The Japanese verb 来る (‘kuru’) is often one of the first verbs learned by Japanese students, not just because it is easy to understand but also because it is used somewhat frequently, in both it’s simple form and in a few special usages.
First let’s look at the simplest way to use this verb, where it’s meaning is similar ‘come’ or ‘arrive’.
(Note: this verb has irregular conjugation, see the Notes section at the bottom of this post)
- The teacher came.
And for a slightly more advanced sentence:
- My friend came to my graduation. (Note: both “my”s are implied here)
And now for the special usages, where the meaning can deviate from something physically arriving at a location. Note that in these cases the verb is usually written in hiragana as くる or some conjugated form (きた, etc.).
Special usage 1: using くる to specify the direction of an action
In Japanese, subjects and targets of actions are often omitted. One way the language makes up for this is by using the verb くる to specify that some action is happing towards the speaker or narrator.
- My dad said ‘thanks’ to me.
- The book fell towards me.
In both of these cases saying “僕に” would be unnecessary since that is already implied.
Special usage 2: using くる to describe an action that has been going on until the present time
くる can be used after a verb in the “te” form to indicate the action has been going one for some time up until now.
- Up until now I’ve studied Japanese on my own. (i.e. without taking classes)
In this example it’s a little difficult to capture this nuance in English, but you can think of gathering experience before ‘arriving’ at the present moment.
Special usage 3: using くる to describe something that changed or will change
Putting くる after another verb in the “te” form also can signify that there was some change that has occurred or will occur.
- I finally understand now.
Here きた (past tense of くる) emphasizes the change between “not understanding” and “understanding”. It’s interesting to note that in English a similar usage exists, for example “I have finally come to understand”
- I’ve become stronger.
In this case, the emphasis is on the change of becoming stronger. In this case (and the previous example), you could just remove くる and conjugate the previous verb in past tense and the sentence would be still be valid and understandable.
- It started raining.
If きた were removed from this sentence, the feeling of “starting” to rain would be lessened and you would end up with just “It rained”.
Special usage 4: set phrase “やってくる”
This phrase is mostly equivalent to くる, though it feels a bit less modern to me.
- A bear came.
Special usage 5: Using くる to indicate you’ll be returning
Normally in English if we left for our job in the morning, we would just say “I’m going to work”. However in Japanese typically one says something like “I’m going to work and coming back”.
In fact, the set phrase “行ってきます” is traditionally said to family members by someone who is leaving the house with the intention to return later. The person staying behind says ”行ってらっしゃい” where ”らっしゃい” comes from いらっしゃる which is a more polite way of saying “くる”. (Confusingly, いらっしゃる can also mean “to go” or “to be”).
- I’m going to the beach.
Again here the english sentence doesn’t specifically say “I’m coming back”, though it is implied.
Special usage 6: Phrase “持ってくる” used to carry or bring something back.
This technically is just an application of the first usage above (using くる to indicate direction), but it’s a common phrase so good to memorize.
- Would you mind going to the living room and getting a book for me?
- My friend brought a game.
Similarly, you can use 持っていく when taking something away.
来る is one of the few verbs in Japanese with irregular conjugation. Here are some of the more common conjugated forms, for the rest and other irregular verbs see the Wikipedia entry on Japanese verbs.
- ‘masu’ form: きます
- Past: きた
- Negative: こない
- Past negative: こなかった
- Potential: これる