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Japanese Verb Conjugation: A Beginner’s Guide [With Charts!]


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Japanese verb conjugation can seem super intimidating to anyone beginning to learn Japanese.

After all, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. And a large part of that is due to how different the grammar patterns are.

But, in many ways, Japanese is easier to learn than you think.

Is Japanese conjugation easy? Well, it’s a bit tricky at first.

What to Know About Japanese Verb Conjugation Before You Get Started

The positive is, grammar in Japanese is very consistent.

For example, in English, we say “I eat, I ate, I have eaten” and the verb “eat” changes with each form. For English learners, this is tricky and requires a lot of individual word memorization.

Japanese doesn’t have that problem. You have the stem of the verb, and you change the ending based on your meaning. That’s it!

There are only two irregular verbs in Japanese, and they’re so common (and even their conjugation is consistent), that they’re easy to learn.

So, once you master the basics of Japanese conjugation, the rest becomes much easier.

Many grammar patterns have similar rules once you know the present, past, negative, and continuous form in formal and informal Japanese. So learning those 4 conjugations now will save you a ton of headaches later.

By the way, if you haven’t learned how to write in Japanese yet, check out this explainer article to get started. Understanding how to write in Japanese will help you immensely with conjugating Japanese verbs.

You can also check out this guide to Japanese grammar and Japanese particles for more about Japanese sentence structure!

How Many Japanese Verb Conjugations Are There?

Let's start with this big question: How many Japanese conjugations are there anyway?

Well, it depends on how you’re counting them. Verbs change by taking the stem of the verb and changing the ending. And theoretically, you could add an endless amount of things to the end of verbs.

But there are about 10 – 14 base verb conjugations, and about 150 ways to conjugate the verbs from there.

Many of those ways to conjugate are easy once you learn the base forms. So don’t worry about that large number. Focus on the base conjugations first.

In fact, we’re going to cover quite a few of them now.

How to Conjugate Japanese Verbs for Beginners

Before we get to the actual conjugations, we need to understand how Japanese categorizes verbs.

There are 3 Japanese verb groups. They are:

  • Godan verbs (五段動詞, godan-doushi), also called U-verbs or V1 verbs
  • Ichidan verbs (一段動詞, ichidan-doushi), also called Ru-verbs or V2 verbs
  • Irregular verbs (不規則動詞, fukisoku-doushi), also called V3 verbs

Let’s discuss each group.

Godan Verbs / U-Verbs

Godan verbs, or u-verbs, are verbs that end with the う-row of the hiragana syllabary chart.

Examples of godan verbs are:

  • 話す (hanasu), “to speak”
  • 飲む (nomu), “to drink”
  • 死ぬ (shinu), “to die”
  • 聞く (kiku), “to hear”
  • 遊ぶ (asobu), “to play”
  • 買う (kau), “to buy”
  • 待つ (matsu), “to wait”

As you can see, the u-verbs can shift through all the う-rows of the hiragana chart. And when they conjugate, the “u” can shift into the other vowel rows to change its meaning (you’ll see how in a moment!). That’s why they’re called godan verbs, which mean “five level verbs.”

Ichidan Verbs / Ru-Verbs

Ichidan verbs, or ru-verbs, all end in る. And because of that, they conjugate much easier than godan verbs.

Ichidan verb stems remain the same no matter what ending you attach to them, so the stem always stays in one vowel row. That’s why they’re called ichidan verbs, which mean “one level verbs.”

Examples of ichidan verbs:

  • 食べる (taberu), “to eat”
  • 見る (miru), “to see”
  • 出る (deru), “to leave”
  • 寝る (neru), “to sleep”
  • 起きる (okiru), “to get up/wake up”
  • 調べる (shiraberu), “to investigate”

Now, there’s one sticky part… Sometimes, godan (u) verbs can end in る, too.

Thankfully, there are a few tricks to telling which is which.

Ichidan verbs always end in “iru” or “eru”. Take a look at the list above. They all end in -eru or -iru.

If it ends in a, o, or u + る, then it’s a godan verb.

Even still, there are some godan verbs that end in -iru or -eru. Here are some common ones:

  • 走る (hashiru), “to run”
  • 帰る (kaeru), “to return home”
  • 要る (iru), “to need”
  • 切る (kiru), “to cut”
  • 知る (shiru), “to know”
  • 入る (hairu), “to enter”
  • 喋る (shaberu), “to chat”

Irregular Verbs

Luckily, as I already mentioned, there are only two irregular verbs. And they’re so common, you’ll master them in no time.

The two irregular verbs are:

  • する, suru
  • 来る, kuru

Now, I should note, there are regular verbs and honorific verbs that sometimes conjugate irregularly. But these verbs are not counted in the V3 group because the specific conjugation pattern is irregular, not the verb itself.

Japanese Verb Conjugation: Present Tense, Masu-Form and Plain Form

Okay, okay. We’ve learned all about the verb categories. Now… How do you conjugate present tense verbs in Japanese?

Well, there are two ways: the formal masu-form, and the casual plain form.

The masu-form is the polite form of Japanese. You’ll use it when speaking to strangers, co-workers, people of higher status, and any time you need to show respect and politeness.

Let’s look at how to conjugate the different verb categories into masu-form verbs.

Present Polite Form

Verb Type Rule Example: Hiragana Romanized
る-verbs Drop る and add ~ます 食べる → 食べます taberu → tabemasu
う-verbs Change う to い-row and add ~ます 飲む → 飲みます nomu → nomimasu
Irregular verbs する → します suru → shimasu
来る → 来ます kuru → kimasu

Pretty simple!

Now when we drop the final る or う, we are left with the verb stem. This is important. The verb stem is what you’ll add on to for each Japanese conjugation going forward.

So, for 食べる (taberu), the verb stem is tabe. For 飲む (nomu), it’s nom, where the final u changes vowel to conjugate. In the case of masu-form, it changes to inomimasu.

As for the irregular verbs, there’s no rule, but there are only two of them. Their verb stems then become shi and k (yes, just k — sometimes it’s ki and sometimes it’s ko).

Now let’s look at plain form.

You’ll use plain form when you’re speaking with family or friends, people at the same level or younger than you, and anytime you’re in a casual situation.

Present tense plain form is actually quite nice because it’s exactly what the word is in the dictionary. In fact, it’s other name is dictionary form for this reason.

So, there’s no conjugation needed. Plain present tense of 食べる is just 食べる, and so forth. So when you learn a verb in its unconjugated form, you’ve learned plain form!

Fun fact: There’s no future tense in Japanese. That’s right. Present tense is used to express the future as well, and it’s understood by context. Usually, the sentence will include words like 明日 (ashita), “tomorrow”, or 後で (ato de), “later”, to signify the future.

Past Tense: Formal Mashita-Form and Plain Ta-Form

Learning past tense in polite mashita-form is easy. It’s exactly the same as masu-form, except you’ve changed the ending to ~ました, mashita, to mean the past.

Here’s the Japanese verb conjugation chart for past tense:

Past Polite Form

Verb Type Rule Example: Hiragana Romanized
る-verbs Drop る and add ~ました 食べる → 食べました taberu → tabemashita
う-verbs Change う to い-row and add ~ました 飲む → 飲みました nomu → nomimashita
Irregular verbs する → しました suru → shimashita
来る → 来ました kuru → kimashita

Simple.

As for ta-form, that’s the plain past tense verb conjugation. る-verbs and irregular verbs are easy enough. But う-verbs are where you’re going to have to memorize some extra rules depending on which consonant comes before the final う.

Take a look:

Past Plain Form

Verb Type Rule Example: Hiragana Romanized
る-verbs Drop る and add ~た 食べる → 食べた taberu → tabeta
う-verbs Ends in う, つ, or る: Drop final う / つ / る and add ~った 買う → 買った kau → katta
Ends in く: Drop く and add ~いた 聞く → 聞いた kiku → kiita
Ends in ぐ: Drop ぐ and add ~いだ 泳ぐ → 泳いだ oyogu → oyoida
Ends in す: Drop す and add ~した 話す → 話した hanasu → hanashita
Ends in ぬ, ぶ, or む: Drop ぬ / ぶ / む and add ~んだ 飲む → 飲んだ nomu → nonda
Irregular verbs する → した suru → shita
来る → 来た kuru → kita

As you can see, you conjugate う-verbs depending on the final hiragana character. This can make conjugating these verbs a bit trickier to memorize, but with practice, it does become natural!

There are a handful of verbs that do not conjugate -ta and -te form (discussed below) exactly this way. One of the most notable (and common) is 行く (iku, “to go”).

  • 行く, iku → 行った, itta (not iita)

Forming Negative Verbs in Japanese: Masen, Masen Deshita, Nai, and Nakatta

You’ve learned present and past positive forms. Now it’s time to learn present and past negative forms!

Let’s start with masu-form. It’s pretty simple again: just add -masen (present negative) or -masen deshita (past negative) to the verb stem.

Present Negative Polite Form

Verb Type Rule Example: Hiragana Romanized
る-verbs Drop る and add ~ません 食べる → 食べません taberu → tabemasen
う-verbs Change う to い-row and add ~ません 飲む → 飲みません nomu → nomimasen
Irregular verbs する → しません suru → shimasen
来る → 来ません kuru → kimasen

Past Negative Polite Form

Verb Type Rule Example: Hiragana Romanized
る-verbs Drop る and add ~ませんでした 食べる → 食べませんでした taberu → tabemasen deshita
う-verbs Change う to い-row and add ~ませんでした 飲む → 飲みませんでした nomu → nomimasen deshita
Irregular verbs する → しませんでした suru → shimasen deshita
来る → 来ませんでした kuru → kimasen deshita

Keep in mind, to make the past negative form, you have the main verb in negative form and the helping verb です (desu, “to be”) in the past tense.

Now let’s look at nai and nakatta, the present and past negative forms in plain speech.

Present Negative Plain Form

Verb Type Rule Example: Hiragana Romanized
る-verbs Drop る and add ~ない 食べる → 食べない taberu → tabenai
う-verbs Change う to あ-row and add ~ない 飲む → 飲まない nomu → nomanai
Verbs ending in う: Change う to わ and add ~ない
買う → 買わない kau  → kawanai
Irregular verbs する → しない suru → shinai
来る → 来ない kuru → konai

Past Negative Plain Form

Verb Type Rule Example: Hiragana Romanized
る-verbs Drop る and add ~なかった 食べる → 食べなかった taberu → tabenakatta
う-verbs Change う to あ-row and add ~なかった 飲む → 飲まなかった nomu → nomanakatta
Verbs ending in う: Change う to わ and add ~なかった
買う → 買わなかった kau  → kawanakatta
Irregular verbs する → しなかった suru → shinakatta
来る → 来なかった kuru → konakatta

A couple important notes here. While this is easier to conjugate than ta-form, it does have one exception for う-verbs. Verbs ending in う as the final character change to わ not あ.

So 買う (kau, “to buy”) becomes かわない, kawanai, instead of かあない, kaanai. It just doesn’t flow well. Another example: 歌う (utau, “to sing”) becomes うたわない, utawanai, not うたあない, utaanai.

Second note is that here, 来る’s verb stem isn’t き, ki, but こ, ko.

PHEW! Okay, you’ve learned a lot. We’ve got just one more form to cover together!

Te-Form in Japanese

Te-form is the Japanese verb conjugation for “-ing” form, also known as the continuous form or present progressive.

I’ve already written an in-depth guide to te-form in Japanese here, which I recommend reading to understand all the possibilities with te-form. (It has a lot of helpful uses!)

Here’s how we conjugate te-form:

Present Progressive, Te-Form

Verb Type Rule Example: Hiragana Romanized
る-verbs Drop る and add ~て 食べる → 食べて taberu → tabete
う-verbs Ends in う, つ, or る: Drop final う / つ / る and add ~って 買う → 買って kau → katte
Ends in く: Drop く and add ~いて 聞く → 聞いて kiku → kiite
Ends in ぐ: Drop ぐ and add ~いで 泳ぐ → 泳いで oyogu → oyoide
Ends in す: Drop す and add ~して 話す → 話して hanasu → hanashite
Ends in ぬ, ぶ, or む: Drop ぬ / ぶ / む and add ~んで 飲む → 飲んで nomu → nonde
Irregular verbs する → して suru → shite
来る → 来て kuru → kite

Yes, unfortunately those darn う-verbs have special conjugation again depending on the final hiragana.

BUT! Notice how they’re almost exactly the same as ta-form?

Te-form is conjugated the same as ta-form, except you change た, ta, to て, te. That’s it!

So if you mastered the plain past tense, te-form is easy.

Note: 行く is also irregular here, but in the same was as ta-form. It becomes 行って, itte, not iite.

Japanese Verb Conjugation Practice — Try It Out!

Now it’s your turn to practice. The best way to do it is to chart out the different conjugation patterns for a verb and practice them in a sentence.

Like this:

食べる, taberu, “to eat”
Polite form 食べます tabemasu
Plain form 食べる taberu
Past polite 食べました tabemashita
Past plain 食べた tabeta
Negative polite 食べません tabemasen
Negative past polite 食べませんでした tabemasen deshita
Negative plain 食べない tabenai
Negative past plain 食べなかった tabenakatta
Te form 食べて tabete

To get practice, try making a chart of your own conjugating the verbs below:

  • 行く, iku, “to go”
  • 帰る, kaeru, “to return home”
  • 出来る, dekiru, “to be able to do”
  • 言う, iu, “to say”
  • 持つ, motsu, “to have” or “to hold”
  • 寝る, neru, “to sleep”
  • 学ぶ, manabu, “to learn”
  • 会う, au, “to meet”
  • 見る, miru, “to see”
  • 起きる, okiru, “to get up”

Once you’ve done that, double check your work. A great resource for checking the verb type (godan, ichidan, irregular) is Jisho.org. And Japanese Verb Conjugator is a helpful tool for checking if you conjugated correctly.

Japanese Verb Conjugation Basics: Mastered!

Is your brain about to explode yet from all that grammar?

Don’t fret. Take a break, clear your mind, and then come back and review again until you’ve got it.

Keep making sentences and conjugating new verbs you learn. It’s the best way to master Japanese verb conjugation fast!

And when you’re ready, here are some next steps you can take to improve your Japanese:

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Caitlin Sacasas

Content Writer, Fluent in 3 Months

Caitlin is a content creator, fitness trainer, zero waster, language lover, and Star Wars nerd. She blogs about fitness and sustainability at Rebel Heart Beauty.

Speaks: English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish

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