Basics of Japanese: Verb Conjugations
The bulk of information in a Japanese sentence comes at the very end. That’s where you’ll find the verb and also find out what tense the verb is in and see how it’s being used to provide extra information. A sentence’s meaning can suddenly change from present to past tense in your mind when you reach the conclusion and see the verb! Given how important these verb endings are, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 most common ones to know that use the polite tense. Refer to the list of Top 15 Verbs from Lesson 19 for more practice and, like always, if you have questions then ask them on the forums!
In Japanese, the present tense (“I do”) and the future tense (“I will do”) are the same. The only way to differentiate them is through context or by explicitly stating the time.
- Tabemasu – I eat / I will eat
- Shimasu – I do / I will do
- Ikimasu – I go / I will go
Ex. わたしはがっこうへいきます (watashi wa gakko e ikimasu) = I go to school / I will go to school.
The volitional form is most frequently used to say “let’s do!” It’s great for making invitations to friends.
- Tabemashou – Let’s eat
- Shimashou – Let’s do
- Ikimashou – Let’s go
Ex. がっこうへいきましょう (gakko e ikimashou) = Let’s go to school!
“Want to” Form
In Japanese when you want to say you want to do an action, you change how the verb ends. Unlike the other verbs in this form (which are already in their polite version), in order to make this word more polite you should add “desu” at the very end. Without “desu” it will sound more informal.
- Tabetai – Want to eat
- Shitai – Want to do
- Ikitai – Want to go
Ex. わたしはがっこうへいきたい（です） (watashi wa gakkou e ikitai [desu]). – I want to go to school.
The past tense (“I did”) is represented by changing the “masu” that all verbs end with into “mashita”.
- Tabemashita – I ate
- Shimashita – I did
- Ikimashita – I went
Ex. わたしはがっこうへいきました (watashi wa gakko e ikimashita) = I went to school.
The negative (“I don’t”) requires you to change “masu” to “masen”. This tense can also be present or future tense.
- Tabemasen – I don’t eat / I won’t eat
- Shimasen – I don’t do / I won’t do
- Ikimasen – I don’t go / I won’t go
Ex. わたしはがっこうへいきません (watashi wa gakko e ikimasen) = I don’t go to school / I won’t go to school.
This tense combines the negative “masen” form with the past tense of “desu” (deshita). Normally you never, ever end verbs with “desu”. The negative past tense is the one exception.
- Tabemasen deshita – I didn’t eat
- Shimasen deshita – I didn’t do
- Ikimasen deshita – I didn’t go
Ex. わたしはがっこうへいきませんでした (watashi wa gakko e ikimasen deshita) = I didn’t go to school.
Potential “can do”
The potential form expresses what you’re physically able to do.
- Taberaremasu – I can eat
- Dekimasu – I can do
- Ikemasu – I can go
Note: As you see, “to do” (shimasu) changes drastically for this form!
Ex. わたしはがっこうへくるまでいけます (watashi wa gakko e kuruma de ikemasu) = I can go to school by car.
The passive tense is for saying things like “The cake is eaten by him”. Passive tense refers to making the object of a sentence (cake) into the subject. The active version of this sentence would be “He eats the cake.” The passive tense is used a lot more in Japanese than it is in English. In advanced Japanese, the passive tense is also used as an extra polite form of “masu”. This form is used often in the business world.
- Taberaremasu – is eaten
- Saremasu – is done
- Kakaremasu – is written
Note: “Ikimasu” cannot be made passive. “Kakimasu” (to write) is used here instead.
Ex. すしがかのじょにたべられます (sushi ga kanojo ni taberaremasu) = The sushi is eaten by her
The causative form can be used to simultaneously show someone is being forced to do something, as well as someone is being allowed to do something. Context helps to differentiate the two meanings.
- Tabesasemasu – make eat / let eat
- Sasemasu – make do / let do
- Ikasemasu – make go / let go
Ex. かのじょはわたしにすしをたべさせます (kanojo wa watashi ni sushi o tabesasemasu) = She makes me eat sushi / She lets me eat sushi
As the name implies, this is a combination of the passive and causative tenses. In English this is represented in sentences like “He is made to eat the mango.” This time it only has the “made to do” meaning.
- Tabesaseraremasu – is made to eat
- Saseraremasu – is made to do
- Ikaseraremasu – is made to go
Ex. わたしはかのじょにすしをたべさせられます (watashi wa kanojo ni sushi o tabesaseraremasu) = I’m made to eat sushi by her.