Time indicators - I'm struggling

Is there any pattern here? I keep getting these wrong

先月 - Last month
先日 - The other day, a few days ago
先年 - Last year (?)
先週 - Last week
昨日 - Yesterday (Huh, why not 先日)

年次 - Annual

来日 - Coming to Japan (?)
来週 - Next week
来月 - Next month
来年 - Next year
年来 - For some years

近日 - Soon (forward in time)
近年 - Recent years (backward in time - why?)


Was there some reason you included this one? It’s not related to time.

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Isn’t last year 去年 and not 先年 another irregularity :stuck_out_tongue:
I know, I get these wrong from time to time as well, don’t really have any other tips than to keep practicing.

I also get the reading of 月 between げつ and がつ wrong all the time.


For “Last year” I think you’ll want to use 去年(きょねん)rather than 先年(せんねん)
昨年(さくねん)also exists but it’s a bit more formal I believe.

I can’t really help you with any particular logic but I guess 先年 goes in the same category as 先日 since both are “a few ? ago” words.

To be honest, this just comes with time as you encounter it a lot so if you don’t get it immediately don’t beat yourself up.


Because when you follow the pattern of 来+(time interval) meaning “next (time interval)”, it seems like it ought to mean “tomorrow”, but it does not.

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I guess… but 日 doesn’t always mean a time interval. So I guess it never seemed tricky to me. It could just as well mean “coming to the sun” I guess, if there had been Japanese people on the sun.

And actually, 来日 when read らいじつ actually does have a time related meaning, which is more like “the days to come” and not specifically “the next day”

The “answer” to all of the “inconsistencies” is just that that’s how natural languages work. Sometimes there was a consistency and it eroded or changed over time. Sometimes it was just weird from the start. No one sat down and planned it.


It’s still less worse than the French word tantôt which can mean both earlier and later


You use がつ when you have a specific month in mind (a fixed point in time). There is always a number directly before it like 一月 or you ask for a specific month: 何月 the 何 is like a placeholder for a number.
For things like 一ヶ月 the number is not directly in front of the month and you don’t talk about the specific month but the duration of it. It is not specific so it could be any month. Therefore it’s げつ.

You use げつ for everything else like 今月. It is not specific. It could be any month and there is no number.
I think げつ describes a relative time period.

I am not sure it always works but that is the thumb rule I learned.

Edit: So there are a few exceptions like 正月 (It it is something specific as it stands for new year’s day and it has a “number” because it’s a day).
But learning the exceptions might be easier than guessing every time.

Edit 2: So apparently it means the first month of the year or the first few days of the year.
But even that is still a fixed point in time.


It’s not limited to the first day. The original definition is all of the first month of the year. But even when more limited in scope it often refers to the first few days of the year.

The word for just the first day of the year is 元日 (がんじつ).


Oh I didn’t know that thank you.

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Actually, a quick look in the dictionary tells me that 近日 is exactly the same: it can mean both ‘in a few days’ time’ and ‘a few days ago’. Context determines everything。

The first question that came to my mind when I read this is… in what way are you getting them wrong? Readings? Meanings? If we’re talking about meanings then… a lot of it is about common usage? Is there a pattern? Yes, I think so. Is it perfect and without exceptions? No. In essence
先=first/preceding something else and therefore most of the time ‘before’
昨=last/the preceding

How exactly those meanings get interpreted and extended depends entirely on common usage. 先月 is commonly used to mean ‘last month’, and so that stuck. On the other hand, 昨日 is the most common way of saying ‘yesterday’, which led 先日 to take on another meaning. Same thing with 先年 – 去年 is more common as ‘last year’. I guess the main takeaway from this is that the sort of ‘precedence’ implied by 先 is more expansive than that implied by 昨 or 去.

Now, before I go any further, simple rule about kanji and Japanese in general: what comes before modifies what comes after. If you keep that in mind, things should become much clearer. For example:

次 does mean ‘next’, but it can also mean ‘time’ as in ‘once, twice, thrice, four times…’. Hence, this phrase implies a sort of ‘time’/‘occurrence’ characteristic. What sort of ‘occurrence’? A ‘year-occurrence’. Thus, an annual occurrence. Once a year. 次年, at least in Japanese, would probably give us something like ‘next year’ or ‘this coming year’. (You can compare it with 次回 for anime episodes: ‘next time on…’)

For 来日, it depends entirely on how you read 日, even if that won’t give you ‘tomorrow’ or ‘the next day’. (cf @Leebo’s comment) For all the rest, you’ll notice that 来 seems to be linked to quite a consistent pattern. Why is that? Well… usage, I guess? It helps that 来 means ‘to come’, so you very intuitively get ‘the coming…’. What happened to 来日(らいじつ)then? Again, well… it’s not the most common word. The two most common words are あした and あす, and both are written 明日, and both meaning tomorrow.

As for why 年来 means ‘for the past few years’… what goes before modifies what comes after. It helps if you’ve seen more of these 〜来 patterns, but they’re far more common in Chinese (which I speak) than in Japanese, so I guess it’s no surprise if you haven’t seen them. In any case, here’s one way of looking at it: it’s a sort of ‘coming’, but what kind? It’s characterised by ‘year(s)’, so it’s a ‘year coming’.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t make a ton of sense: why not ‘a yearly coming’ then? So… I’ll have to explain it using Chinese grammar. How I see it, personally, is that 年 indicates a sort of starting point or duration: ‘coming (down over the) year(s)/from some years ago’. I think the most intuitive, literal English translation would be something like ‘it’s been some years coming’. Not exactly the same thing, but similar because it indicates that something has been happening for a few years.

For the last two… purely a result of usage. For some reason, 近日 works both for going forward and backward in time, whereas 近年 is reserved for the past. You’d probably use something like 将来の数年間 if you wanted to specify ‘years’ as a unit of time for measuring the future. Perhaps it’s just harder to say that something will last for years when discussing the future, whereas it’s easy, in common conversation, to state that something has been happening for the past few years.


Thank you everyone for very helpful comments. I understand now that there is no surefire logic to this, just have to keep practicing. As I’m starting from zero basically I think I’m currently lacking exposure to the language, written and spoken. I guess it will fall into place when I have read more, and engaged more in conversation.


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