An Imagination Of Language

What the future tense can tell us

Watashi wa watashi-tachi mo mata kõei aru Nihonjin de-aru koto wo akumade shinjite-iru mono de-arimasu.

“I am, and all of us are, glorious Japanese, and I will believe that until the end.”

These words come from the police chief in Nakajima Atsushi’s 1929 short story “A Policeman’s Landscape,” one of the stories I translated in my master’s thesis this past year. At this point in the story, officers had gathered to elect new members for their prefectural council in Japaneseoccupied Korea. Of the many candidates, only one is Korean, and during his speech, an officer throws a slur at him. The hall erupts into discord, and the police chief shouts out that statement to put a lid on things. The racist remark is bad for the chief’s brand, but his way of downplaying it erases the Korean officer’s ethnic and cultural identity and coincides with Japan’s goal of assimilating Korea into its fold.

The police chief ’s problematic belief that all of the men in the room are “glorious Japanese” is expressed with the phrase shinjite-iru, a stative construction similar to “–ing” in English. I translate the verb with the future tense (“I will believe that until the end”), since its assertions reach forward without an end date. But this “future” projected by the police chief officially ended in 1945 with Japan’s defeat and the loss of its sprawling colonial possessions. With the ensuing American occupation, Japan immediately set out on a new course, its former trajectory diverted toward democratic practices, demilitarization, and increased civil liberties.

When I was a freshman at Duke learning Japanese for the first time, I was surprised to learn that the language doesn’t have a formal future tense: There’s simply a past form and a non-past form, which can be interpreted as present or future depending on the context. For example, tabemasu could mean “I eat” or “I will eat.” Instead of tense, which categorizes verbal action as falling on a linear timeline, Japanese relies on aspect, which tells whether an action is completed or not. Rather than conveying temporal information, the conjugated verb tabemasu encodes that the action has not yet been completed (corresponding to future tense) or will never truly be completed because it is a stative or habitual action (present tense).

Does this lack of future tense mean, as some linguistic determinists might insinuate, that the Japanese don’t conceptualize the future in the same way as speakers of other languages? As researchers have confirmed over the past decades, all languages can express the same concepts, but one might go about it in a different way than another. Further, this question is rooted in a false assumption. English, for its part, does not codify future tense into its verbs, but instead uses the addition of auxiliaries like “will” and “would” to make the timeframe understood. Japanese uses similar non-tense factors to get the point across.

Recently, Japan enthroned a new emperor. For the three decades of the Heisei era, Akihito was Japan’s national symbol. Then, on May 1, 2019, tracks shifted, and suddenly Japan had a new figurehead. On April 30, an article in the literary magazine Bunshun asked in its headline: Reiwa-jidai no kōshitsu wa Heisei kara dō kawaru? The verb “change” (kawaru) being unmarked for tense but implied as future, I translate the headline as: “How will the imperial family of the Reiwa era change from the Heisei?” Although the emperor has no formal political power, for most within Japan and without, there is hope for peace and prosperity. But for those affected by Japan’s role in World War II and their descendants, a simple date on the calendar does not erase generations of trauma and exploitation.

With every passing moment, people and nature interact in ways such that the future is always changing. In and of itself, the future is an imagination of language: a laying-out of one possibility for one particular world. Translating historical texts allows me to celebrate and protest various futures that have populated the literary imagination in the past. But futures continue to shift every day. Writers and executives and activists and scientists continue to put forth hypotheses that we will have a better world one day. No matter how our languages grapple with time, we can all construct better futures—and pursue them until they become history.

Korschun ’16 graduated with a major in linguistics and Asian and Middle Eastern studies and this past spring received his M.A. in Japanese literature from the University of Colorado-Boulder. A Fulbright U.S. Student Award grantee, he is teaching English at Law Enforcement University in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, for the upcoming academic year.

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