The murkiness surrounding the Japanese particles は (ha/wa) and が (ga) is often picked out as the most confusing area of Japanese study, and it continues to be confusing right the way through from beginner to advanced level. Fundamental ingredients in Japanese sentences, we learn them early in our studies, yet they are so difficult to pin down that they tend to come back to haunt us over and over.
An indication of the complexity of は and が is the sheer volume of academic writing dedicated to it. It still incites lively debate among linguists, even after over fifty years of research. It also confounds native and non-native speakers of Japanese alike. If you want to test this out, go ahead and ask any native speaker of Japanese (without Japanese teaching experience) to explain their choice of は or が in even the simplest of sentences, and watch the confusion and soul-searching that ensues.
The fact is, the use of は and が often boils down to native-speaker intuition. And like all good native-speaker intuition, it's as hard to put into words for native speakers as it is for the rest of us. Underpinning that intuition, though, is a bunch of principles, built up in every native speaker's subconscious throughout childhood, and honed over years of exposure to all sorts of real-life uses. The goal of this article, then, is to unpick these elusive principles and bottle up a good dose of that precious native-speaker intuition to hand it over to you. By setting out the underlying principles in the simplest possible terms, and examining them in all kinds of different situations, we hope to clear up some of the fog that lingers around は and が.
- What is the difference between は and が?
- The Pieces in the は and が Puzzle
- Piecing the Puzzle Together
- は and が in the Wild
- The Final Curtain
Prerequisites: This article assumes you already know hiragana and katakana. If you need to brush up, have a look at our Ultimate Hiragana Guide and Ultimate Katakana Guide. You may also want to check out our grammar pages on は and が to give you more background on each particle individually, before diving into the differences between the two. This articles starts with the basic principles, and progresses through increasingly nuanced and obscure applications of these principles. Beginners might want to skim the later sections, and return to them whenever you feel like the は/が fog is thickening around you!
What is the difference between は and が?
The question "What's the difference between は and が?" is a little problematic in itself. It implies that は and が are part of a two-piece set, and that's not actually the case. They do, however, both belong to a much larger set of "particles," also known as "postpositions." For beginners out there, particles are somewhat similar to prepositions — like "in," "to," or "for" in English — and play important roles in Japanese sentences.
The main difference between particles and prepositions is that particles go after the word they're giving clues about — hence their other name "postpositions." For example:
As you can see, へ goes after 日本, whereas "to" comes before "Japan." So far so good, right?
There are, however, a few particles in Japanese that don't have equivalent prepositions in English. Can you guess what two of those particles might be? That's right: は and が. Nevertheless, they both behave in the same way as all other particles: they go after a word to give you grammatical information about that word. Very handy!
The roles of は and が within that wider particle set are very different, though, and conflating the two can make them seem even more confusing than they actually are. We'll start by taking a look at the fundamental "meanings" of these two ubiquitous particles, so that you can apply these concepts whenever は and が crop up, and gradually get better and better acquainted with them.
The Pieces in the は and が Puzzle
There are a few pieces to this puzzle, so let's start by looking at each puzzle piece one by one, before moving on to see how the pieces fit together.
Puzzle Piece Number One: が Points Out the Subject
We're going to kick off our magical mystery tour with が, because this particle has the more clear-cut part to play in a Japanese sentence.
From a grammatical point of view, が goes after a word or phrase to pick it out as the subject of a sentence, or part of a sentence (a "clause"). That is, the person or thing before が is doing or being something. It's the protagonist. Grammatically, it's a relatively defined and straightforward role.
If we turn this concept into an image, が is the witness to an incident, picking out the perpetrator from a lineup. が is telling us, "they did it!" or maybe, "they're going to do it," depending on the sentence. So we're stretching our lineup analogy a little bit here. Bear with us while we stretch it a little further, because the perpetrator can in fact be anything: a masked man, twenty dogs, or a teapot. Anything at all. And the "crime" can be a verb, like "murder," but it can also be a noun, like "winner," or an adjective, like "delicious."
Let's take a look at a couple of examples to see what we mean.
- 子供が 遊んでいる。
- A child is playing.
子供 (child) comes before が here, showing us that 子供 is the subject. In other words, 子供 is the person doing the action of "playing." 子供 is the "perpetrator," and we know this because が is helpfully making this clear, by sitting politely right after it and pointing a finger in its direction.
- There's a problem.
Again, look at what comes before が to find the subject of the sentence. In this case it's 問題 (problem). So "problem" is the thing that ある (exists). Using our lineup analogy again, が is the witness as always, pointing the finger at 問題. 問題 is the "perpetrator," the protagonist who is doing the verb, in this case "existing."
- これが 中村先生の 家だ。
- This is Nakamura-sensei's house.
As you can see, が is pointing its finger at これ (this). So "this" is the perpetrator. In this case the "crime" is being Nakamura-sensei's house. これ is the grammatical subject, and the rest of the sentence is the information about that subject.
- その 情報が 必要です。
- That information is necessary.
This time, が is showing us that その情報 (that information) is the perpetrator, or subject, here. It's その情報 that is being the adjective, so in this case it's being "necessary."
Okay, one last sentence. Can you tell who is the "perpetrator" here?
- このチョコが 美味しい！
- This chocolate is delicious!
I think you've got the hang of things now! That's right, このチョコ is the subject!
An added effect of this lineup feature is that が also excludes all other potential subjects. If you're saying "this teapot committed the crime," you're also absolving all the other teapots in the lineup. So が is telling us the subject of the verb, noun or adjective, and at the same time excluding all other subjects. In other words, depending on the context, a more literal translation of the last sentence might be:
- This is the chocolate that's delicious!
This ability of が to exclude everyone else in the lineup is an important factor in the nuances it can create.
Puzzle Piece Number Two: は Shines a Spotlight on the Topic
は, on the other hand, isn't picking out a specific part of a sentence and telling us its exact grammatical role within that sentence. Rather than showing us our subject, or object, or some other grammatical building block, は is doing something quite magical that most languages can't do explicitly in this way: it's telling us the topic of our sentence, or part of a sentence, or maybe a whole paragraph or more.
If we imagine for a moment that our conversation or piece of writing is a play, then は is the spotlight, shining on the thing that we want our audience to focus on at that moment. The focus might be the main character in that part of the story, it might be a stage prop, or it might be an important section of the background scenery. But whatever our magical spotlight は is shining on, it sets the tone for that part of the play.
Just like anything a spotlight might shine on in a play, there are no exact rules as to how far a topic can stretch. は tells our audience: this is the thing we are going to talk about now. This is what we feel is central to our story, or at least this part of our story. We might talk about it for the next few words, or we might talk about it for the rest of the conversation, or the rest of the chapter.
The closest equivalent to は in English is probably "as for," and this is how it is often rendered into English in more literal translations. It sometimes works in more natural translations too, but that's the exception rather than the rule. Since "as for" is an expression, it's not something that we want to throw into every other sentence, because we'd end up sounding horribly repetitive. は on the other hand, as the equivalent of a preposition, can sit very happily and unobtrusively in as many sentences as we deem it useful, without sounding like we're saying "as for" continuously.
は also goes well beyond the way we use "as for" in English, and has all kinds of subtle effects on nuance. These effects are all linked to the fact that は is highlighting our topic, though.
Let's look at some examples of all the different types of things that could take on topic status in Japanese:
- 東京は 賑やかな 所です。
- Tokyo's a lively place.
(Literally: As for Tokyo, it's a lively place.)
Here our spotlight is shining on Tokyo, so for starters we're saying that Tokyo's lively, and there's every chance that the discussion will continue with Tokyo as our theme. That's certainly the impression that は gives.
- お 水は 飲みました。
- I drank the water.
(Literally: As for the water, I drank it.)
The focus of this sentence is the water (お水). By shining our spotlight on お水, we're picking it out as our theme, our topic. In English, we'd consider water to be the object, but in this Japanese sentence, it's the topic, drawing extra attention to the water and very likely adding extra weight to it in terms of nuance, depending on the rest of the conversation.
- 三月はチョコを 食べません。
- I don't eat chocolate in March.
(Literally: As for March, I don't eat chocolate.)
In this example the time period 三月 (March) is having the spotlight shined on it. It is neither the subject nor the object of our sentence, but it is nevertheless the topic that we consider most important at this moment in time.
Because は has this spotlight effect, rather than excluding other potential elements in our play, it simply leaves them in the shadows. Rather than saying "this person, and only this person, is the perpetrator," we're simply emphasizing our theme, and leaving other possible themes in the dark. We know they're there, but we don't usually know much else about them. Consequently, the notion of a topic also always carries with it a certain degree of implied contrast with the other potential topics that are lurking in the shadows.
Let's have a look at another example to see what we mean by this:
- このチョコは 大好き。
- I love this chocolate.
(Literally: As for this chocolate, I love it.)
Rather than このチョコ (this chocolate) being our protagonist here, it is our topic. This means that we're focusing on このチョコ, and at the same time leaving other types of chocolate in the shadows. So you're saying you love this chocolate, and also probably implying that there are other types of chocolate that you don't like as much.
The degree to which this is important will vary according to the type of sentence, the wider context, and (when speaking) which word you choose to put the stress on. For now it's enough to bear in mind that は can have all kinds of implications about the unmentioned other potential topics.
The final characteristic of a topic that we should mention is that it's something identifiable — something we already have in our consciousness. So by telling us that something is the topic, は is introducing something we are already aware of. This has important implications for emphasis, which we'll come back to shortly, as emphasis is our fourth and final puzzle piece.
Puzzle Piece Number Three: Disappearing Acts
The next important piece in this puzzle is the fact that so many parts of a sentence can seemingly disappear in Japanese, as long as they are clear from the context.
In fact, all languages leave out information that is felt to be obvious. Otherwise we'd constantly be repeating ourselves, and we'd never get anywhere. An example of this habit in most European languages is pronouns, which allow us to refer to something without repeating it again and again:
I saw Mami the other day. She seems to be doing well.
In this sentence, we know intuitively that the pronoun "she" refers to Mami. There's no need to repeat her name and indeed doing so would feel a bit weird. It's exactly the same in Japanese, except Japanese goes one step further and doesn't bother with pronouns at all — or at least not pronouns that we can see or hear! So in Japanese, this sentence would look something like this:
この 間マミさんに 会った。 元気にしてるみたいだよ。
We know beyond any doubt that the second sentence in the example above is talking about Mami, even though she seems to have done a disappearing act. In fact, she's still there. You don't believe me? We know she's still there because of the previous sentence. She's just invisible. This is a concept that linguists often call "zero pronouns."
It's really not all that different from English, it just takes things one step further. Whereas we would add "she" to the second sentence in English, because we feel that repeating Mami is unnecessary thanks to context, Japanese speakers simply omit Mami altogether. Or rather, they paint her in invisible paint. But in Japanese, the subject of the sentence is no less clear than it would be in English. So in that sense, she's still there. To cut a long story short, we leave out unnecessary information in all languages, but Japanese is more efficient at this disappearing act than most.
We can avoid explicitly mentioning pretty much anything in Japanese, as long as our audience can guess that it's there. That could be the topic, the subject, an object, a particle, or even a verb, but for the purposes of this article we're more worried about the subject, topic, and particles, for obvious reasons. Let's stick with subjects and topics for now.
In our earlier example 三月はチョコを食べません, we have a topic and an object. There is also a subject, in this case an invisible one. If so, what is it? That will all depend on the context. The subject will have been established at some point earlier in the conversation. If it hasn't been explicitly stated earlier, it will almost always be the person who's speaking. So, without context we would assume that the translation is "I don't eat chocolate in March," but depending on the context, it could easily be "he," "she," or "they" who don't eat chocolate in March.
The point is that Japanese sentences have both a subject and a theme — they're just very often invisible! Whether or not they're invisible depends on whether we think that our audience can figure them out from context or not. So there are times when neither can be left out, and there are times where one or both can be left out. There are also times when they can be left out, but we choose to leave them in for any number or reasons ranging from clarity, to emphasis, buying thinking time, or even sometimes pure personal preference.
Puzzle Piece Number Four: It's All About the Emphasis
We've seen that all languages leave out information that is deemed superfluous. Another thing that all languages do is emphasize information that we consider to be new, or not easily identifiable or prominent in the consciousness of our audience. In other words, emphasis tells us what information is already out there and what information we want our listener (or reader) to sit up and take notice of.
This is the final fundamental puzzle piece in the use of は and が. They can both show us where emphasis lies, and in doing so they make a distinction between information that is already in our consciousness and information that the speaker or writer wants to introduce — or re-introduce — into our consciousness. Information can be considered to be in our consciousness if it's already been mentioned in conversation; if it's predictable because of what has already been said; or if it's common knowledge shared by the people involved.
The topic is something we already know about, or can guess. It's the "old news," or the news that we believe to be identifiable to our audience.
How do は and が fit into this? Let's start with が! You remember how が identifies the "perpetrator" (the grammatical subject) and rules out all other possible perpetrators? Because it's introducing the perpetrator, or protagonist, this means that we use it to introduce information that isn't considered to be part of our consciousness yet. In other words, we use が to point out new information, or for information that we feel can't be inferred from context or shared knowledge. And since "new" information is always emphasized, が always adds emphasis to whatever comes before it. が points its finger at the perpetrator, and lets us know that this is the focus of what we are saying.
As for は (see what we did there?) the added effect of the spotlight is that it actually focuses on the action of whatever it's shining on. The topic is something we already know about, or can guess. It's the "old news," or the news that we believe to be identifiable to our audience. So the focus is on the action surrounding our theme. We're saying "you remember such-and-such?" or "speaking of you-know-what," here's the interesting thing about them!
This distinction doesn't sound very concrete does it? Let's look at an example:
- The moon's beautiful.
We can assume that everyone knows what the moon is. It's therefore ripe to be a possible topic, while leaving other topics in the dark. Once we've introduced the moon as the topic, we can assume that it's also our subject, so it's the moon that's beautiful. This would be a general statement about the moon. It's always beautiful, and everyone agrees.
But what about if we left out the topic, and instead included the moon as our subject?
- The moon's beautiful.
Here we're picking out the moon as our protagonist and drawing attention to it. We might say this if we just noticed that the moon is particularly beautiful tonight, and we're taken aback by it.
This phrase would be very much at home in a longer sentence that also mentions the topic, such as:
- The moon's beautiful tonight.
In this sentence, 今夜 (tonight) is the topic, and the moon remains our subject as before. By shining our spotlight on tonight, we're adding the nuance that other nights may not be blessed with such a beautiful moon!
All of these sentences are perfectly fine. The choice is down to the speaker — do we want the moon to be our topic or our subject, or both? What exact nuance do we want to create? Obviously, most speakers don't analyze this when they speak — it just comes naturally.
In reality, 月がきれいだ is probably the more common of these two sentences because you might be more likely to point out a particularly beautiful moon than wax lyrical about the beauty of the moon in general. Obviously, though, this depends on the kind of person you are and the kinds of conversations you have!
If we were to replace きれい with 丸い (round) on the other hand, which particle do you think would be the more common choice? In this case, we really are talking about an intrinsic characteristic of the moon, one that everyone can agree on, so the more likely choice would be は.
- 月は 丸い。
- The moon's round.
Maybe you're explaining to a young child what the moon looks like! Again, the moon can technically be your visible subject here too, in which case it's the same as for 月がきれいだ. It means you've looked up at the sky to see a full moon and just then it hit you just how round the moon is!
Of course, how often these exact sentences come up depends on the kinds of situations you find yourself in, but hopefully they give you an idea of the difference between how は and が make a sentence feel.
This brings us on to the next step in understanding は and が: how they interact with each other and the nuance they create in real-life speaking and writing.
Piecing the Puzzle Together
We now know that が shows us the subject, and は shows us the topic. We also know that we can leave out either the subject, or the topic, or indeed both of them, depending on what we feel others already have in their consciousness at that moment. And we can play around with all of this to emphasize whatever we want to emphasize.
Now for the fun part! Let's see how these pieces fit together with each other to produce different meanings, nuances and emphasis in Japanese.
When We Usually Leave Out Both
There are many cases when both the subject and the topic can happily be left unsaid without causing any ambiguity.
There are many cases when both the subject and the topic can happily be left unsaid without causing any ambiguity.
One of the very first sentences many people learn in Japanese is an excellent example of how a sentence can be grammatically accurate, but still create unintended nuances, depending on the wider context: self-introductions.
The standard phrase we often learn for telling people our name in Japanese is 私は〜です. Fair enough. This does indeed mean "I'm so-and-so." However, remember that は shines a spotlight on whatever comes before it, so 私は〜です is actually more like "As for me, I'm so-and-so." You're shining a spotlight on yourself.
- I'm Jenny.
(Literally: As for me, I'm Jenny.)
When would you shine a spotlight on yourself? Not all that often in self-introductions. If you've just met someone, the chances are they know full well that you're talking about yourself if you give a name. You're unlikely to be telling them the name of your pet blowfish, and if you are, that too would be clear from the context.
You have already established yourself as the topic by the very nature of the situation, so there's no need to labor the point. Consequently, adding 私は (as for me) actually sounds ever-so-slightly odd in most self-introduction situations.
One of the few situations you might naturally say 私は when telling someone your name is if you're introducing yourself and other people at the same time. Then it would be perfectly naturally to say:
- This is Mami, and I'm Jenny.
(Literally: As for this person, she's Mami, and as for me, I'm Jenny.)
This is because you're shining the spotlight first on Mami, and then on yourself.
There are situations when が would make sense, too. Imagine a stranger is looking for you amongst a group of people. They might ask:
- Are you Jenny?
In order to cross everyone else of the list and allow the questioner to end their search, you could reasonably answer:
- That's right, I'm Jenny.
Someone might also ask more generally if someone called Jenny is present:
- Is there anyone here called Jenny?
And then you could also answer with yourself as the subject:
- 私がジェニーです。 何の 御用でしょうか。
- I'm Jenny. Can I help you with something?
By using が, you're expressly excluding everyone else and making it clear that you, and only you, are the protagonist.
So the nuance of が is a bit like you're saying "That's me! I'm Jenny! I'm the person you're looking for!" or "I'm Jenny, that's me — not that other person over there. Me!"
By using が, you're expressly excluding everyone else and making it clear that you, and only you, are the protagonist. You can probably see why this might come across as a bit over-the-top in a run-of-the-mill self-introduction situation!
If there's no need or desire to shine a spotlight or point a finger at yourself, most people would simply go with 〜です:
- I'm Jenny👋
In other words, no は — and no が either. Whereas in English we're often forced to state the obvious, in Japanese the most natural thing to do is to leave it out.
When we See a Topic and Subject Together in a Sentence
There are, however, actually very few — if any — situations where you're obliged to include your topic, or your subject, for your sentence to be grammatical. The majority of the time it comes down to what you think your audience knows and what you want to emphasize. This makes は and が very hard to get across accurately in example sentences, because whether or not the topic and the subject are expressly mentioned depends on the larger context — maybe the rest of the conversation, or the rest of the paragraph, or beyond.
It's worth mentioning that, when the topic and the subject are different, there's more chance that they'll both be mentioned. This goes back to the desire for clarity.
Let's have a look at some examples where both the topic and the subject are explicitly stated in a sentence.
- ケンイチは 頭がいい。
- Kenichi is smart.
(Literally: As for Kenichi, [his] head is good.)
Here we establish Kenichi as the topic, then we go on to make Kenichi's head the subject of the next part of the sentence. Both need to be mentioned explicitly because they can't be guessed from context.
- 北海道は 何が 美味しい？
- What's good to eat in Hokkaido?
(Literally: As for Hokkaido, what's delicious?)
Again, we establish Hokkaido as our topic, then our question word 何 is the visible subject.
Let's look at one more example:
- カナエは 梅干しが 大好きだよ。
- Kanae loves pickled plums.
If either the topic or the subject is known from context, though, we can leave them out as always. So if we've already established Kanae as our theme, we can just say:
- She loves pickled plums.
And if we've already established pickled plums as our subject:
- Kanae loves them.
And finally, what do you think happens if we've already established both our subject and our topic? That's right, we can leave them both out:
- She loves them.
In English, we know that "she" is Kanae and "them" is the pickled plums, because we've been following along with the conversation. In the same way, in Japanese we know that our invisible subject is Kanae and our invisible topic is 梅干し.
When We See Two or More Topics
The main situation in which we see two topics in a sentence is when we want to throw the spotlight onto two or more separate entities. Why would we highlight two or more things? Usually because we want to compare the two. As we already mentioned, there's always a degree of contrast implied by は, but when we have two or more, the nuance of contrast is always strong.
- 冷たい 日本酒はあまり 好きじゃないけど、この 熱燗は 美味しい。
- I don't like cold sake much, but this hot sake is delicious.
We could even throw another topic into the example above:
- I don't usually like sake much, but this hot sake is delicious.
First our spotlight shines on 普段 to show us that we're talking about "usually," but implying that there are exceptions. We immediately move the spotlight onto 日本酒 (sake), and then on again to 熱燗 (hot sake), this time to contrast the two types of sake.
In the first example, we're comparing two things, but we can just as easily compare two people:
- カナエは梅干しが大好きだけど、キャメは 大嫌い。
- Kanae loves pickled plums, but Cameron hates them.
は and が Etiquette
は or が can also create certain etiquette slip-ups. Imagine you want to ask Mami about her goals for next year. Would you make 目標 (goal) your topic or your subject? Let's have a look at the question with が first of all:
- マミさんは 何か 目標がありますか？
- Do you have a goal, Mami?
Because "goal" is the subject, we are homing in on that only, and excluding other things that Mami might potentially have. This makes the question feel very specific and direct, and a little dry. Depending on the situation, it could come across as kind of rude! Poor Mami could feel bad if she happened not to have any goals for next year 😅
So what if we make 目標 our topic instead, alongside the topic we already have, which is Mami herself?
- Do you have any goals, Mami?
By shining our spotlight on the goals, but not excluding the possibility of other things besides goals that Mami may have, the question sounds softer and more polite.
Now, in answer to this question, Mami might respond:
- 来年、フランス 語の 勉強を 始めるという目標があります。
- My goal is to start learning French next year.
So while the question would usually make 目標 the topic, the answer turns it into the subject. This is because it sounds more humble to be specific and clear-cut about your goal. So this answer carries a neutral tone. Now let's have a look at the nuance created if the answer makes 目標 the topic:
- My goal is to start learning French next year.
This answer can create a somewhat self-important image, because of the implication that you have other goals besides this one. By being less specific about the goal, it can also make it sound like you are not entirely serious about it.
Another potentially sticky situation that は and が may lead you into is also linked to the nuance of は that other topics are implied, but left in the shadows. Imagine you want to compliment your friend on their hair, and you say:
- 今日は 髪が 可愛い。
- Your hair's cute today.
Looking at the English translation, you might wonder why your friend gives you that funny look. But by using 今日は you're be shining the spotlight on today and leaving other days in the shadows, thereby implying a contrast with other days. So the unspoken implication is that, while their hairstyle is cute today, we won't talk about how uninspired it is on other days.
Oops. Here, it'd be better not to mention the topic at all, and leave your friend to assume that they are the topic. That said, this is a "mistake" that lots of native speakers make too. You can expect a playful retort along the lines of "Hey, what are you implying?" just like you might get in English if you put a bit too much emphasis on the "today" when giving your compliment.
は and が in the Wild
Now that we've looked at how all these elements piece together, let's move onto some examples of how these concepts are applied in real-life situations.
は and が in Conversation
As we mentioned earlier, the impressive flexibility of Japanese when it comes to leaving out pretty much anything also extends to particles. In conversation, は and が are very often omitted, even when the corresponding subjects and topics are kept in.
The fact that they can be so easily left out means that they tend to have a greater impact when they are, in fact, left in. This applies to other particles besides は and が, but we'll focus on は and が here.
Take a look at the following dialogue between two housemates: <div class="embed-container embed-responsive embed-responsive-16by9"><iframe width="200" height="113" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QchjNvW0D7Q?feature=oembed" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture; web-share" allowfullscreen title="【41st WEEK】「尖ったコミュニケーションしか取れない…」聡太の配信を見た元妻の一言とは？"></iframe></div>
In this section, the two housemates are discussing making dinner. For a lot of this conversation, the subjects and topics are obvious from context, and so they leave out particles left, right and center. However, the particles stay when they're needed for strategic reasons, as we'll see.
聡太：夕飯どうしようか。昼食った？ </br> まや：食べてない。アイス食べた。 </br> 聡太：アイス食べた？ </br> まや：家で作る、今日？作るって言ってもね、作れる二人いないっすね。 </br> 聡太：作れない二人でご飯作る会する？ </br> まや：えーーやだやだ！絶対作れないもう。 </br> 聡太：ぐちゃぐちゃなやつ。 </br> まや：絶対ダメダメ。でも利沙ちゃんが、うどん食べたいって言ってたから… </br> 聡太：うどんはいけるでしょう。 </br> まや：うどんはできる。 </br> 聡太：うどんはいけるよね。 </br> まや：いける、いける。
Sota: What shall we do about dinner? Did you have lunch? </br> Maya: I didn't. I had ice cream. </br> Sota: You had ice cream? </br> Maya: Shall we cook at home today? Well, I say cook, but the two people who can cook aren't around, huh? </br> Sota: How about the two of us who can't cook have a cooking party? </br> Maya: Huh? No way, no way! I really can't cook. </br> Sota: Something sloppy. </br> Maya: It's definitely a no go. But Risa-chan did say she wanted to eat udon, so… </br> Sota: If it's udon it'll surely be okay. </br> Maya: If it's udon we can manage. </br> Sota: If it's udon it'll be okay, right? </br> Maya: Right, right.
Can you see which particles have been left out in the first part of the dialogue? Let's have a look at a few examples:
- What shall we do about dinner?
The overall theme is dinner, which is providing the context for the whole conversation. So 夕飯 is our topic, and would normally have the particle は after it:
- What shall we do about dinner?
(Literally: As for dinner, what shall we do?)
If we were to use は here, it would add a little extra emphasis, as if we wanted to make it clear that we're shifting from some other topic to 夕飯.
In the next sentence, Sota shifts the focus onto lunch:
- Did you have lunch?
Since the spotlight is now shining on lunch, the most likely particle here would again be は:
- Did you have lunch?
We can't leave the topic out altogether, because we couldn't possibly know that the focus had shifted to lunch unless it's explicitly stated. However, we can leave out the particle, because our audience knows instinctively that it's our topic.
Let's look at one more example from this section of the dialogue:
- 作れる 二人いないっすね。
- The two people who can cook aren't around, huh?
Here, the 作れる二人 could in fact be either the topic or the subject, with very little difference in the meaning. So the missing particle could be は, and the emphasis would be on the fact that they're not around, and it could equally be が, shifting the emphasis onto the two people themselves.
- The two people who can cook aren't around, huh?
- The two people who can cook aren't around, huh?
This shift in nuance is almost impossible to translate into English, and is something that we'd probably mostly get across using intonation.
Okay, let's continue with the dialogue. Until now there's been a lot of particle dropping. But when the conversation stops being about only the two involved, and moves to a third housemate, 利沙ちゃん, the が is kept in there to show that 利沙ちゃん is the subject and emphasize the fact that their sick housemate wants udon, so maybe they should make it:
- 絶対ダメダメ。でも 利沙ちゃんが、うどん 食べたいって言ってたから…
- It's definitely a no go. But Risa-chan did say she wanted to eat udon, so…
Then udon becomes the topic, and this time the は is left on, highlighting that if it's something as simple as udon, they can manage. The implication is that any other kind of food might be a challenge but, as for udon, that's doable:
- If it's udon it'll surely be okay.
- If it's udon we can manage.
Of course, they've gone back to being the subjects in their own conversation, so no need to mention them, but we know they're there!
は and が in Storytelling
As we saw in the previous section, new characters introduced into the conversation are usually introduced as the subject, and then once they're established in the audience's consciousness, they can take on topic status. Once this happens, they can either be followed by は or, more frequently, they'll become invisible. We all know they're there though, thanks to the context.
We've also seen that if we do mention the topic or the subject, this tends to be to create a certain effect. In the following example, the speaker is describing what Kanae did yesterday:
- 昨日はカナエちゃんが 梅干しおにぎりを 作った。そして、それを 弁当にして、カナエちゃんはキャメのアパートに 出かけていった。
- Yesterday, Kanae made pickled plum onigiri. Then she put them into a bento box and she headed out to Cameron's apartment.
The first mention of Kanae is followed by が, because she's being introduced into the dialogue for the first time. Then an invisible Kanae packs her lunch box, before reappearing when she goes to see Cameron. The は here is highlighting the transition from bento-making to heading out. It would be perfectly natural not to mention the topic here at all, so the fact that Kanae is explicitly mentioned again creates this feeling that we are changing scenes in the story.
This change of scene effect can be found in both speaking and writing. By repeating the topic when it's already obvious to the audience, the speaker shines the spotlight back onto that topic and shows that for some reason there is a break in the storyline or a shift in the dialogue.
は and が can also be manipulated to create a sense of familiarity or unfamiliarity with the characters. Children's stories are a great example of this. Let's take a look at the opening sentence from the children's book どうぞのいす:
- うさぎさんが ちいさな いすを つくりました。
- A rabbit made a small chair.
This is the first time we meet the rabbit in the story, so the narrator uses the particle が to introduce this new information. In English, we use "a" in this kind of scenario, as you can see in the translation.
A couple of pages later, once うさぎさん is already in our consciousness and can be the topic, the narrator uses は:
- うさぎさんは たてふだを ひとつ つくりました。
- The rabbit made a signboard.
As you can see, in English we switch to "the" to create the same effect.
However, lots of stories, including the majority of modern novels, start by introducing their characters as the topic, and so follow them by は. There are plenty of examples of this, even in children's books. Let's have a look at the first time we meet the eponymous hero in another picture book, ネズミのゆうびんやさん:
- ねずみの ゆうびんやさんは かばんに てがみを つめこむと、はりきって そとに とびだしました。
- Postman Mouse stuffs the letters into his bag as he rushes eagerly outside.
Even though this is the first time the main character is introduced, the narrator uses は from the very beginning to give us the impression that we're already familiar with this character.
The same thing happens in most modern novels. We're thrown right into the universe of the novel, creating the impression that the characters already existed before we got there, and were already part of our consciousness.
Look at the first line of Murakami's short story トニー滝谷:
- トニー 滝谷の 本当の 名前は、 本当にトニー 滝谷だった。
- Tony Takitani's real name really was Tony Takitani.
As first-time readers, we couldn't possibly know who Tony Takitani is, yet this opening line creates the impression that we do know him, and that we are in on the story from the start. Making Tony Takitani the topic subtly transmits the feeling that we are already aware of his existence, even though we're not.
Besides being a nifty tool for changing scenes and designating characters as familiar or unfamiliar, は is a useful device for showing readers the narrator's perspective. は and が are used frequently in creative writing to highlight the point of view of the narrator, point out unusual details, and hint at other subtle points that are often difficult to render adequately into English.
The Final Curtain
Getting to grips with は and が will take time and experience, but hopefully you now have a clearer idea of the roles they play, and the different shades of meaning they can bring, and you can look out for them with a trained eye 🕵️♀️🕵️♂️
Given that they show up all the time in Japanese, you'll have no shortage of opportunities to apply these concepts and scratch your head over the exact color of each instance. Every time you come across は and が, your understanding of these two vital particles will deepen, and eventually you'll be able to put them in just the right places to create the exact nuance you're going for. これが 美しい 友情の 始まりだ — this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!
Speaking of which… we recorded a podcast mini-series about は and が as well. We use more examples to explain the difference between these two tricky particles and even addressed some questions from our listeners. Be sure to check it out!