Why is 近日 "coming days" but 近年 "recent years"?

I keep mixing the meaning of these kanjis, I don´t understand why 近日 is for “coming days”, so for the future, but 近年 is for “recent years”, so referring to the past…can someone please explain why “近” is use in these two different ways?


Whether something is in the past or future doesn’t impact how “near” it is. The fact that they go in opposite directions is just a fluke of word usage. Similar things happen in all languages.


It’s sometimes helpful to remember that kanji are a Chinese import. They were retrofitted onto the existing spoken language relatively recently. Chinese and Japanese are completely different (spoken) languages, and of course English is very different from both of them. Sometimes the (Chinese) character representation of Japanese words just isn’t assembled the way English speakers expect.

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You have also the extremely common 最近 which means “recently”.

Interestingly 近日 does apparently mean “in recent days” in Chinese: 近日 - Wiktionary, the free dictionary

That being said in this instance I would guess that the word was borrowed from chinese and the meaning shifted at some point. It is after all a jukugo word using the Chinese reading of the characters, it’s not a preexisting Japonic root that was attributed a kanji post-facto.

I’m always frustrated that etymology resources for Japanese are so incomplete or not easily accessible. I’m used to studying Indo-European languages where the etymology of most words is thoroughly documented, often all the way to Proto-Indo-European. Meanwhile I can’t find the etymology of basic Japanese vocab 50% of the time.


IIRC, the Japonic family is independent of languages like Korean and Chinese. So there just isn’t much etymology to begin with, and what there is, is probably in Japanese.

If the kind folks here know of good native sources for Japanese etymology, I’m certainly a taker.

When I can’t find an etymology on English Wiktionary I sometimes try my luck with the Japanese version but more often than not it’s actually less detailed…

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I once came across a recommendation in a reddit thread of this site (gogen-yurai) as an online etymological dictionary in Japanese. I cannot however attest to its accuracy, detail, or breadth of entries as I have not looked into it deeper since learning of its existence.


Oooh, interesting! Thanks a lot!

I did a bit of googling, and there seem to be a few etymology dictionaries, though number of words covered is likely not as large as might be desired:

  • Sanseido 新明解 語源辞典 – 1024 pages, 4500 words. Web page has some sample pages. (I did not know 現実 was only coined in the Meiji era to translate English “reality”…)

  • Shogakukan 日本語源大辞典 – 1282 pages, 6000 entries. Claims to be 日本最大の本格的な語源辞典. No sample pages from the publisher but the Amazon page for it has a photo of a page as one of the product images. I get the impression this one concentrates on 大和言葉.


Turns out there’s a ゆる言語学ラジオ episode where they discuss some of the more interesting etymologies from the Sanseido dictionary:

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Mainichi Shinbun has a daily column about word usage and origins. It’s paywalled and probably only comprehensible to pretty advanced learners, though. 毎日ことば | 毎日新聞

There’s also a Xitter feed, here: https://twitter.com/mainichi_kotoba


I need to buy me these books. I love etymology…


Interestingly 近日 can mean recent days according to some dictionaries (especially older ones like 日国).

I found interesting article investigating this change in meaning. Apparently 近日 meaning recent days started losing popularity in 1910s. They found that it is the same period when 最近 meaning recently gained popularity (as opposed to meaning nearest, closest).

(This graph shows the percentage of 最近 used as recently and 近日 as recent days)

Their claim was that after 近日 stopped being used as recent days, 最近 came to make up for the lost meaning.