What is wa in Japanese

wa versus ga

Since the difficulties in identifying the exact differences between the particles ga and wa have turned out to be great, here is a small overview. In the original it is an English page.

Subject identifier and subject identifier

You can roughly say that wa the subject and ga marks the subject of a sentence. Often the topic is also the subject, but not in every case. A topic can be anything the speaker wants to talk about (for example, an object, a place, or any other grammatical element). In this respect it corresponds roughly to the German formulation "Was ~ Matters" or "Was ~ concerns".

Watashi wa gakusei desu.I am a student.
(As for me, I'm a student.)
Nihongo wa omoshiroi desu.Japanese is interesting.
(As for Japanese, it's interesting.)

Basic differences between ga and wa

Wa is used to mark something that has already been introduced in the conversation or that is known to the speaker and listener alike (proper names and so on). Ga is used when a situation or an event has just been noticed or is newly introduced. The following example makes it clear.

Mukashi mukashi, ojii-san ga sunde imashita.
Ojii-san wa totemo shinsetsu deshita.
Once upon a time there lived an old man.
He was very nice.

"Ojii-san" is introduced for the first time in the first sentence. It's the subject, not the subject. The second sentence describes "ojii-san" in more detail, which was already mentioned in the first sentence. "Ojii-san" is now the topic and will be with wa, not with gadescribed.

Wa as a contrast

In addition to its function as a marker of the topic, wa is also used to show a contrast or to emphasize a word.

Biiru wa nomimasu ga, wain wa nomimasen.I drink beer, but I don't drink wine.

The thing to be contrasted may or may not be mentioned. In such a case, however, the contrast is implied.

Ano hon wa yomimasen deshita.I haven't read that book.
(to be added: ... but this one.)

Particle like ni, de, kara and made can with wa can be combined (double particles) to show a contrast. As shown in the following example, ga and O simply through wa replaced.

Oosaka ni wa ikimashita ga,
Kyoto ni wa ikimasen deshita.
I went to Osaka
but i didn't go to kyoto
Koko de wa tabako o suwanaide kudasai.Please don't smoke here.
(to be added: ... but you can over there.)

If wa indicates a subject or contrast depends on context or emphasis. It can also mean that something else is also present.

Ga with question words

If a question word like "who" or "what" is the subject of the sentence, it always follows ga, No way wa. To answer the question, too, must ga to be used.

Dare ga ikimasu ka.Who is going?
Yoko ga kimasu.Yoko goes.

Ga for emphasis

Ga is used for emphasis to make one thing or person stand out from everyone else. If a topic with wa the comment is the most important part of the sentence. However, if the subject is with ga is populated, this subject is the most important thing in the sentence. In German you often distinguish something like this by raising your voice. It can be compared with the following sentences.

Watashi wa gakkou ni ikimashita.I went to school.
Watashi ga gakkou ni ikimashita.I am the one who went to school.

Ga in special cases

Usually the object is a sentence with the particle O marked, but require a few verbs and adjectives (expressing liking, desire, possibility, necessity, fear, envy, etc.) ga instead of O.

Kuruma ga hoshii desu.I want to have a car.
Nihongo ga wakarimasu ..I understand japanese.

Ga in subordinate clauses

The subject of a subordinate clause is usually marked with ga to show that it is different from the subject of the main clause.

Watashi wa, Mika ga kekkon shita koto o shiranakatta.I didn't know that Mika got married.


Here is an overview of the rules for ga and wa.

  • View topic
  • Show contrast
  • Show subject
  • along with question words
  • for emphasis
  • instead of "o"
  • in subordinate clauses

Translation © Nora

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