Learning Japanese Particles – Explanation of “Wa”

2011 July 15
by PaulBenson

Welcome to the second article in this series on basic Japanese particles. In the opening article, we looked at Japanese jyoshi 助詞 (particles), functional grammatical suffices, which help to make meaning clear in Japanese. We also looked at why learning particles is so important. For this article, we’ll go back to look at the examples given before to get a better look at the particle wa は. Let’s look at a sentence construction commonly learned when starting to study Japanese: “A wa B desu” = “A is B.”

鈴木さんは先生です。 =   Mr. Suzuki is a teacher.

Suzuki-san wa sensei desu.

太郎は22歳です。 =   Taro is 22 years old.

Taro wa nijyu-ni sai desu.

This works well with simple phrases, but imagine you’re in Japan and meet a friend at a bar or restaurant. You see the waitress come over to the neighboring table and overhear…

Waitress:         お飲み物は。。。    How about a drink?

onomimono wa…

Woman:          コーラ。                    Coke.

ko-ra.

Man:                私はビールです。    I’ll have a beer. [NOT: I am a beer]

watashi wa bi-ru desu.

[Yes, I reused the same conversation from the last article!]

Clearly the man isn’t saying “I am a beer,” although that would surely surprise his friend! So what changed? Why did the “A wa B desu” = “A is B” construction work before and not now? Simply put, “A は B です” oversimplifies the Japanese, pigeon-holing it into an unequal English expression. Japanese works as a topic-comment language. You bring up a topic of dialogue or conversation using は, and then you say something about it. Let’s reexamine the previous sentences and translate them more literally:

鈴木さんは先生です。 =   As for Mr. Suzuki [topic], he is a teacher [comment].

Suzuki-san wa sensei desu.

太郎は22歳です。 =   As for Taro [topic], he is 22 years old [comment].

Taro wa nijyu-ni sai desu.

私はビールです。  =   As for myself [topic], I will have a beer [comment].

watashi wa bi-ru desu.

In all three cases, the particle は establishes a central topic. Afterward there is a comment or statement about that topic. The particle は never marks a subject; it only sets up a topic, which leads to confusion between it and the particle ga が (the subject-marking particle). Speaking of subjects, I’ve put the subject in the above translations where usually they would be omitted. Let’s move the English even close to the Japanese:

鈴木さんは先生です。 =   As for Mr. Suzuki [topic], __ is a teacher [comment].

Suzuki-san wa sensei desu.

太郎は22歳です。 =   As for Taro [topic], __ is 22 years old [comment].

Taro wa nijyu-ni sai desu.

私はビールです。  =   As for myself [topic], __ a beer [comment].

watashi wa bi-ru desu.

While unstated, it’s easy to see from the context what the subject is. It can be tricky to follow and differentiate the people, subjects, and topics in long conversations and essays, but the right signage is all there if you know where to look.

If you want to know where to look for Japanese lessons, you should try Hills Learning in New York City for Japanese, Chinese, or Korean language instruction. See you next time when we look at the basics of the subject particle, ga が.

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