Question about 先

So, I had always assumed that 先 just meant previous, prior, etc. but I just got very tripped up on it. I was looking at some song lyrics and got the opposite of the intended meaning. Here they are:

運命を 感情を 抱くべき子たちよ その先へ その未来(さき)へ 導かれたのなら

And the given translation is:

O children, you who should embrace fate, embrace feeling If you are led into the future, into the future.

What? Future? Doesn’t 先 mean previous though…? So I headed to the vocab page on WaniKani to see if I had learned it wrong, and lo and behold
…Ahead? But why? Isn’t that the opposite of all of the other meanings…? Well clearly this case is using that meaning, but why, and how can I tell?
Basically, I’m very confused and need some explanation. お願いします!


It depends on your point of view.

If I leave “previous” to you leaving, I left ahead of you.

It basically always means “before,” but you can have things before the present and before the future.


Though that makes sense, I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around it in this example. I don’t really understand from what perspective I should be viewing the sentence in order to make その先へ “to the future”.

I’m not sure why, but 先 can also mean the tip, the end (tip of a blade, end of a line) and by extension the future, the destination.

Also :その先

1 Like

We say the same thing in English… “what lies before me”
“what lies ahead”

That’s not the past, even though it uses the word before.


Aah, so it’s an expression. Confusing, but it now makes sense. I’ll just have to mark it down mentally. Thank you very much!

@Leebo That’s very true, I never considered that instance of “before”, uh, before. I suppose because it’s a set phrase I never thought about how misleading it could be. Thank you for your clarification.

Again, I think it’s just a perspective thing. The end of something like a sword makes contact before anything else. And some near future is still before a later future.


It also uses the word ‘lies’ meaning to not tell the truth, when it should be ‘lays’. Aren’t languages amazing in their ambiguities and colloquial usages, such as I told someone learning English, I was running late for their lesson, they thought I was physically running.

1 Like

Lays wouldn’t make much sense though, since lay is a transitive verb. The confusing thing though is that lay is also the past tense of this meaning of lie. Even natives misuse lie and lay and their various conjugations regularly (myself included, when just speaking off the cuff).


I never pay attention to lie/lay, so you are absolutely correct, I am one of those people. The only grammar point which I will never falter on is well vs good, thank you coach fischer from 6th grade for making fun of me in front of everyone for making the mistake. Now I never do it.

Thanks, I think you are correct, that’s the good way to see it, perspective issue.

I remember being troubled by 前 for the same reasons, it means before/last but also front/head which seems contradictory, but it depends on the point of view…


Surprisingly I was able to get 前 easily because… I don’t know? I guess I already had enough examples from just hearing it over the years to know immediately what it meant. Maybe it’s because “before” also works in a similar fashion, who knows. I wonder if this contradictory behavior is in a lot of other languages as well.

I’ve noticed it’s used as “ahead” a lot when talking about directions. If you’ve ever heard Japanese GPS’ giving directions or seen road signs, you’ve seen something like 150m先 before.

What you’ve got here is a time-space metaphor that doesn’t match your own language.

In English we metaphorically travel forward in time, so what’s behind us is in the past and what’s ahead of us is in the future. It makes intuitive sense to us because… well… we’re used to it. :slight_smile:

Japanese seems to be travelling metaphorically backward in time, so what’s ahead of them is in the past and what’s behind them is in the future. Compare 後ろ (behind) and 後で (after) with various meanings of 先.(past, before, ahead). It makes its own kind of sense because you can “see” your memories of past events but you can’t see events in the future because they’re metaphorically located behind you out of sight.

During linguistics, we were assigned a thought exercise.about an alien language where they had a vertical time/space metaphor instead of a horizontal one, so up represented the past and down represents the future. Similar idea here except with less buoyant jellyfish creatures.


After all these years I’ve ended internalizing it, but when I first learnt that 前 means past and 後 means future I was extremely puzzled.

A friend of mine worded it as “what comes before (前)is in the past and what comes after (後) is in the future” and I was like “well… maybe?”, because before that I could only see it as “the future is ahead (前) and the past is behind(後)”

Languages can be pretty funny.


In Japan sometimes you see 先 in train stations to indicate which train is departing first.

To be honest I had never really thought about all this until I read this thread lol. It seems somehow natural to use it in both senses.

Thanks for sharing this, it made a lot of sense! Also, very cool


Fantastic answer, very interesting stuff! I never even considered there to be an alternative to time metaphors. Just makes me realize how much I need to take a linguistics course.

1 Like

How would before and front be contradictory? They are synonyms in English. Just check a thesaurus.

Just think of it like this: If I’m before you in a line of people, I am in front, ahead of, or preceding you in the line I’m not behind you. It could also mean that I’m at the head of the line.

Also, last week came before this week in time.

Also, the person before you in a line is the last person to have reached the end before you.

It’s like asking who’s the last person in the line and then queueing after them.