Useful Japanese Phrase: “tabete iku” (食べていく)

By | April 7, 2020

In this article I wanted to go over a Japanese phrase that I think is used fairly commonly in everyday conversation, 食べていく (tabete iku).

Let’s first look at an example:

  • この仕事じゃ食べていけないよ  (kono shigoto ja tabete ikenai yo)

Before I explain what this example means I want to examine the two words that make up this expression.

First, 食べて (tabete) is simply the “te-form” (sometimes called the “gerund”) of the verb 食べる (taberu) which means “to eat”. The te-form has many uses but is often employed to combine the verb in question with another verb (more on that below).

The second word is いく (iku) whose most common meaning is “to go”. However, when used after the te-form of another verb it can have the nuance of an action progressing into the future. In addition, since Japanese doesn’t really have a future tense (like “will ~” in English) this grammar pattern helps clarify things. When using this meaning, more often than not “iku” is written in hiragana (いく), instead of in kanji (行く), though not always.

In the above example sentence we actually have the negative potential form of いく, so 食べていけない means something like “I am unable to eat continuing into the future” or (a little more naturally) “I am unable to go on eating”. Note that here the first person “I” is only implied, not stated in the Japanese sentence.

However, in practice 食べていく is used to refer to making a living, meaning one can have enough food to survive. Another way to say this a little more formally is 生活していく. By the way, in the dictionary entry for 食べる it lists making a living, but I have never heard this used without the “te iku” form.

Anyway, we end up with this meaning for our sample sentence:

  • この仕事じゃ食べていけないよ  (kono shigoto ja tabete ikenai yo)
  • I’ll never be able to make a living with this job.

The nuance here is that the job doesn’t pay well. By the way, じゃ is a contraction of では which is needed grammatically because of the negative verb in the sentence (and the negative nuance). Just using で with a negative verb would be a little unnatural.

You might be familiar with the 〜てはいけない (~te wa ikenai) form that is used to say something is not proper or permitted. But there “ikenai” means a “bad” or “improper” thing (the meaning of “go” is mostly lost), which is very different than the “ikenai” used in the example sentence above. 

I’ll close with an example of “tabete iku” used with a positive verb.

  • IT業界で食べていけると思います。 (IT gyoukai de tabete ikeru to omoimasu)
  • I think that I can make a living in the IT industry.
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