For anyone following along with these series of articles, you have probably noticed one big, glaring omission so far, especially if you have studied Japanese elsewhere on the web, or with any of the mainstream textbooks. What has been conspicuously absent up until now, of course, is the topic particle, は.
Most explanations of Japanese grammar start right off the bat with the topic particle. They’ll first teach students sentences patterns like XはYです and then slowly introduce the other particles. But we’ve done it in the completely opposite order here. So far we’ve explained all of the following particles: が、を、の、に、へ、で, and have only now just begun to talk about は.
The reason for this is because the particle は is special. The particles 「が、を、に、へ、で」 are all case-marking particles（格助詞・かくじょし）. That is, they describe the role or function that a noun or noun-phrase plays in relationship to a verb. In this way, they map directly onto grammatical case categories that are often found in many Indo-European languages. Speakers of English, German, French, etc are all familiar with terms such as grammatical subject, direct object, predicates, indirect objects, etc. In these languages, as in Japanese, these terms describe a verbal relationship. The subject does the verb, the direct object is directly affected by the verb, the indirect object is the “target” of the action, etc.
However, は is not a case marking particle. It is instead what is known as a “binding particle” or “linking particle”, called 係助詞（かかりじょし）in Japanese. Its job is to mark the “grammatical topic“, which provides context to a sentence, establishes a piece of information as the thing that is being discussed, and then binds that context to subsequent statements. This is a grammatical marker that most languages do not have, and learners often fall into the trap of confusing it with the grammatical subject, when in fact the topic of a sentence can be just about anything, as we will see below. In fact, confusion over what は is really used for is probably the #1 problem that plagues learners of Japanese, even after they’ve been studying for years.
So it’s worth doing a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of how this particle works in order to hopefully avoid any of the confusion that typically surrounds it.
Important Note: は here is pronounced as “wa”, the same as the hiragana わ. It is not pronounced as “ha”. This is a relic of historical kana orthography that’s persisted into the modern language. In all other situations when は is not being used as a particle, it is pronounced normally as “ha”. It is also an orthographic mistake to write the particle は with the hiragana わ, which should only be used in words where the sound “wa” appears as something other than the topic particle.
- 缶（かん）・ Can
- 蹴る（ける）・ To kick
- 噛む（かむ）・To bite
- 聞く（きく）・ To ask / To listen / To hear
- 背が高い（せがたかい）・To be tall
- です・Polite Copula form of だ
- デパート・Department Store
- する・To do
- フランス人（フランスじん）・French person
- そうですか・Is that so? (Set phrase)
Starting With an Example
Let’s take a look at the following sentence:
私が缶をける・I kick the can
In this sentence, as we’ve learned, が is marking the grammatical subject of the verb while を is marking the direct object of the verb. This is a grammatically proper, well-formed sentence. However, a sentence like this is unlikely to be spoken as such in a conversation. This is because nothing has been established as the overall topic of discourse. As is, the sentence appears to be introducing both 私 and 缶 as new information to the listener.
The point of the case-marking particles is to convey new information to the listener. Who did something? What was done? What was it done to? With what did you do it? But what if you’ve already established something as being old information? What if you and the person you are speaking with are on the same page; that the conversation you are having right now revolves around some already specified topic, X?
This is where は comes in. With は, we can establish one of the constituent elements of the sentence to be the overall theme of the sentence, and everything else becomes new information that relates back to that theme. This pattern of taking a theme, and then saying something new about it is called Topic-Comment Sentence Structure”. We establish a “topic” and then “comment” on that topic with new information.
So taking our original example sentence, we can create two different possible topic-comment style sentences from it:
- 私は缶をける (As for me, I kick the can)
- 缶は私がける (As for the can, I kick it)
In the first sentence, the topic particle は has overridden the subject particle が to turn 私 into the overall theme of the sentence. This establishes 「私」as the old information that we are relating all of the new information back to. So a sentence like this conveys the idea of “Well speaking about myself, I kick the can). “Kicking the can” is the comment on what the topic is doing.
In the second sentence, the topic particle は has overridden the direct object particle を to turn 缶 into the topic of the sentence. Note that the generally tendency is to move the topic of the sentence to the very front, so when a particle gets overridden by は you can generally expect it to be moved to the very front of the sentence, in order to preserve the “Topic-Comment” structure. This sentence conveys the idea that we’ve been talking about the can, and it is the overall theme that we are conveying new information about. So a literal translation would be “As for this can we’re talking about, I (will) kick it”.
Do note that some some resources refer to this phenomenon of “overriding particles” as I’ve described it here using the concept of a null-pronoun or zero-pronoun. The idea is that if any of the case marking particles are being used to refer to an entity that is identical to the topic, they must become null to avoid redundancy.
So we can view the underlying grammar of our topicalized example sentences as follows:
- 私は（ ∅が）缶をける – As for me, (I) kick the can
- 缶は私が（ ∅を）ける – As for the can, I kick (it)
In the first sentence, the topic is semantically equivalent to the subject, and so the subject marker が must become null. In the second sentence, the topic is semantically equivalent to the direct object, and so the direct object marker を must become null. This is represented in the English glosses by placing the equivalents of the null Japanese pronouns in parentheses.
What this means is that it is ungrammatical to keep those particles active, because it would create redundancy between them and the topic. So the following sentences are incorrect:
- 私は私が缶をける (Wrong!!)
- 缶は私が缶をける (Wrong!!)
A consequence of topicalization is that it can be difficult to determine what particle has been “overridden”, or in other words, it can be difficult to determine which particles have become null, without context. This is because, as mentioned above, は is not a case-marker and thus does not provide any information about grammatical case.
As mentioned earlier, は is used to create a link between an established topic of conversation and new information about the topic, and is NOT a case-marking particle, but instead a linking particle (係助詞 ・かかりじょし）.
The way は interacts syntactically with the case-marking particles depends on the particle in question. As we saw, when a subject or direct object (marked with が and を respectively) becomes the topic, the particles が・を get replaced by は. In other words, が・を become null.
The other particles, however, combine with は to create double particles. If there was a word that was previously unmarked by any particles (e.g. adverbs), it can still become the topic by simply adding は.
For example, if we take the following sentence, 「今日、私が電話でトムさんに質問を聞く」which means “Today I will ask Tom a question on the phone”, each constituent element can become the topic of the sentence via the following substitutions. Please do note that this sentence and its variants are very stilted and overly verbose, but that this is intentional for the purposes of this grammar demonstration.
- が → は （私は今日電話でトムさんに質問を聞く）
- を → は （質問は今日私が電話でトムさんに聞く）
- で → では （電話では今日私がトムさんに質問を聞く）
- に → には （トムさんには今日私が電話で質問を聞く）
- unmarked → は （今日は私が電話でトムさんに質問を聞く）
The pattern XはYです
So now that we looked at numerous examples of how to use the particle は, let’s take a look at the sentence pattern that is often the very first thing that Japanese language textbooks teach students, which is XはYです. 「です」here is the polite form of the copula「だ」that we learned earlier (this will be explained in more detail later on). This is usually translated as “X is Y”, similar to 「XがYだ 」or「XがYです」that we learned earlier. However, based on what we learned so far about how は is not a case-marking particle and does NOT mark the subject, we can see that while translating it to “X is Y” is sometimes accurate, it is insufficient.
For example, take the following sentence 「私は下痢です」. Based on the above “X is Y” translation, this would have to mean “I am diarrhea”, which is wrong (and would kind of be a miserable existence). However, the meaning becomes much more clear if we view は as the topic, not as the subject. In this case, the meaning literally becomes “As for myself, diarrhea”. “Diarrhea” is simply a comment made about the topic. It is not necessarily the predicate of the grammatical subject. We just know that there is some relationship between the words “I” and “diarrhea”. So we would have to deduce from context that the intended meaning is really supposed to be “I have diarrhea”.
The pattern XはYが
One very prominent pattern used in Japanese is 「XはYが」where Xは marks the topic, and Yが marks the subject, where the subject is something that relates back to to topic X.
For example, in Japanese, the words “to like” and to “hate” – 好き・嫌い are adjectives that literally translate to “is likeable” and “is detestable”. A typical sentence describing something you like or hate is rendered as follows:
・私は寿司が好きです (I like sushi)
・私は納豆が嫌いです (I hate natto)
While the idiomatic translations of these sentences are “I like sushi” and “I hate natto” respectively, the literal translations of the original Japanese are closer to: “As for me, sushi is likeable” and “As for me, natto is detestable”.
In each sentence “sushi” and “natto” are the grammatical subjects of the adjectives “likeable” and “detestable”. The particle は is merely there to provide context as to the circumstances under which “sushi” and “natto” are likeable and detestable. We can say sushi is likeable, and we can say that natto is detestable, if we are talking about myself. But in some other context (which would also be marked by は）, this might not necessarily be the case.
This same pattern is often used to describe the body parts of people and animals:
象は鼻が長い – Elephants have long noses
お母さんは背が高い – (My) mother is tall
These sentences literally translate to “As for elephants, the noses are long” and “As for (my) mother, the back is tall”. In each sentence, the grammatical subject is “nose” and “back” respectively, whereas the words “elephant” and “mother” are the topics, i.e. the context under which the statements made about the subjects hold true. Noses aren’t always long for all animals, but they are in the context of elephants. Backs aren’t always tall for all people, but they are in the context of my mother.
Lastly, let’s take a look at the following conversation, which really underscores just how crucial separating out the topic from subject can really be.
Person A: 私は夫がアメリカ人です
Here, person A is saying “As for me, (my) husband is American” or more idiomatically “My husband is American”. Once again you can see the clear distinction between topic and subject. Where things get very interesting is in person B’s reply. If we were to falsely assume that the topic is the same as the subject, then person B’s statement sounds like they are saying “I am French” which doesn’t make sense in the context of what person A says. But if we keep in mind the fact that the topic and the subject are two different things AND that either one of them can be left unsaid if obvious from context, it is clear then that what Person B is really saying here is:
The topic of the utterance had changed from Person A to Person B, but the subject “husband” had remained the same, and thus was left unsaid as it was already implied by context. So what person B is really saying is “As for me, (my husband) is French” or in idiomatic English, “My husband is French” NOT “I am French”.
This is why lazy explanations that fail to separate out topic from subject, and teach 「XはYです」 as simply “X is Y” are insufficient and can lead to huge misunderstandings.
Leaving Out Information that is Obvious from Context
It is important to remember in all of this that the job of the case-marking particles is to convey new information. As a result, anything that is explicitly mentioned with a case marking particle is assumed to be important enough to warrant being explicitly stated. If that’s not the case, then the thing in question should simply be left out altogether, and implied by context.
For example, let’s go back to one of our example sentences from earlier:
今日は私が電話でトムさんに質問を聞く – I will ask Tom a question on the phone today.
Here, 「今日」is the topic, and everything else is the comment, conveying new information in relationship to that topic. This sentence is correct, but overly verbose. It sounds like the speaker is going out of his or her way to explicitly make a point of stating each and every detail. In English, it might sound something like “As for today, I’M asking TOM a QUESTION on the PHONE“, overemphasizing each detail. Instead, many of these items would likely be left unsaid if understood from context. For example, it’s usually understood that the subject of a sentence is “I” unless otherwise stated, so the phrase 私が can be eliminated completely:
You can even eliminate “on the phone”:
Or even “A question”:
As long as a piece of information is already understood from context, it does not need to be said. Explicitly stating it implies that you believe it is something that requires mentioning. This is very different from English, where details like that are usually added in just as a matter of course.
The same idea of leaving this unsaid can also apply to the topic of the sentence. Once the topic has been established, it does not need to be repeated again. For example, if the topic of conversation is 私 (marked as 「私は」), then it only needs to be stated once, and then from that point on, the topic is assumed to remain 私 until a new topic is brought up.
For example, the following series of sentences sounds extremely unnatural:
This continuously brings up 私 as the topic over and over again, despite the fact that the topic hasn’t changed. Therefore, continuously saying 私は is redundant and unnatural, bordering on being grammatically incorrect as it makes no sense to bring up a grammatical construct meant for changing the topic, only to return back to the same topic again. So instead, this series of sentences should simply become:
After the first 私は, all of the other sentences are implicitly understood to be comments about the already established topic. Therefore, further uses of「私は」are unneeded.
When NOT to use は
As は is used to mark something as old information and establish it as the topic of conversation, it cannot be used to mark new information that was previously unknown to both the speaker and the listener.
There are a few situations where this becomes important. The first situation is when asking questions. Question words like だれ、何、どこ, etc cannot be marked by は and instead must be marked instead with a case-marking particle. This makes senses, as question words are placeholders for unknown information. Since the case-marking particles convey new information, and は expresses old information, unknown information cannot therefore be old and thus it can’t be the topic. Let’s look at the following questions:
- 誰がボールをなげる？ (Who will throw the ball?)
- トムは何をなげる？ (What will Tom throw?)
In these cases, the particles が and を cannot be replaced with は. More importantly, the answers to these questions must also use the same particles, and not は, since the answer is also new information meant to clarify the unknown information posed by the question.
- トムがなげる（Tom will throw – answering the question だれが？）
- ボールを投げる (Will throw a ball – answering the question 何を？）
は also can’t be used when you’re pointing out something you see or notice. This is because the thing you are noticing is “new” information that you didn’t have access to before.
For example, if you see a bird take off, you can say
Here, saying 「鳥は飛ぶ」wouldn’t make sense, since this particular bird is something “new”. The sentence 「鳥は飛ぶ」does make sense however if you are talking in the general sense, and are saying that “Birds fly”. In that case, 鳥 can be marked by は because the concept of “birds” is something everyone is assumed to be familiar with.
You can even see the transition from “new” to “old” occur within the same conversation. Once a bit of new information has been established with a case-marking particle (usually が, but not always) it can thereafter become the topic with は
あそこに猫がいる！あの猫はかわいいね。”There’s a cat over there! That cat is cute, isn’t it?”
In this sentence, the cat was pointed out as new information with the case-marking particle が, and then it was turned into the topic directly after.
Using は to Show Contrast
Because は is used to change the topic of conversation, and to alter the context under which a statement is made, it has very naturally grown to also carry a connotation of contrast. As a result, は is often deliberately used when a speaker wants to show contrast between two separate things.
For example, let’s say you wanted to say “I like sushi but I hate natto”. One could say:
These are of course, independently, grammatically well-formed sentences. However, they lack the intensity of contrast that the speaker likely wants to convey: “I like sushi BUT I hate natto”. To create this nuance, we can replace the two が particles with は：
Literally, this sentence is now “As for sushi, (it) is likeable, but as for natto, (it) is detestable”.
This nuance of contrast can sometimes result in learners making statements that don’t mean quite what they think it means. For example:
If you said this to someone, literally it means “As for today, (you) look pretty” or idiomatically “You look pretty today”. However, since the word for “today” was marked as the topic, and the topic has a nuance of contrast, the implication here is that the person in question DOES NOT look pretty on all the other days, and that today is an exception.
The particle は can be very difficult to wrap your head around as there is no easy 1-1 mapping with any aspect in English grammar. However, as long as you continue to always keep in mind that “The topic and the subject are two completely different things” then you are already off to a great start.