The particle wa は, unlike ga が, is not a case particle. This means that it grammatically doesn't stand for the subject or even the object of a sentence. Instead, it is a special kind of particle called a bound particle. Wa は is bound to the comment that follows. In return, the comment dictates the nature of wa は.
It is not possible to know exactly what will be said with wa は alone when in total isolation without context. The only thing the listener would know in such a situation is that wa は will mark the topic of the discussion to come. In addition, the topic marked by wa は is differentiated from other things that could be the topic, which is in and of itself contrast, which will also be looked at in depth in this lesson.
In this lesson, we will continue our discussion on ga が vs wa は by looking closely at the usages of wa は. After reading through this lesson, you will have learned enough about both particles to adequately differentiate them in most circumstances.
Curriculum Note: This lesson also requires that we look at grammatical items which haven’t been fully covered. This includes adjectives, adjectival nouns, verbs and their conjugation. As such, your goal should be to focus only on the particles ga が and wa は.
1. The Topic Marker Wa は
i. What is a “Topic”?
To understand wa は, we must first understand what is meant by the word “topic.” The topic (shudai 主題) of a sentence can be an animate or inanimate entity (of one or more components), and that entity is what provides a starting point for conversation. A topic must also be something based on previously established information, whether it be from the ongoing conversation, one not too far back in the past, or from common sense.
The topic is, thus, “old information.” In order for something to be registered information, though, you may need to use ga が first to establish it. Essentially, information needs to be new before it can be grammatically treated as old information. This distinction between new information and known information is exemplified in Ex. 1.
Mukashi mukashi, aru tokoro ni, ojiisan to obāsan ga sunde imashita. Ojiisan wa yama e shibakari ni, obāsan wa kawa e sentaku ni ikimashita.
Long, long ago, there lived an old man and woman. One day, the old man went to the mountains to gather firewood, and the old woman went to the river to wash clothes.
This sentence is the opening to one of the most important fairy-tales of Japan, Momotarō 桃太郎. At the beginning, the reader doesn't know anything about the story. This is why the particle ga が is used to mark the subject. Once the characters are established, they are then treated as the topic in the following sentence, thus marked by wa は.
Are wa watashi no bōshi desu.
That's my hat.
Sentence Note: Although the comment, the hat being the speaker's, is "new information," the recognition of the hat is not.
In Japanese, phrases may be topicalized and put at or near the front of the sentence, after which point a comment is made about said topic. The comment could be already known or new information, but the topic is something implied to be known to both speaker and listener(s). The topic, as mentioned above, is deemed to be an entity known to others and oneself. Often times, this is based on a common sense assessment of reality.
O-namae wa nan desu ka?
What's your name?
Sentence Note: Everyone has a name. Even if this statement weren't completely true, it's practically true. This is all the information one needs to know about the human world to understand how "your name" can be grammatically treated as "old/registered" knowledge. You know the person you're talking to has a name; you just don't know what that person's name is, which is why the question forms the comment about the topic.
Toire wa doko desu ka?
Where is the toilet?
Sentence Note: When you ask this to someone, you're assuming that there is a toilet nearby. The existence of toilets can be rather easily ascertained based on one's surroundings. The fact that you're asking this means you've already determined that there is one, and you're also implying that the existence and knowledge of its location is something that others might help you find out.
Kasei wa akai desu.
Mars is red.
Sentence Note: Most people know about Mars. It has been a part of human fascination for a long time, and so the acknowledgment of its existence is well established. It being red is also something that is so well known that it can be viewed as a generic statement.
Nihon wa shima no kuni desu.
Japan is an island nation.
Sentence Note: Japan is known by both all Japanese speakers as well as most of the world, and it's also known by most people that it is an island nation.
Usagi wa kawaii desu ne.
Rabbits are cute, aren't they?
Sentence Note: Wherever rabbits exist, there are humans that know about them.
Whenever the topic is semantically the same as the subject or even the object of a sentence, the particle wa は does not mark both. It only functions as the topic marker. All sorts of things can be topicalized, which makes it seem like wa は has far more functions than it actually does. Semantically, it is very similar to the English expression “as for X.” It's the "X" in this expression that wa は stands for, and nothing more. However, using “as for” heavily in translation will result in unnatural English. Using one’s own intuition on what is proper English will come to play here. Nonetheless, it's a perfect stepping stone for understanding how this particle functions grammatically.
Watashi wa mainichi jimu ni ikimasu.
I go to the gym every day.
Ex. 8a can alternatively be translated as, “As for me, I go to the gym every day.” The purpose of wa は is two-fold. It establishes that “I” is the topic, but it also differentiates it from other possible topics like “he” or “she.” As such, the reason why watashi 私 would even be used instead of just being dropped—which is usually the case—is because the speaker has become the center of conversation. Although the subject of this sentence is “I,” the watashi 私 of this sentence corresponds to the "me" in “as for me.” The “I” that corresponds to the subject is not spoken because it would be semantically redundant. In fact, watashi wa watashi ga 私は私が is ungrammatical.
This is where the concept of a zero-pronoun comes into play. A zero-pronoun is a pronoun used to refer to the subject of a Japanese sentence when it is omitted because it is juxtaposed with a topic that happens to be the same thing. It is the grammatical fix to the grammaticalized rule of omitting semantically redundant elements. More broadly, a zero-pronoun is used in place of an entity that is semantically the same as the topic. Thus, this can be applied to other situations as we will see as well. With a zero-pronoun in mind, we can view 8a as follows:
Watashi-wa (ø-ga) jimu-ni ikimasu.
As for me, (I) go to the gym every day.
ø = Watashi 私
Kēki wa mō tabemashita.
The cake, I already ate it.
Grammar Note: The particle wa は appears to mark the direct object, but in reality, it simply marks the topic which also happens to be the object, but the object is expressed with an unexpressed zero-pronoun. Thus, Ex. 9a can be viewed alternatively as follows:
Kēki-wa mō (ø-wo) tabemashita.
The cake, I already ate it.
ø = Kēki ケーキ
The Variety of Topicalized Phrases
The particle wa は has few restrictions on what it can topicalize. It may topicalize time phrases, location phrases, etc. This is exemplified in the following examples.
Nihon de wa jishin ga yoku okimasu.
In Japan, earthquakes often happen.
Kyō wa kankokugo wo benkyō shimasu.
Today, I will study Korean.
Watashi wa ocha desu.
I’ll have tea.
Grammar Note: Whenever learners don’t fully understand the concept of topicalization, they fail to understand that topic ≠ subject. It’s best to never consider them one of the same thing. If this means having to deconstruct sentences and translate them literally first to figure out what the subject is and whether it’s being represented by a zero-pronoun so that you don’t end up misunderstanding sentences like Ex. 12 as meaning “I am tea,” then it would be worth it
Kochira wa watashi no otōto desu.
This is my little brother.
Kanojo wa [chūgokujin/nihonjin/amerikajin/igirisujin] desu.
She is [Chinese/Japanese/American/British].
Chūgoku keizai ni wa mondai ga aru.
There is/are problem(s) in the Chinese economy.
Grammar Note: Due to English phrasing constraints, it may not always be possible to place the topicalized phrase of a Japanese sentence at the front of the English translation. However, the fact that the wa は phrase in question is being topicalized and the fact that said wa は phrase forms the basis for the upcoming conversation do not change.
Watashi wa ikimasen.
I won’t go.
Kare wa sensei de wa arimasen.
He is not a teacher.
1. Ex. 16 and Ex. 17 are examples of the particle wa は bringing out the meaning of “X isn’t but something/someone else might be/do Z.” This implicit contrast is something that, depending on the context, may become even more profound (See Usage 2). As for Ex. 17, it could be that another person is a teacher, or "he" could be something other than a teacher. If the particle ga が were used, the sentences would become examples of exhaustive-listing. Remember, exhaustive-listing is still exhaustive if X simply refers to one entity and one entity only.
2. The wa は in de wa arimasen ではありません is not the topic wa は. Rather, it is one usage of the contrast marker wa は (Usage 2).
ii. Generic Statements
Many conversations are started off by mentioning something everyone already knows. However, implying that the listener(s) knows is subjective in nature. This is because one can never definitively know what someone else does or doesn’t know. This usage of wa は is very different from the exhaustive-listing statements that ga が can make. Whereas an exhaustive-listing sentence is limited semantically solely to what’s explicitly stated, wa は is far more open-ended due to its generic nature. There is always a chance for the speaker to imply “I know that X is Z, but I don’t know about Y.”
Ringo wa chiisai.
(The) apples are small.
Spelling Note: Ringo is only seldom spelled as 林檎.
Sora wa aoi.
The sky is blue.
Uchū wa hiroi.
The universe is wide.
Taiyō wa akarui.
The sun is bright.
Yoru wa kurai.
Night is dark.
Hana wa utsukushii.
Flowers are beautiful.
Haru wa subarashii desu ne.
Spring is wonderful, isn't it?
Sekai wa chiisai desu ne.
The world is small, isn't it?
Sūgaku wa muzukashii desu ne.
Math is difficult, isn’t it?
Sentence Note: As a demonstration of the last point from above, this statement should be interpreted as meaning “I’m not sure about other subjects being hard, but math is, isn’t it?”
iii. Attribute Phrases: X wa は Y ga が
One of the most common ways to describe something is by following a topicalized phrase (X) with wa は with a neutral statement (Y) followed by ga が. In the examples below, there are generally two kinds of translations. The first reflects the nature of the Japanese grammar whereas the second rephrases it into more natural English. As you will see, the resulting translation indicates how this grammar is essentially identical to making generic statements.
Zō wa hana ga nagai.
As for elephants, their noses are long.
Elephants have long noses.
Nihon wa jinja ga ōi.
As for Japan, there are many Shinto shrines.
Japan has many Shinto shrines.
Aki wa samma ga saikō da.
As for autumn, Pacific saury is the best.
In autumn, Pacific saury is the best.
Fuyu ni wa kion ga sagarimasu.
In winter, the temperature goes down.
Sono shigoto wa, watashi ga shimasu.
As for that job, I’ll do it.
I’ll do that job.
Kirin wa kubi ga nagai.
As for giraffes, their necks are long.
Giraffes have long necks.
Spelling Note: Only rarely is kirin spelled as 麒麟.
(Watashi wa) atama ga itai desu.
(As for me), my head hurts.
I have a headache.
(Watashi wa) onaka ga sukimashita.
Literally: (As for me), my stomach is empty.
(Watashi wa) nodo ga kawakimashita.
Literally: (As for me), my throat is parched.
Grammar Note: If distinguishing oneself from other people is necessary in expressing hunger or thirst, Ex. 34 and Ex. 35 are both examples of the pattern X wa はY ga が.
As opposed to the questions made with ga が, those made with wa は have the interrogatives as part of the predicate. This is because the questions formed with wa は imply that the question (topic) at hand is already known to the listener(s), and this knowledge is then topicalized to bring forth the question (comment) you’d like the discussion to be about. This pattern will be how most of the questions you ask are formed.
Word Note: As seen in Ex. 3, when nani 何 (what) is used as the predicate and followed by the copula, it undergoes a sound change and becomes nan なん.
Samu wa itsu kuru?
When is Sam coming?
Kyō wa nan’yōbi desu ka?
What day is it today?
(Anata wa) dare desu ka?
Who are you?
Byōin wa doko desu ka?
Where is the hospital?
Shumi wa nan desu ka?
What are your hobbies?
2. The Contrast Marker
On top of being a topic marker, wa は is also the particle of contrast (taihi 対比), which can be seen in its usage of marking the topic. There is a line of thought that the contrast meaning of wa は is actually the primary meaning of wa は. Within a given sentence, several wa は may appear. Each one will have a different level of contrast implied. When a wa は phrase's degree of contrast is really weak, it can be viewed as the topic.
Watashi wa kinō wa chūshoku wa toranakatta n desu.
Yesterday, I didn't have lunch.
Although the presence of watashi wa 私は could imply a contrast with other people, the sentence is bringing oneself to the forefront of conversation. With this being this case, it is viewed as the topic. Both the words for "yesterday" and "lunch" are marked with wa はbecause they contrast with other scenarios. For instance, the speaker may have eaten lunch today, and he may have eaten breakfast and/or dinner that day.
42. 今日は行きます。（→ 明日は行きません）
Kyō wa ikimasu. (→ Asu wa ikimasen)
I'm going today. (→ I'm not going tomorrow)
43. 旦那さんは上海へ行きます。（→ 奥さんは北京へ行きます）
Dan'na-san wa Shanhai e ikimasu. (→ Oku-san wa Pekin e ikimasu)
His/her husband is going to Shanghai. (→ His/her wife is going to Beijing)
44. 大阪へは行きます。（→ 京都へは行きません）
Ōsaka e wa ikimasu (→ Kyōto e wa ikimasen)
I'm going to Osaka. (→ I'm not going to Kyoto)
Hontō wa ureshii desu.
I'm actually happy.
Grammar Note: Hontō 本当 is used here as a noun meaning "reality/actuality." The speaker may not appear happy, but internally he/she is happy.
"Nihon ryōri wa o-suki desu ka?" "Tai ryōri wa suki desu."
"Do you like Japanese cuisine?" I like Thai food(, but as far as other cuisine...)
Grammar Note: The reply provides an indirect means of saying that one doesn't like Japanese cuisine. Although this is inferred by the reply, it's politer to reply as such than simply saying no.
Inu wa suki desu ga, neko wa domo...
I like dogs, but cats ...
Grammar Note: The ga が seen after desu です is the conjunctive particle ga が, which is separate from its use as a subject marker. For now, simply know that it is the "but" in this example and the ones that follow.
Kōhii wa nomanai ga, biiru wa nomu yo.
I don't drink coffee, but I drink beer.
Empitsu wa arimasen ga, pen wa arimasu yo.
There aren't pencils, but there are pens.
I don't have pencils, but I have pens.
Are wa ōkami de wa nai, kitsune da yo.
That isn't a wolf; it's a fox.
Grammar Note: This example demonstrates how the wa は in de wa nai ではない is the contrasting wa は. The grammar behind this actually goes beyond its use in the negative forms of the copula. However, due to the complexity of this grammar point, it will be discussed in a later lesson.
3. Another usage of the particle wa は is to express a bare minimum (saiteigen 最低限)--"at least." This is primarily used with number expressions, which will be studied later on. However, this usage is not limited to such expressions, as is demonstrated by Ex. 54.
Sukunakutomo nijikan wa kakarimasu.
It will take at least two hours.
Jūnin wa kimasu.
At least ten people will come.
Jūman'en wa hitsuyō desu.
It will need at least 100,00 yen.
Gyūnyū gurai wa katte kudasai.
At least buy milk, please.
Grammar Note: The particle kurai/gurai くらい・ぐらい is frequently used with this function of the particle wa は to express "at least." It can actually be inserted similarly to the other example sentences in this section. Its addition creates a greater emphatic tone.
Mōchō no shujutsu demo sen-doru wa kakarimasu.
Even appendix surgery will cost at least a thousand dollars.
Grammar Note: The particle demo でも means "even" and will be discussed in Lesson 67.