent time when referring to the past and a distant time when referring to the future.

I think @rwesterhof 's post about time in Japanese being less egocentric than in western languages to be really spot on. In English we think of ourselves standing on an imaginary timeline and facing towards the future, so the past is “behind us” and the future is “in front of us.” But in Japanese, the past is simply what comes before (or in front) and the future is what comes after (or behind). So 前 means the front spatially, but “before” temporally, and 後ろ means behind spatially but 後 means after in time.

As for 先日 I think this is a bit of an exception; while it does match up with 先’s meaning of “a short time in the past”, I think the reason it doesn’t mean “yesterday” is because the word 昨日 already exists. But that’s just speculation on my part.


I recently came across 以前 and 以後 in my lessons and had trouble with them for a bit. I tried rationalizing them in different ways to get them to make sense but didn’t have much success. I finally just started thinking of the “go” in 以後 as “going foward” and the “zen” in 以前 as a “zen-like” reflection on the past.

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Calling Japanese “less egocentric” is really just a massive assumption that isn’t true. Without any extra information in a sentence, the default topic, or viewpoint is always 私は. That’s why as a response to a friend’s invitation you can only say パーティーに行く, and why you can only use ~たい for your own feelings, not others. It’s why you can only あげる something to someone else. It is why 先生がいらっしゃる buy 私はおる. It is why the concepts of うち and そと affect the way people speak. Because it is all about how I relate to the things around me.

That answer here is much simpler and way more mundane: Drawing a 1-to-1 parallel between words is often hard, if not downright impossible. Especially words like this. It’s like trying to find a single word translation for あさって.


Well I’m not the one who said it, I was just commenting on it in context of some specific words. I have heard that Japan’s culture is more community-first while western ideals tend to put individuals first but that’s also a generalization and assumption… so it’s definitely not something I take as a fact.

Yea, I know you didn’t say it. But your post was easier to respond to than the other one which has…many…issues.

And yea, whenever I hear those generalizations, I either tell people about Osaka, the place where Japanese stereotypes go to die. Or I just go “Uhuh” and change the topic.

From the standpoint of a non-native English speaker, “the other day” is really kind of weird too. For a long time I assumed it was literally a synonym for “yesterday”, rather than “a couple of days ago”, because the “the” determinator implies an extent of certainty and precision that is unwarranted in this phrase.

If you visualize yourself on a timeline facing the past and walking backward toward the future, everything makes sense. You can’t predict the future because it’s behind you and you can’t see it. However, you can see the past going away from you.
Sadly, it’s not how we visualize it because it’s easier and more optimistic to say we’re walking frontward toward the future.


Hmm… what about 近々 (soon, before long)?

Wow, that’s such effective imagery! Thank you for sharing!

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What about it? “soon” is a time that is near. Nothing about 近々 contradicts what I said.

Oh I wasn’t contradicting anything. I was looking for some insight about it (近 to me is more for location rather than time) and 近々 was the first example that popped in my head. But anyway looking at the other vocab with 近, I guess it’s wrong of me to associate it with only location. The “near” meaning just throws me off.

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Yeah, it can be used for both space and time. For example, 最近 means “recently”.

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