Meaning of とき

I have a question. I’ve been using the Genki textbook series to start learning Japanese and I’m enjoying it so far. There’s one word I came across where Google Translate and the book don’t match up, and that word is とき. According to Google Translate, it means ‘when’, but according to my book, it means ‘at the time of…’, OR ‘when’, to be used when talking about a time (example: とき一時, or ‘at the time of one o’clock’). Which is it? I asked in a Discord language exchange group and they sent me an article but it was long and confusing. Thanks for your help. I’m new here BTW! Nice to meet you all.

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Languages aren’t simple things. I can’t answer your specific question, but “when” and “at the time of” are very close in meaning, though not in use.

In general, when learning a language, it’s frequent that you will get a word translating into two, three, or ten different English words. Japanese and English (or any language pair) just don’t map onto each other precisely.

The reason that the article you were sent was long and confusing is that languages are complicated.

I’m guessing that you’re a beginner at both Japanese and at language learning. At this stage, I recommend that you look at the examples you’re seeing in Genki and tell yourself, “If I want to get THIS idea across in Japanese, THIS example here shows how I do it.” Telling yourself, “THIS Japanese word translates into THAT English word” won’t work as well.

Another way to say it is this. You’ve learned one way to use toki. But whether you translate that “when” or “at the time of,” that won’t tell you how to use it in other contexts than you have so far seen.

I believe that the word, all by itself, translates to “time.” But that word “time” won’t be used the same way that it is in English, so knowing that gets you only so far.

Hang on—it’s sometimes a confusing ride, but you can do it!


It means when as in when you’re specifying a time that something occurs. For example:
“When I was a child, I read lots of books”

“When” in English can mean many things, but とき used in this way only has a certain meaning. I hope this makes sense, if you need more clarification feel free to ask.

It’s a good time to make this the last time you use Google Translate.


I’ve been slowly getting confused by the difference between とき, こと (and/or の), もの, よう, there may be more. And by that I think I’m not even advanced enough to the point where they’re confusing, but they’re going to be. Or maybe it will all make sense then. Crossing my fingers until I get there.

Is Google Translate that bad? I know it used to be horrendous but was under the impression it had gotten better. But it gives me pause that when you reverse the translation using it again, you rarely end up with your original sentence…

Yes, it’s that bad. I’ve heard that Google Translate has gotten better, but that’s referring to languages with similar roots and grammatical structures, like English and Spanish.

The only thing Google Translate is useful for for Japanese is looking up kanji using the camera.


Google translate is effectively useless for anything more complicated than “this is a pen” and it can even screw simpler stuff up.

It’s a matter of how much you can trust it. Is getting the sentence right 60% of the acceptable? Not for me.


The thing to understand is that Google Translate is using machine learning. So it will improve over time as it gets more and more input, but it will be a very long time before it’s very good, if it ever is.

The fact that Japanese is highly contextual means that I don’t think you’ll ever be able to machine translate certain sentences. It will always generate one answer for people, but people who have studied for a while will know the full variety of potential meanings from an ambiguous sentence.

Google doesn’t want to dump a lesson on grammar to people. Users expect a “one true translation”

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I depends what you expect it do do. I will give you a rough idea what a text is saying in languages you have no clue about. But it is not a better dictionary or a replacement to learn a language :slight_smile:

English and European languages have better coverage because of larger interest, closer ideas on how to express something, and more texts to feed them into. My random guess is that the work that goes into Japanese <=> X is 5–10 years behind what is done for English <=> European languages, with 1/10 of the manpower. [/wild speculation ends]

There are additional challenges like segmenting the sentences, and when there are typos or grammar errors the system can completely be thrown off. Sentence fragments are also challenging [the system is not built to just put とき in there]. If you put a whole, correct sentence in there it should produce something acceptable.

I think Google shifted from completely automatic to assisted (there is a Google Translate community where you can translate short fragments and rate existing material), so there is more reliable input now.

So basically Japanese <=> X is still in an early stage, but better than nothing. If half of a sentence is implied you will never get a great translation, obviously :slight_smile:

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Google Translate is handy for breaking down and deciphering sentences if you have no idea. Put a line break after every particle and you might be able to get a fuzzy sense of what the sentence means when you put it back together in your mind. It often fills in wrong assumptions about stuff omitted from the original sentence.

But if you take some sentences you know and put them in to translate back to English, you’ll see that it’s definitely not for production use. And I wouldn’t even THINK of going English → Japanese without being able to read and correct the result.

(That’s how I got a very helpful grocery store person to drop what she was doing and run and find me chopped onions. Unfortunately I was looking for nutmeg and cinnamon, and typed “spices” into G Translate to show her. I don’t know what it said, but it clearly wasn’t “where is the spice section.” I kept the onions anyway because I didn’t have the heart to say no after all that.) :smiley:


The scary part of Google Translate, to me, is that it DOES occasionally poop out good sounding sentences but just because it sounds good doesn’t mean the sentence actually is good.

Also it seems to get thrown off by the vast majority of slang (which there’s obviously a lot in Japanese), random katakana often throws it off, and like Leebo said, it cannot tell context.

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Definitely not an expert, but from what I’ve gathered,

  • とき is time. ちいさいとき “when I was little”, Xをみるとき “while watching X”.
  • もの is a physical thing. つまらないものですが “it’s a trivial thing but…” (set phrase when presenting gifts).
  • こと is something non-physical. たべることがすき “I like eating”, うたったことがある “{I sang} exists” = “I have sung”.
    Both こと and の can noun-ify things. Sometimes one sounds right and the other doesn’t. I don’t know why.

Maybe I watch too much anime, all I hear is っぽい for “likeness” which is very informal. I don’t have a good handle on よう, which seems similar but also not quite…

もの feels a bit broader than your description, but generally speaking you can use もの or physical things, yes.

I’m not sure if a movie counts as “a physical thing” but you can say stuff like あの映画は一度見たものだ “I’ve seen that movie once”

The もの in ものが分かっている人 is also quite abstract.

もの can also be a person

I know people are “physical things” but people might not jump to that from that definition.

Thanks. I don’t think I’ve heard those usages before - or (more likely) I’ve just failed to pick up on it.

In that case, the もの・こと distinction is more similar to 東西・事情 in Chinese than I knew before. (Also, I have no idea why “east west” literally means “thing”.)

Oh, I forgot to mention that the もの for person has a different kanji, 者.

You know that kanji, I’m sure, but I think at level 16 there are no words that use the もの reading that have appeared yet.

However, it can also appear alone as a single kanji in that usage I mentioned.

Ooh, that’s good to know. Yeah, at this point I know that kanji but not that reading. Adding that to the growing pile of “words with same reading and slightly different nuances but totally different kanji”.

The way I think about learning single words in isolation is that it’s just sort of a tiny grain of knowledge you use to build up your actual future understanding of the word.

For instance, for 時, simply the word “time” may be a pretty decent place to start from.

Knowing this might help you get at least the gist of both usages such as 時の流れ (“the flow of time”) where it’s used almost identically to the english word above, and 食べる時に (here you might be able to make the leap from “at eating time” and realize that it’s sort of similar to one of the places where one would use the english word “when”, i.e.“when eating”. You would then have a tiny bit better understanding of the actual japanese meaning of the word! :slight_smile:

I wouldn’t worry too much about understanding all the nuances of every word off the bat. It’ll come as you get more exposition.

Genki or similar will also likely explain this in manageable chunks. And when it does, as @LaughingLiving said above, just think of it like “Ah, so this word can be used to express this other concept too!” rather than scramble for an exact english definition!

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You may as well just retitle this thread “is google translate completely useless?”

It is btw