The Particle “wa” (は)

An image to explain the usage of the Particle “wa”.
Kore wa JR Kyuushuu no maaku desu. これはJR九州のマークです。(This is the logo of JR Kyuushuu.)
Table of Contents
  1. In short: The particle “wa” (は) is a subject marker
  2. A bit more on the particle “wa” (は): Its spelling and its emphatic function
  3. Bonus: Notes on “wa” (は) and “ga” (が) in sentences with a Verb of Existing


1. In short: The particle “wa” (は) is a subject marker

First things first: The particle “wa” is not the equivalent of “be” in English. “wa” only shows its preceding word is the subject of your sentence.

If there is anything like “be” in Japanese, it is “desu” because it conjugates to make a question, a negative, or a statement in the past.

Example 1:  わたしは30さいです。Watashi wa sanjussai desu. (I am thirty years old.)

2. A bit more on the particle “wa” ():  Its spelling and its emphatic function

(1) Spelling

Note that the particle “wa” is spelled in hiragana with “は (ha)”, not “わ (wa)”. The good thing is that this is the only “は (ha)” pronounced “wa”; in Modern Japanese, all other “wa” sounds are spelled with the regular “わ”.

(2) Its emphatic function

The particle “wa” does not only come after the grammatical subject but can actually mark any word(s) of any case by following them. The effect is that when we hear “wa”, our attention automatically goes to the word(s) before it and we find or confirm those as the topic or the context the speaker wants us to understand. 

For example, the following example has the grammatical object marked by “wa”:

Ex. 2:  たばこは、ここでわないでください。Tabako wa koko de suwanaide kudasai. (Speaking of cigarettes, please don’t smoke them here.)

The original sentence of Ex. 2 is:

Ex. 3:  ここでたばこをわないでください。Koko de tabako o suwanaide kudasai. (Please don’t smoke cigarettes here.)

Here is another example; this “wa” follows an adverbial. Observe that the grammatical subject with “wa” can stay in the same sentence.

Ex. 4:  2がつには、わたしはもうほんにいません。Ni-gatsu ni wa watashi wa moo nihon ni imasen. (In February I will not be in Japan.)

The original sentence of Ex. 5 is:

Ex. 5:  わたしは2がつにもうほんにいません。Watashi wa ni-gatsu ni moo nihon ni imasen. (I will not be in Japan in February.)

Ex. 4 sounds more natural because “moo…imasen (not be…any more)” is a strong expression. The speaker feels strongly he or she only has limited time left for him/her, hence the emphatic “wa” after “ni-gatsu ni”.

3. Bonus: Notes on “wa” (は) and “ga” (が) in sentences with a Verb of Existing

The comparison of “wa” and “ga” has been the subject of many discussions, articles and research papers, and we will not be able to explain everything here.

However, we would like to add one of the important functions of “wa”: With a Verb of Existing, the default subject marker is “ga”. However, “wa” can replace it and adds special implications to the sentence. With “wa” after the subject, you can: 

(1) Show that your and the listener’s focus has already been on that thing or matter. In other words, it shows you are sharing a context with your listener [See Ex. 6A and 8A] or

(2) Exclude the possibility of another or other (things, persons, places, ideas, etc.) than the subject [See Ex. 6B and 8B]. 

On the other hand, the subject followed by “ga” with a Verb of Existing exists or stays regardless of the context or without any relationship with the other existences [See Ex. 7 and 9].


Ex. 6:  とうさんはしょくどうにいます。Satoo-san wa shokudoo ni imasu. (Interpretation (A) Satoo-san [that we have been talking about or looking for) is in the cafeteria. Interpretation (B) Satoo-san [not someone else] is in the cafeteria.) 

Ex. 7:  とうさんがしょくどうにいます。Satoo-san ga shokudoo ni imasu. Satoo-san (among a few or many other people or things equally important as he) is in the cafeteria.

Another pair of examples:

Ex. 8:  クレジットカードはあります。Kurejitto kaado wa arimasu. (Interpretation (A) I have the credit card [that I have been talking about or looking for]. Interpretation (B) I have a credit card [but I don’t have cash or another form of payment].)

Ex. 9:  クレジットカードがあります。Kurejitto kaado ga arimasu. (I have a credit card/there is a credit card [among many other things equally important or unimportant].)

In our next post, we will see how the particle “no” works.

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