The Meaning of Time

time in JapaneseTime is a fickle thing. We never seem to have enough of it, and it always ends up slipping away before we know it. It can be our greatest enemy or our best friend depending on how you look at it. But, it is obviously one of the more useful things to know about when it comes to using a language.

There are around 4 or 5 words for time depending on the context and the situation that you want to talk about in Japanese. Needless to say, it is pretty easy to get these mixed up when using the language. It happens a lot of times especially if you are just starting out with the language.

You might be rolling your eyes at this point and wondering why I’m going over this. But, for more advanced students I have a bit of a zinger for you at the end, something that we’ve been discussing over at memrise for awhile.

間 (あいだ) – time (between) or interval

あいだ is most often used to ask about intervals of time or time periods. For example like this nice example from the Tanaka Corpus:

あなたは どのぐらいの 間、  神戸に 住んで いますか?
anataha  donoguraino aida, kobeni sunde    imasuka?
How long have you lived in Kobe?

This shouldn’t be confused with とき which is usually translated as ‘when’.

度 (たび) – time (three times, four times, etc…)

たび also has the meaning of time, but this refers to the separate incidents of something happening. For example,

電話を    する たび あなたは 電話に  出ないよ!
Denwawo suru tabi   anataha    denwani denaiyo!
Every time I call you, you don’t answer!

タイム – (race) time

Of course no list of time words would be complete without that one katakana word. This is used in Japanese to refer to sports times. For example:

彼は     マラソンで   彼女の    タイムを    計った。
Kareha marasonde kanojono taimuwo hakatta.
He timed her in the marathon race.

This almost exclusively used in sports with a few exceptions.

時間 (じかん) – time

This ‘time’ is used in a general sense of:

Do you have time to talk now?
話す 時間が あるの?

Hanasu jikanga aruno? 

and not in the sense of:

Do you remember that time we got so drunk?’
よく 酔っている ときは 覚えるの?

Yoku yotteiru tokiha oboeruno?

That ‘time’ is とき, which we will discuss next.

The problem with 時 (とき) – ‘time’

This time can most often be translated as ‘when’. For example:

24才の時             私は       日本に   引越し   した。
Nijyuuyonsainotoki watashiha nihonni hikkoshi shita.
When I was 24, I moved to Japan.

It is often written in kana because it looks a little stiff when written in kanji.

Also when it is used this way, note that it is pronounced とき and not じ which is how it is pronounced when it is used for hours of the day:

7時 → ななじ or しちじ→ 7 o’clock

This is an important detail to remember because of our final duel between two tricky vocabulary words:

一時 (いちじ) vs. 一時 (ひととき)

Wait. What? Two pronunciations for the same kanji. What gives?

Well, the first pronunciation can obviously mean “1 o’clock”. Which is what you probably thought of when you first saw it. But, if you look up いちじ in the dictionary you will see several other definitions including ‘moment’.

The problem is if you look up ひととき in the dictionary, you will get fairly similar definitions as well. For example the WWWJDIC gives us: “moment; a (short) time; a while”. This makes it seem like these two different pronunciations mean basically the same thing.

But, they don’t they are actually used quite differently.

いちじ means more like temporary, for a short time, or for a moment. You can see it in expressions like this:

一時ビザ – ichijibiza – temporary visa
一時中止 – ichijichuushi – temporary halt
一時使用 – ichijishiyou – temporary use

Whereas ひととき means more like a moment. You can see it in these expressions:

くつろいだひととき – kuturoidahitotoki – relaxing time
とても素晴らしいひととき – totemosubarashiihitotoki – a tremendous time

ひととき is more often written in kana, but can sometimes be found in kanji. Japanese speakers can generally tell from context which pronunciation to use.

Are you Tired of Time yet?

Do you have questions about the use of time? Let me know in the comments below.

Or, if you are feeling up to the task, put your new found vocabulary skills to the test and write a sentence below using one of the words above.

Photo by zoutedrop

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Rody Saito August 15, 2012, 8:45 am

    7時 as ななじ sounds very weird and unnatural for me. It’s better to use しちじ, instead, Other than that, great article

    • Mac August 15, 2012, 1:00 pm

      Thanks for the comment Rody. I know I’ve heard しちじ a lot, too. Checking with a few natives though, both are sometimes used, because しちじ can sound like いちじ so to avoid confusion people will sometimes say ななじ. That’s in Kansai though. However, I know both are usually listed for vocabulary.

      Anyway, I guess I always use ななじ because it will usually be understood easier (coming from a non-native) although you will probably get a few double takes now and then and it is easier to remember because it isn’t irregular.

      Thanks for double-checking my work though I added your correction to the post and thanks for the compliment.

Leave a Comment