The Topic Marker “Wa”

This is the first of two lessons focusing on several particular grammar topics that are critical for you to understand very early on. Both this and  The Copula "Desu" assume that you are familiar with the more general concepts covered in The Structure of a Japanese Sentence.

Japanese is a topic-prominent language. This means that the typical sentence has a topic, the focus of the sentence, and a comment about the topic. The interesting thing about this structure is that the topic is not necessarily the same as the grammatical subject. Let's look at how this works.

Subjects and Topics

Similar to the subject marker ga and the object marker o, the topic is specified by the particle は "wa" (spelled with the Hiragana "ha" for historical reasons). The topic might replace the subject or the object, or appear in addition to both. Here's an example where the topic is also the subject.

わたしは けんどうを する。
Watashi wa kendou o suru.
I TOPIC kendo OBJ do.

Note: Kendo is a Japanese martial art similar to fencing.

If you want to translate wa literally, the closest English equivalent is "as for…", so we can translate the above sentence as "As for me, (I) do kendo". The implied subject of this sentence is watashi "I" (remember that a subject is an entity that receives a role from the verb), but because it's also the topic, there's no need to reiterate it. In fact, you will never see both an explicit subject and topic if they refer to the same entity.

Theres' one important condition whether some entity can be a topic: it must be established in the discourse. In other words, the listener has to know who or what the entity in question refers to.

This happens to be the same requirement as that for the determiner "the" in English. For example, if you were talking to someone while shopping and said something like "The burglar broke into the store yesterday" out of the blue, they would either ask "What burglar?" or just look at you funny, because they have no idea who "the burglar" is or even that he exists.

But what if the subject hasn't been established in the discourse? In this case, simply keep ga. Then, once you or anyone else has mentioned it, use wa when from that point on.

In the case of English, we do roughly the same thing with a/an. To continue the example above, it would be fine to say "A burglar broke into a store" out of the blue (as long this isn't overly off topic from what you were already talking about), and after that, you could continue talking about "the burglar". So what English does with "a" and "the", Japanese does with "ga" and "wa".

Obviously, with certain pronouns like watashi (I/me), the listener will always know who you are referring to, and so those pronouns can always be used as topics.

Wa, Ga, or Nothing at All

There's another important case where you keep ga: when answering a question. For example, "Watashi ga kendou o suru" is an answer to the question "Who does kendo?" Here you're presenting the subject itself as new information (rather than a comment about the subject), so it's not a topic, and can't take wa.

(Read more about questions)

Likewise, in any other cases where the subject is not a topic (which you won't encounter until a bit later on), simply keep ga. The difference between wa and ga is often subtle, and will be discussed in more detail in a future article.

Simply "Kendou o suru", with the subject/topic omitted, would also be a valid sendtence, and is in fact more likely to be used than the complete sentence "Watashi wa kendou o suru".

Suppose you're answering the question "What do you do (as a hobby)?" Since the topic of the response (you) is clearly known to the listener, it can and should be omitted. Actually, when making any statement about a pre-established topic, the topic can usually be dropped; it should be left in only when you want to emphasize the topic.

In summary:

  1. The first time a subject is introduced, it takes ga.
  2. The next time someone uses it, it's a topic and takes wa.
  3. After that, drop the topic (unless you want to emphasize it).
  4. When the topic changes, use wa the first time, and drop it thereafter.

Here's another way to look at it, including answers to questions.

What to do with a Japanese subject
When you want to… Do this…
Introduce a new subject to the discourse Leave it as a subject
Make a comment about a new topic Turn it into a topic
Make a comment about a pre-established topic Drop it
Answer a subject question Leave it as a subject
Answer a non-subject question Drop it

Halfway Point

At this point, stop and take a minute to make sure you've understood everything so far. The remainder of this section is about more complicated uses of wa, and are not strictly necessary until after you've had some practice with the most basic use. Feel free to skip to The Copula “Desu” and come back to finish this section later.

When the Topic is Not the Subject

Beginning students are sometimes bewildered by sentences like this famous one:

わたしは うなぎです。
Watashi wa unagi desu.

Here's a hint: it does not mean "I am an eel." Let's take a look at the partial translation:

As for me, (it) is eel.

This "it" does not have to be the same thing as the topic. In fact, if you say it in a restaurant (which you could), the "it" would be "my order", so the real meaning of the sentence is "My order is eel".

This raises an important point: while the topic is often the subject, it does not by any means have to be. Now let's look at some other cases where the topic is different from the subject.

Object as Topic: Topicalization

Now we can create another version of our mixed up sentence from earlier: "Terebi o kodomo ga mita". If we replace terebi o with terebi wa, we get:

テレビは こどもが みた。
Terebi wa kodomo ga mita.
TV TOPIC child SUB watched.

Now the object "TV" is topicalized: "As for (the) TV, (a) child watched (it)". The difference from the more common use of wa is that the topic has replaced the object instead of the subject.

Seem like kind of an odd thing to say? Maybe, but explicit topics are relatively rare in English, so it's difficult to get the Japanese nuance. In situations like this, English speakers are more likely to use the passive construction: "The TV was watched by a child". Passives exist in Japanese too, but tend to be used in different places.

Separate Topic and Subject

The last case I'd like to cover is the one where there are both a topic and an explicit subject, which is very common construction in Japanese. This sentence is another classic:

ぞうは はなが ながい。
Zou wa hana ga nagai.
Elephant TOP nose SUB be long.

The literal translation of the sentence is "As for elephants, (their) noses are long." In English, of course, we would normally say something like "Elephants have long noses" or "Elephant's noses are long", both of which show possession rather than topic and comment.

But in Japanese, this pattern is the norm when you want to describe characteristics of someone or something. Here's another example:

やまださんは せが たかい。
Yamada-*san wa se ga takai.
Yamada TOP height SUB be tall.

*"San" is a gender neutral name suffix.

Are you getting the pattern? "As for Yamada, (his) height is tall." Or, fully translated, "Yamada is tall."

(Read more about adjectives)

Beyond the Topic Marker

It's worth noting that the particle wa has another, related use: to show contrast. I won't get into this contrastive wa here, but just for the record, if you come across the situation where there are two wa's in the same sentence, that's what the other one is.

What Next?

The Copula “Desu”

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