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All About Japanese Particles: は (wa)

Note: Wa has several usages, but its basic function is to set off a topic (e.g., of conversation) from the rest of the sentence, which talks about the topic. Technically, wa does not indicate case (subject, object, etc.). However, in practical terms, it often (but not always) comes after the subject of the sentence. See also to wa (#7) and -te wa (#47).

1. Indicates that information is being presented about something that is already known or that has been identified.

あそこに赤い本がありますね。あれ漢字の本です。
Asoko ni akai hon ga arimasu ne. Are wa kanji no hon desu.
Over there is a red book, right. It’s a kanji book. / See the red book over there? That’s a kanji book.

あの大学、四谷駅の近くにあります。
Ano daigaku wa, Yotsuya-eki no chikaku ni arimasu.
That university it’s near Yotsuya Station. / That university is near Yotsuya Station.

2. Indicates a topic, which is then identified or explained.

明日日曜日です。
Ashita wa nichiyobi desu.
As for tomorrow, it’s Sunday. / Tomorrow is Sunday.

鯨は魚でありません。
Kujira wa sakana de wa arimasen.
As for the whale, it is not a fish. / The whale is not a fish.

Note: If ga replaces wa in these sentences, the noun which it follows is no longer being presented as a topic but as the subject of the predicate (see ga, #2, I-2). The switch from topic (wa) to definite subject (ga) lays stress on the latter. For example:

あっさて日曜日ですね。
違います。明日日曜日ですよ。

Asatte wa nichiyobi desu ne.
Chigaimasu. Ashita ga nichiyobi desu yo.

The day after tomorrow is Sunday, isn’t it.
You’re wrong there. Tomorrow is Sunday.

3. In the construction N + wa N + ga, wa indicates a topic (the first noun) about which an aspect or quality (the second noun) is explained.

象は鼻長いです。
wa hana ga nagai desu.
The elephant its nose is long. / Elephants have long noses.

竹本さん性格優しいです。
Takemoto-san wa seikaku ga yasashii desu.
As for Takemoto, her personality is gentle. / Takemoto has a gentle nature.

4. Used to show contrast between two items or ideas, both of which are signified by wa.

漢字難しいですが、日本語の文法あまり難しくないんです。
Kanji wa muzukashii desu ga, Nihon-go no bunpo wa amari muzu-kashiku nai-n desu.
Kanji
are difficult, but Japanese grammar is not very difficult.

北海道の冬寒いですが、東京暖かいです。
Hokkaidō no fuyu wa samui desu ga, Tōkyō wa atatakai desu.
The Hokkaido winter is cold, but [the] Tokyo [winter] is warm. / It’s cold in Hokkaido in the winter, but warm in Tokyo.

Note: In some cases, only one item or idea is explicitly mentioned. For example, in the following sentence, the implication is that the person might go to a cheaper restaurant.

高いから、あのレストランに行きません。
Takai kara, ano resutoran ni wa ikimasen.
Because it’s expensive, I won’t go to that restaurant. / I am not going to that restaurant because it’s too expensive.

Note: In its contrastive function, wa comes after other particles (e.g., ni wa, de wa). Two important exceptions are when it replaces ga and o, as in the next example.

バターを買いましたか。
マーガリン買いましたが、バター買いませんでした。

Batā o kaimashita ka.
Māgarin wa kaimashita ga, batā wa kaimasendeshita.

Did you buy some butter? I bought some margarine, but I didn’t buy any butter. / I bought some margarine, but not any butter.

5. In the forms V-te wa iru (first example below) and V –masu base followed by wa and suru (second and third examples), wa indicates emphasis. See also -te wa (#47).

コンピュータを持っていますが、まだ使って()いません。
Konpyuta o motte wa imasu ga, mada tsukatte (wa) imasen.
I own a computer [I do own a computer], but I haven’t used it yet.

あの人を知っていますが、あまり話したことありません。
Ano hito o shitte wa imasu ga, amari hanashita koto wa arimasen.
I know him, but I haven’t spoken to him much.

お茶飲みましたが、時間がなかったので食事しませんでした。
Ocha wa nomimashita ga, jikan ga nakatta no de shokuji wa shi-masen deshita.
I had some tea, but since there wasn’t much time, I didn’t eat (have a meal).

– Source: All about particles – A handbook of Japanese function words

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