The Particle Wa は I: The Topic/Contrast Marker

第13課: The Particle Wa は I: Topic/Contrast Marker 

Differentiating the particles は and が is the hardest task for a non-native speaker to master. Even Japanese grammarians have published countless papers on the topic to solve the age-old question. At a basic understanding, the two particles are indeed different. Putting nuances aside, the particle が has the specific grammatical role of marking the subject as a case particle. On the other hand, the particle は is not a case particle, instead marking an array of words (not just nouns) as the focus/topic of conversation. 

Confusion arises when either particle can theoretically make a sentence. Context and logic allow native speakers to choose between the two flawlessly, but for non-native speakers, juggling between the various factors is no easy task. With that being said, our goal in this lesson will be to cover the absolute basics about は so you know how to generally use it. 

Curriculum Note: You are not required to study new grammar points used in the example sentences other than the particle は at this time. Since the nature of は is borne out by the context or lack thereof that follows, we must see it in action to fully ascertain how it works.  

Usage 1: The Topic Marker Wa は 主題を表す取り立て助詞「は」

The particle は has several interchangeable classifications which only differ by what property is being highlighted.

Traditionally, は has been viewed as a “bound particle” (kakari-joshi 係助詞). This class of particles require that the next predicative (usually verbal or adjectival) element of the sentence be in a particular form. In the case of は, the sentence must be in the predicative form (shūshikei 終止形).

は is most often described nowadays as an “adverbial particle” (fuku-joshi 副助詞) or even as an “emphatic particle” (toritate-joshi 取り立て助詞) based on how it behaves grammatically and semantically. Its broad translation into English as “as for” is a testament to this.

What is a “Topic”?

i. To understand は, we need to know what is meant by “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 considered to be “old information.” For something to be registered information, though, you may need to use が first to establish it. This distinction between new information and known information is exemplified in Ex. 1. 

1. 昔々、あるところに、おじいさんとおばあさんが住んでいました。おじいさんは山へ柴刈りに、おばあさんは川へ洗濯に行きました。
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 of a story, the reader presumably knows nothing about it. This is why the particle が is used to mark the subjects and to establish them as the characters, which in turn is “new information” to the reader.. Once the characters are established, they are then treated as the topic in the following sentence, which is why they are marked by は. Note that although the comment that follows may still be new information, the topic itself is no longer new. 

2. あれは私の帽子です。
Are wa watashi no bōshi desu.
That’s my hat.

Though 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). Often times, this is based on a common sense assessment of reality. 

3. お名前は何ですか。
O-namae wa nan desu ka?
What’s your name?

Sentence Note: Everyone has a name. Even if this statement were not completely true, it is 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 are 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.  

4. トイレはどこですか。
Toire wa doko desu ka?
Where is the toilet?

Sentence Note: When you ask this to someone, you are assuming that there is a toilet nearby. The existence of toilets can be rather easily ascertained based on one’s surroundings. Asking this means you have 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. 

5. 火星は赤いです。
Kasei wa akai desu.
Mars is red.

Sentence Note: Most people know about Mars, and so the acknowledgment of its existence is well established. Its color is also well known enough to be viewed as a generic statement.  

6. 日本は島国です。
Nihon wa shimaguni desu.
Japan is an island nation.

Sentence Note: Japan is known by most people as an island nation.  

7. ウサギはかわいいですね。
Usagi wa kawaii desu ne.
Rabbits are cute, aren’t they?

Sentence Note: Wherever rabbits exist, there are humans that know about them.  

The Zero-Pronoun

ii. Whenever the topic is semantically the same as the subject or even the object of a sentence, the particle は does not mark both. It only functions as the topic marker. All sorts of things can be topicalized, which makes it seem like は has far more functions than it actually does. Semantically, it is very similar to the English expression “as for.” However, using “as for” heavily in translation will result in unnatural English. Nonetheless, this translation is a perfect stepping stone for understanding how it functions.

8. 私は毎日ジムに行きます。
Watashi wa mainichi jimu ni ikimasu.
(As for me,) I go to the gym every day.

The purpose of 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 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 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. As such, 私は私が is ungrammatical. 

This is where the concept of a zero-pronoun comes into play. A zero-pronoun is the subject (or object) of a Japanese sentence that is omitted because it is juxtaposed with a topic that happens to be the same thing. Its non-verbalization is the grammatical fix to semantic redundancy. With zero-pronouns in mind, we can view 8 as follows:

8. 私は毎日ジムに行きます。
Watashi-wa (ø-ga) jimu-ni ikimasu.
(As for me,) I go to the gym every day.
ø = Watashi 

As stated, a zero-pronoun may also refer to an object, specifically a “direct object” in which a subject, which may also be omitted for other outstanding reasons like pronoun dropping, is acting upon it. Thus, although は appears to mark the direct object in 9, in reality, it simply marks the topic which happens to also be the direct object. The direct object is still expressed with the non-verbalized zero-pronoun.

9a. ケーキはもう食べました。
Kēki-wa mō (ø-wo) tabemashita. 
Natural Translation: I already ate the cake.
Literal Interpretation: The cake, I already ate it.
ø = Kēki ケーキ

The Variety of Topicalized Phrases

iii. The particle は has few restrictions on what it can topicalize. For instance, it may topicalize time and location phrases.

10. 日本では地震がよく起きます。
Nihon de wa jishin ga yoku okimasu.
In Japan, earthquakes often happen.

11. 今日は韓国語を勉強します。
Kyō wa kankokugo wo benkyō shimasu. 
Today, I will study Korean.

In the pattern XはYだ, Y often describes a situation in which X is involved. This is in contrast to when Y is purely a nominal predicate that defines X. Consider these two examples.

12. ウナギは魚だ。
Unagi wa sakana da.
Eels are fish.

13. 僕はウナギだ。
Boku wa unagi da.
i. As for me, I go for eel.
ii. As for me, eel is (the way to go).
iii. I (will) have eel.
iv. I’m an eel (kind of person).
v. I’m an eel person. ?
vi. I am an eel. X1

Ex. 12 is a general statement of fact. No additional context is required to determine that X and Y refer to the same entity.

In Ex. 13, however, X and Y are not the same entity. The situation Y describes, albeit involving X, depends on what the predicate stands for. Although it does not help the learner that the copula (だ) finds itself in the sentence either way, Y (= ウナギ) could be the object which X (= 僕) acts upon, or it could be the subject at hand with X being related to it somehow. This is borne out by the potential English translations given. Notice how even English almost allows Y to stand for a complex scenario, but ultimately a modifier describing said relationship cannot be entirely omitted without causing ambiguity. Japanese allows for these so called unagi-bun ウナギ文 by allowing predefined relationships to be heavily simplified grammatically later on in a discourse while also allowing basic (common sense) observations of what X and Y are to rule out nonsensical interpretations.

When a learner fails to understand that the “topic” need not always be the subject and what the consequence might be for not making the connection, misunderstandings like 13vi are inevitable. Likewise, when a learner fails to understand that the “topic” might be an “agent” (cause/initiator) but not the subject, sentences known as kon’nyaku-bun こんにゃく文 become just as confusing.

14. こんにゃくは太りません。
Kon’nyaku wa futorimasen.
You won’t put on weight from konjac. (≠ Konjac won’t put on weight). 

These sentences come about by the “head” of an attributive predicate being omitted. In the case of Ex. 14 can be simply understood to be “eat.” This allows for it to be rephrased into English as, “As for konjac, you won’t gain weight from eating it.”

15. 趣味はバスケが兄で、ピアノが姉です。
Shumi wa basuke ga ani de, piano ga ane desu.
As for hobbies, my older brother does basketball and my older sister does piano.

Grammar Note: This is another example of こんにゃく文 where the speaker has chosen not to actually use the word for “to do,” and is instead attributing his/her siblings to those activities.

16. こちらは(私の)弟です。
Kochira wa (watashi no) otōto desu.
This is my little brother.

17. 彼女は{中国人・日本人・アメリカ人・イギリス人}です。
Kanojo wa [chūgokujin/nihonjin/amerikajin/igirisujin] desu.
She is [Chinese/Japanese/American/British].

18. 中国経済には問題がある。
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 は phrase in question is being topicalized and the fact that said は phrase forms the basis for the upcoming conversation do not change.

19. 私は行きません。
Watashi wa ikimasen. 
I won’t go.

20. 彼は先生ではありません。
Kare wa sensei de wa arimasen.
He is not a teacher.

Grammar Notes:

1. Ex. 19 and Ex. 20 are examples of 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. 20, it could be that another person is a teacher, or “he” could be something other than a teacher. If the particle 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 は in ではありません is a usage of the contrast marker は (Usage 2). 

Generic Statements

iv. 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 は is very different from the exhaustive-listing statements that が can make. Whereas an exhaustive-listing sentence is limited semantically solely to what is explicitly stated, 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.” 

21. リンゴは果物です。
Ringo wa kudamono desu.
Apples are fruits/Apple is a fruit.

22. 空は青い。
Sora wa aoi.
The sky is blue.

23. 宇宙は広い。
Uchū wa hiroi. 
The universe is vast.

24. 太陽は明るい。
Taiyō wa akarui.
The sun is bright.

25. 月は地球の衛星です。
Tsuki wa chikyū no eisei desu.
The Moon is Earth’s satellite. 

26. 夜は暗い。
Yoru wa kurai.
Night is dark.

27. 花は美しい。
Hana wa utsukushii.
Flowers are beautiful.

28. 春は素晴らしいですね。
Haru wa subarashii desu ne.
Spring is wonderful, isn’t it?

29. 世界は小さい。
Sekai wa chiisai.
The world is small.

Sentence Note: Ex. 29 is actually the translation of the famous tune, “It’s a small world after all.”

30. 数学は難しいですね。
Sūgaku wa muzukashii desu ne. 
Math is difficult, isn’t it?

Sentence Note: As a demonstration of the last point, this statement should be interpreted as meaning “I’m not sure about other subjects being hard, but math is, isn’t it?”

Attribute Phrases: Xは Yが

v. One of the most common ways to describe something is by following a topicalized phrase (X) with は with a neutral statement (Y) followed by が. In the examples below, there are generally two kinds of translations. The first will reflect the Japanese grammar, whereas the second will be a nativized rephrasing.

31. 象は鼻が長い。
Zō wa hana ga nagai. 
As for (a/the) elephant(s), their nose(s) are long.
Elephants have long noses.

Grammar Note: It is important to understand that the topic is elephants, not their noses. The particle が does mark the nose’s length as the (new) information of the sentence, but imagine this sentence being the start or part of a longer discussion about elephants. Since we have already learned how the particle の marks attributes, you may wonder if the following sentence is correct:

32. 象の鼻が長い。
Zō no hana ga nagai. 
Elephant noses are long.

This sentence is, in fact, grammatical, but its nuance is not the same. Focus is placed solely on elephant noses, and the speaker is purposely pointing out their length to the listener.

33. 象の鼻は長い。
Zō no hana wa nagai. 
Elephant noses are long.

This sentence is also possible, but now the speaker is just talking about elephant noses with no particular emphasis on the comment. 

34. 日本は神社が多い。
Nihon wa jinja ga ōi. 
i. As for Japan, there are many Shinto shrines.
ii. Japan has many Shinto shrines. 

35. 秋はサンマが最高だ。
Aki wa samma ga saikō-da. 
i. As for autumn, Pacific saury is the best.
ii. In autumn, Pacific saury is the best. 

36. 冬には気温が下がります。
Fuyu ni wa kion ga sagarimasu.
In winter, the temperature goes down.

37. その仕事は、私がします。
Sono shigoto wa, watashi ga shimasu.
As for that job, I will do it.

38. キリンは首が長い。
Kirin wa kubi ga nagai.
i. As for giraffes, their necks are long.
ii. Giraffes have long necks.

39. (私は)頭が痛いです。
(Watashi wa) atama ga itai-desu.
i. (As for me), my head hurts.
ii. I have a headache.

40. (私は)お腹が空きました。
(Watashi wa) onaka ga sukimashita.
i. (As for me), my stomach is empty.
ii. I’m hungry.

41. (私は)喉が渇きました。
(Watashi wa) nodo ga kawakimashita.
i. (As for me), my throat is parched.
ii. I’m thirsty.

Grammar Note: In both Ex. 40 and Ex. 41, it is more natural to drop the pronoun. Although we haven’t studied verbal conjugations, it must be noted that the ~た at the end of these expressions SHOULD NOT be interpreted as past tense. Instead, it should be viewed as a present perfect tense with a heavy emphasis on the state having reached its state ‘now.’ When someone says either of these phrases, they’re not saying that their “stomach WAS” empty or that their “throat WAS parched.” They are experiencing hunger/thirst, so be the better Japanese learner and get them something rather than assume they’ve already had something. 

vi. As opposed to the questions made with が, those made with は have the interrogative (question) phrase as the predicate. This is because the questions formed with は imply that the question (topic) at hand should be evident/relevant to the listener(s) as well. This pattern will be how most of the questions you ask are formed, and they tend to have a softer tone than does created with が (See Lesson 11). 

42. サム君はいつ来る?
Samu-kun wa itsu kuru?
When is Sam coming?

43. 今日は何曜日ですか。
Kyō wa nan’yōbi desu ka? 
What day is it today?

(Anata wa) dare desu ka?
Who are you?

45. 病院はどこですか。
Byōin wa doko desu ka?
Where is the hospital?

46. 趣味は何ですか。
Shumi wa nan desu ka?
What are your hobbies?

Usage 2: The Contrast Marker Wa は 対比を表す副助詞「は」

On top of being a topic marker, 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 は is actually the primary meaning of は. Within a given sentence, several は may appear. Each one will have a different level of contrast implied. When は doesn’t appear to be contrasting anything, it may very well just be used as a topic marker.

47. 私は昨日は昼食は取らなかったんです。
Watashi wa kinō wa chūshoku wa toranakatta n desu.
Yesterday, I didn’t have lunch.

Although the presence of 私は could imply a contrast with other people, the sentence is bringing oneself to the forefront of conversation, which would likely be on purpose in this scenario. With this being this case, it is viewed as the topic. Both the words for “yesterday” and “lunch” are marked with 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. 

48. 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)

49. 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)

50. 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)

51. ルールにない事は、私は何も言いません。
Rūru ni nai koto wa, watashi wa nani mo iimasen.
I will say nothing about anything not in the rules.

Grammar Note: The use of 私は adds greater emphasis to the sentence. The speaker is drawing contrast with their stance as opposed to others. The は after 事 can also be viewed as both being the topic and a point of contrast. Meaning, the speaker may talk about things in the rules, and the topic is still very much about what is not in the rules. 

52. 本当は嬉しいです。
Hontō wa ureshii desu.
I’m actually happy.

Grammar Note: 本当 is an adverbial noun, and in this sentence, it is being used in the sense of “in actuality.” The implication is that although the speaker may not appear happy, they are, in fact, happy.  

53. 「日本料理は好きですか」「タイ料理は好きです」
“Nihon ryōri wa o-suki desu ka?” “Tai ryōri wa suki desu.”
“Do you like Japanese cuisine?” I like Thai food(, but not Japanese 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, such responses are deemed politer than just saying no. 

54. 犬は好きですが、猫はどうも・・・
Inu wa suki desu ga, neko wa dōmo…
I like dogs, but cats…

Grammar Note: The が seen after です is the conjunctive particle 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.  

55. コーヒーは飲まないが、ビールは飲むよ。
Kōhii wa nomanai ga, biiru wa nomu yo. 
I don’t drink coffee, but I drink beer.

56. 鉛筆はありませんが、ペンはありますよ。
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.

Grammar Note: The verb ある may also mean “to have (an inanimate object).”

57. 象の鼻は長いが、象以外の鼻も長い。
Zō no hana wa nagai ga, zō-igai no hana mo nagai.
Elephant noses are long, but there are other noses that are long other than elephants’.

58. 象は鼻が長くて、尻尾が短いです。
Zō wa hana ga nagakute, shippo ga mijikai-desu.
As for elephants, their noses are long and their tails are short.

59. 象は確かに鼻は長いが、尻尾はかなり短いです。
Zō wa tashika ni hana wa nagai ga, shippo wa kanari mijikai-desu.
As for elephants, their noses are certainly long, but their tails are pretty short.

60. 象(だけ)が鼻が長い。
Zō (dake) ga hana ga nagai. 
Elephants (are the (only one’s) that have) long noses.

Grammar Note: Although Exs. 57-60 add some more complexity, in combination with Exs. 31-33, they help better illustrate how changing up が and は affects meaning. Even without knowing the extra grammar points or words, the role that these particles play follow what is to be expected from their descriptions. Ex. 57 is talking about noses, and the contrast that follows is still about noses. Ex. 58 is simply about describing elephants, and so the length of their noses and tails are not being contrasted. In Ex. 59, though, these facts are being contrasted, and the topic is still on elephants, which is why there are three instances of は in the same sentence. Then, there is XがYがZ in Ex. 60. It is possible to have two subjects like this in a Japanese sentence, but in this structure it is best to view [YがZ] as a single predicate unit which is being paired with the exhaustive meaning of が.

61. あれはオオカミではない、狐だよ。
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 は in ではない is the contrasting は. Also note how Japanese uses a comma when a semi-colon would be used in English.

62. 運航のダイヤには影響はない。
Unkō no daiya ni wa eikyō wa nai.
There is no effect on the operating schedule.

Sentence Notes: 運航 refers to the operation of aircraft or ships. When referring to the operation of busses or other similar motorized vehicles, it is spelled as 運行. Be careful to pronounce these words with a LHHH (low-high-high-high) intonation as the word unko うんこ with a HLL (high-low-low) intonation means “poop.” 

Grammar Note: The contrastive は is used heavily with negative sentences. The intent of the speaker is to imply that other scenarios may still be possible but that the one being mentioned is not the case. Meaning, the speaker mentioning the operating schedule isn’t implying that there won’t be a change in quality of flight. The promise is limited to there being no effect on the timing, which is also why  運航のダイヤに is topicalized.

Bare Minimum 最低限を表す副助詞「は」

Another usage of the particle は is to express a bare minimum (saiteigen 最低限)–“at least.” This is primarily used with number expressions but it is not limited to them. 

63. 少なくとも2時間はかかります。
Sukunakutomo nijikan wa kakarimasu.
It will take at least two hours.

64. 10人は来ます。
Jūnin wa kimasu. 
At least ten people will come.

65 10万円は必要です。
Jūman’en wa hitsuyō desu.
It will need at least 100,00 yen.

66. 牛乳ぐらいは買ってください。
Gyūnyū gurai wa katte kudasai. 
At least buy milk, please.

Grammar Note: The particle くらい・ぐらい is frequently used with this function of the particle 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. 

67. 盲腸(虫垂炎)の手術でも1000ドルはかかります。
Mōchō (chūsuien) no shujutsu demo sen-doru wa kakarimasu.
Even appendix (appendicitis) surgery will cost at least a thousand dollars.

In Conclusion 最後に…

For a particle that is as complex as は, introducing you to it with so many example sentences will hopefully provide plenty of real-life scenarios in which you could practically begin using the particle in your own Japanese conversation practice with confidence. 

  1. In fantasy in which a speaker may very well be asserting that they are, in fact, an eel, then this interpretation would become valid. The overarching context, however, would have already defined X in way that would cause the sentence to be interpreted as so. ↩︎