Using the non-past in Japanese when giving instructions

By | December 28, 2015

Japanese has relatively few verb tenses, at least compared to English, and you can get a lot across just with the past tense (i.e. shita), non-past (i.e. suru), and te-form (i.e. shite), plus their polite forms (shimashitashimasu, shimashite [this last one is pretty rare though]).

However, while this lack of tenses makes less conjugations to memorize, you still have to keep track of when to use which tenses. One case which can be a little counter-intuitive is when you are giving instructions in Japanese.

Your first guess might be the te-form, possibly with an added “kudasai” (please), since after all Japanese does contain a great deal of expressions related to politeness.

However, the most common way to give instructions, for example like when giving a recipe for something, is by simply using the polite non-past (i.e. shimasu) form.

Let’s look at a real example of this, using the first few steps of a pancake recipe I found here. I’ll put all the polite non-past forms in bold.

  1. 材料をホイッパーで混ぜます。[Mix the ingredients with an egg beater.]
  2. フライパンを弱火にして生地の半分を入れます。[Set the fry pan to low heat and add half of the mixture.]
    そのまま3分待ちます。 [Wait 3 minutes.]

A variation of this is when you are giving directions to someone on how to get somewhere. In my experience, the te-form is used with a combination of “moratte” or “itadaite”, and then at the end you may see the non-past form. These are the te-forms of polite verbs that literally mean “to receive”, but in this case they are used to mean something like “do X for me”. You can see more details about this usage in my article here.
Here is an example of this:



Go north until you see a Starbucks on your right side, at which point you make a right turn, and enter the shopping center.


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