Time in the mind's eye in Japanese

I wonder if I can put this clearly (bear with me)!
I’ve been struggling a bit with some of the time-related vocabulary on recent levels. I’m not sure if the problem lies with my conceptions not matching up with a Japanese way of thinking.

For example, in my head, the past is behind me. And the future is in front. But I know that’s not culturally the same across the world. Which is perhaps why I’m getting confused when I come up against things like -

後 which seems to mean behind and rear (which in my mind are behind me), but when it’s 後で then it means after, later (which in my mind is in front of me). And 以後 means after, from now on.

or, 前 which means front, (which in my mind is in front of me) but then it also means before 以前 (which I can’t help feeling is behind me)

And another one (if you can bear it) is 先回り, meaning ‘arriving ahead’ or ‘anticipation’ (which to me are things in the future, so in my mind in front of me) but literally the kanji mean ‘previous times’ (which my mind wants to have behind me).

Anyway I know I should give up the struggle and just Accept That’s How It Is, and just remember them!

But I was just wondering if anyone had any thoughts, or insights about why these don’t seem to match up with my ‘English common sense’ about what they should mean. (I get confused about ‘coming month’ and ‘soon’ and suchlike, but I don’t think that’s in the same category of confusion?)


It’s not that different in English. “What has come before me” is stuff that is now behind me. “What lies before me” is stuff that is in front of me.

I think we just don’t notice these kinds of things, but they are there.


Maybe it helps if you don’t use yourself as a point of view. An event X that takes place 後で can of course be in front of you, that is in the future. But it is still behind all the events that come before event X is reached.


X is an event that happens later (後で). It is behind the events o1, o2, o3 etc. It doesn’t really matter where you are. X could be still in front of you or behind you. Your position does not change the relation of the other events.

(I hope this makes sense.)


And another one (if you can bear it) is 先回り, meaning ‘arriving ahead’ or ‘anticipation’ (which to me are things in the future, so in my mind in front of me) but literally the kanji mean ‘previous times’ (which my mind wants to have behind me).

The event of arriving ahead does not have to be in front of, it could have happened in the past. And maybe you were not directly involved. Let’s say there was a party you attended and B arrived ahead of A.
All that matters is that Bs arrival (BA) happened before As arrival (AA). The relation of these events stays the same not matter what your position is on this timeline.



I am struggling with this as well, one word that still messes me up is この先 “beyond this point”, with me having learned that 先 is previous/earlier… this trips me up big time.

You are not alone :stuck_out_tongue:


This is very good, thank you Buburoi.
It brought to mind something I was watching on Cure Dolly’s channel, which (I’m paraphrasing, I think this is what was being got at) - was saying that English is a very self-centred language. And that’s why English speakers have problems with Japanese grammar when it comes to things like ‘I like coffee’. Because in English it’s all about me and what I’m doing. But in Japanese the coffee can be likeable, it’s the other way round. Which is very alien to how English is structured.

Soooo to get to the point, perhaps this is another example of my egotistical ways. I’m expecting things to be from my point of view - but you’re right, there is another way of looking at everything. I need to step outside myself.

I think your explanation will help - thank you so much for taking the time. (No puns intended)


I don’t think this has anything do with Japanese being less self-centered. As far as I understand it other languages work like this as well: Being in front or after something doesn’t refer to the speaker’s position. If you talk about time you usually take a step back and watch from the sideline. From there you can see the sequence of events and their connections. :v:


Top tip. Thank you. Japanese is the first language I’ve tried to study (let’s not include languages at school, because I had no interest then and tried to avoid them entirely) - so I suppose I’m only noticing these things for the first time now. So as you and Leebo say, it’s there across the board. It’s all very interesting!
(In fact, it’s all so interesting that it is utterly distracting me from ‘working at home’ during the latest lockdown here… I’m not sure my employers would be terribly impressed)


I think 先 does not only mean previous and before but also future. And this is the meaning that’s important when you use この先.
While 前 can also mean before, it doesn’t have this meaning of future. この前 therefore refers to the past and means some time ago etc.


The mental image I use to help with that after/behind and before/previous conundrum is to imagine myself in a queue to cross a door. The people who are in front of me have already gone to the door previously of me; the people behind me will go after.

Not sure how この先 will fit there once I reach it, though…


You are absolutely right but the fact that it means previous and future is not helping my brain haha, to me those two things are not related :stuck_out_tongue:
I just need to learn them and get used to them.


I’m also struggling with that one :exploding_head:


That makes me feel better :smiley:


I think the concepts of ahead and previous/before are not that far away. For example when you start running and somebody else started running before you, then he probably is ahead of you.
Or take a 先生. His life started before yours and he therefore had much more time to learn all the stuff he is teaching now. That’s why he is ahead of you. :v::grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

Edit: Or maybe it’s helpful to think of 指先 and 鼻先. previous won’t get you far here, but the meaning of future and ahead. The fingertip and the nosetip point ahead into the future.


That is an interesting point actually… now I’d like to have a look at all of the places 先 is used in the “previously” sense, and see if they match that kind of thinking.

Because you are right if someone starts previous to you, then they would by all accounts be ahead of you. I guess it’s a strange thing when it can both mean time and place… この先 for instance I’ve seen refer to a place like a guard saying “beyond this point, lies the kingdom of bla bla bla”. So there, the idea of “something starting before” doesn’t necesarilly clarify…

I’ve done zero research on this, just tried to memorize it so maybe looking this up will help haha. Might do some digging tonight.

For the 先生 example, is that actually the reason for the kanji’s or is that just some @buburoi thinking? :slight_smile:

1 Like

I just made this up for myself to remember the meanings. :v:

1 Like

I don’t see why that would be useful. I guess the important thing is not get stuck on 先 meaning only previously. Because then you will always find expressions like この先 etc. strange and confusing. Maybe you could just go with the flow and see that previously and ahead are two sides of the same medal.

1 Like

Oh it was just out of curiosity really.

1 Like

Perhaps the guard is saying “This point is before the kingdom of bla bla bla”…

1 Like

But wouldn’t that just be the normal “forward direction” thing in this case? Imagine you’re standing at that point and are looking towards the kingdom, then it’s literally before you, no?


These are great examples to put この先 in perspective for me, I guess I was a little hung up on the translation of “beyond this point”, beyond in my brain being connected to something ahead or after. But thinking of it in terms of [“This point is before” whatever comes after] which would be the same as “beyond this point”, helps make the 先 in この先 make a bit more sense to me.