One of the first Japanese particles you will learn is the は-particle. Also called the topic particle, every beginner in learning Japanese first learns a sentence using the は-particle like this.
これ は りんご です
(kore wa ringo desu)
This is an apple
これ (kore) = This one
りんご (ringo) = Apple
です (desu) = Is
- Main take away 1: The は-particle marks the topic of a sentence
- Main take away 2: Although the は-particle uses the hiragana-character for ‘ha’ as a particle it’s pronounced ‘wa’
は lets the speaker know what the sentence is about. Think about it as this: when you use は, you tell other people what you are going to talk about. So in the sentence above you’re putting the focus on これ (‘this one’) and then you comment on it being an apple.
Often the は-particle is confused with indicating the subject of a sentence but this is not always the case. To really grasp the effect of は it’s sometimes translated as ‘thinking about’ or ‘as for…’. Below you can see how this works.
てんき は いい です
(tenki wa ii desu)
As for the weather, it is good.
This translates as ‘the weather is good’
てんき (tenki) = Weather
いい (ii) = Good
これ は いぬ です
(kore wa inu desu)
as for this, It is a dog
This translates to ‘I like dogs’
これ (kore) = This
いぬ (inu ) = Dog(s)
So, some more examples
あれ は わたし の くるま です
That over there is my car
あれ = That over there
わたし = I, me
の = A particle that indicates possession
くるま = Car
わたし の くるま = my car
おとうと は スペインご を べんきょう します
My little brother studies Spanish
おとうと = Little brother
スペインご = Spanish
べんきょう します = To study
この レストラン は たこやき を つくります
This restaurant makes takoyaki
この = This ….
レストラン = Restaurant
たこやき = Takoyaki (a ball shaped snack)
つくります = To make
Role of は-particle in a conversation
As you could see from the above examples the は-particle is used to mark what you are going to talk about. This has implications for the rest of a conversation, namely that if you want to respond to what someone has said, you don’t need to mention this topic again. Take a look at what happens with one of the earlier examples.
Person A: おとうと は スペインご を べんきょう します
Person B: にほんご を べんきょう しません か
Person A: otooto wa supeengo wo benkyoo shimasu
Person B: nihongo wo benkyoo shimasen ka
Person A: My little brother studies Spanish
Person B: He doesn’t study Japanese?
So you see here that Person B doesn’t have to mention the little brother of Person A again. A has established what they are talking about and B is responding to it. Another example:
Person A: きょう は あさごはん を たべましたか
Person B: たべません
Person A: Have you eaten breakfast today
Person B: I have not
きょう = Today
あさごはん = Breakfast
たべました = Have eaten (past tense of to eat)
は-particle to indicate contrast
は can also indicate contrast between two things or ideas. In these cases は sometimes replaces the particles を and が. For example, normally after an adjective (a word that describes a something else) you would use が like in the following example.
いぬ が すき です
I like dogs
いぬ = Dog(s)
すき = To like (な-adjective)
(notice that you don’t have to say わたし)
But when you replace the が particle by the は particle the meaning changes slightly.
いぬ は すきです
I like dogs (but not other animals)
You can expand that in one sentence to really emphasize the contrast between the two.
いぬ は すき です. でも, ねこ は すき じゃない です
I like dogs, but i don’t like cats.
ねこ = Cat(s)
じゃない = Not
Another example would be:
ジョンさん は にほんじん です. でも たろうさん は ちゅうがくじん です
John is Japanese, but Tarou is Chinese.
ジョンさん = John
にほんじん = Japanese person
たろうさん = Taroo
ちゅうがくじん = Chinese person
So what you see here is contrast, John is Japanese but (maybe contrary to what was thought before) Taro is Chinese. The role of the は-particle is that it places emphasis on the contrast.
- The は-particle indicates the topic of a sentence. To grasp the meaning, translate it as ‘as for’.
- Although it has the hiragana-character for ‘ha’ it’s pronounced ‘wa’.
- Once the topic of a conversation is established with は you can leave the topic out when responding.
- The は-particle is also used to show contrast.