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は (Topic Marker / Contrastive Marker)

は (Topic Marker / Contrastive Marker)

は (Topic Marker / Contrastive Marker) Japanese Grammar Lesson

Grammar Type: Particle

Essential Meaning: Speaking of X / As for X

Construction: Topic + は / Contrastive Element + は


  • は is one of the most common grammatical items in Japanese and one of the first that students encounter. Simply put, the function of は is to introduce as the subject of discussion something that the speaker assumes the hearer is familiar with. This includes one-of-a-kind nouns (e.g. “The sun“, “The sky“) proper nouns (e.g. “America“, “Mr. Smith“), generic nouns (e.g. “Person“, “Car“), and other nouns that have previously been introduced into the conversation via the particle. は can also be used to contrast two topics. More details on the contrastive は will follow.
  • It’s crucial to note that in Japanese the topic is distinct from the grammatical subject (which is marked by ), even though the subject and topic are the same in most sentences. A textbook example of the difference between は and is this: 昔々むかしむかし一人ひとりのおじいさんがんでいました. おじいさんはとてもやさしいひとでした。[Once upon a time, there lived an old man. The old man was a very kind person.] In this example, the speaker cannot assume that the hearer is familiar with the old man. In other words, the old man is not part of the “universe of context” that exists between speaker and hearer. Thus, the old man is introduced as the grammatical subject via the particle in order to create this necessary context. In the second sentence, now that that the hearer is aware of the existence of the old man, the speaker introduces him as the subject of the discourse with the は particle.
  • Along these same lines, は is never used to mark question words (e.g. だれ [Who], なに [What], どこ [Where]) because these words do not refer to known things. In other words, it’s impossible for an unknown thing to be part of the “universe of context” that is shared between speaker and hearer.
  • Typically, in a sentence with the structure XはYだ, X represents the topic of the sentence and Y represents the true content that the speaker wants to convey. In other words, with は the focus of the sentence is on the predicate rather than on the topic (this is distinct from , which places emphasis on the subject).
  • As mentioned previously, in addition to marking the topic, は can also be used as a contrastive marker. In fact, は originated as an offshoot of the conditional-marking particle . As a contrastive marker, は is used to contrast two or more elements in a sentence (i.e. “As for X, A. But as for Y, B.“) These contrastive elements do not have to be subjects. In fact, the contrastive は can be used in parallel with the topic marker は.
    • E.g. 太郎たろうはテニスはできます。[As for Taro, he likes tennis (in contrast to other sports, which he doesn’t like).] In this example, the first は is a topic marker and the second は is a contrastive marker.
  • It can sometimes be ambiguous whether a given は is functioning as a topic marker or a contrastive marker. There are some general rules for interpreting は:
    • (1) When multiple は particles appear in the same sentence, the first is generally interpreted as the topic marker and the rest are contrastive elements. When there are 3 or more は particles, each successive は is more contrastive than the ones before it.
      • E.g. ぼく今日きょうはテニスはしない。[As for me, I won’t play tennis (as opposed to other sports) today (in contrast to other days).]. In this case, ぼく [I] is introduced as the topic, 今日きょう [Today] is being contrasted with other days, and テニス [Tennis] is being heavily contrasted with other sports.
    • (2) When Xは is pronounced emphatically, it represents a contrastive element.
      • E.g. わたし一年です[As for ME, it’s one year (But as for OTHERS, it’s not).]
      • E.g. ビールはみます[As for BEER, I drink it. (But as for OTHER DRINKS, I don’t drink them).]
  • In negative sentences, は can mark the negated element. If the negated item is something other than the topic, the contrastive は particle is used. Notice in the below examples that the emphasis of the sentence changes depending on where the contrastive は is placed.
    • E.g. わたし昨日きのうボストンへかなかった。[I didn’t go to Boston Yesterday.] This is a neutral sentence in which は is used as a topic marker.
    • E.g. わたし昨日きのうはボストンへかなかった。[I didn’t go to Boston YESTERDAY.] In this case, the first は is a topic marker and the second is a contrastive marker.
    • E.g. わたしはボストンへはかなかった。[I didn’t go to BOSTON yesterday.] In this case, the first は is a topic marker and the second is a contrastive marker.
  • Sometimes は combines with other grammatical particles (E.g. では, とは), but in other cases the non-は particle must drop. Specifically:
    • (1) When は marks a subject or direct object, and must drop. In other words, when both は and / can mark an element, は takes precedence.
      • E.g. ジョーンズさんはいま日本語にほんご勉強べんきょうしている。 [As for Mr. Jones, he’s studying Japanese now.] In this case, Mr. Johnson is both the subject and the topic. は takes precedence over .
      • E.g わたしはビールはみますがさけみません。[As for BEER, I drink it. But as for SAKE, I don’t drink it.] In this case beer and sake are direct objects as well as contrasted elements. は takes precedence over .
    • (2) When は is used in conjunction with or X に (Existence), or に (Existence) can drop optionally.
      • E.g. このまち(に)は大学だいがくふたつある。[In this town, there are two universities.]
    • (3) When は is used in conjunction with other particles such as に (Time), に (Indirect Object), に (Passive / Causative), に(Surface), , , から,まで, the particle usually remains.
      • E.g. ここではタバコをわないでください。[Please don’t smoke tobacco here.]
      • E.g. 田中たなかさんとはよくいます。[I meet with Tanaka-sensei often.]
      • E.g. 春子はるこには人形にんぎょうを、秋子あきこには絵本えほんをあげた。[To Haruko, I gave a doll; to Akiko I gave a picture book.]
  • The topic marker は does not appear in subordinate clauses. It is replaced by . However, the contrastive は CAN appear in subordinate clauses.
    • E.g. 花子はなこわたし昨日きのうさけんだことをっている。[Hanako knows that I drank sake yesterday.]
    • E.g. わたしんだほんは「雪国ゆきぐに」です。[The book that I read is “Yukiguni”.]

Example Sentences:

わたし学生がくせいだ。[As for me, I’m a student.]

杉田すぎたさんはきますがわたしきません。[Sugita-san will go, but I will not go.]

ジョンズさんはいま日本語にほんご勉強べんきょうしている。[Mr. Jones is studying Japanese now.]

このまちには大学だいがくふたつある。[There are two universities in this town.]

わたしはビールはみますがさけみません。[I drink beer, but I don’t drink sake.]

春子はるこには人形にんぎょうを、秋子あきこには絵本えほんをあげた。[To Haruko I gave a doll; to Akiko I gave a picture book.]

WILD Examples:

Listen to this line from 1:02: 青虫あおむしなかがペコペコ、青虫あおむしものさがはじめました [Speaking of the caterpillar, it was hungry, Speaking of the caterpillar, it began searching for something to eat]
Listen to this line from 0:10 (which repeats throughout the song): アブラハムには七人しちにん一人ひとりのっぽであとちび [Alongside Abraham were seven children, As for one of them, he was tall. As for the rest, they were small]
This song begins with the following line: おにのパンツいいパンツ、つよいぞ! [As for the ogre’s undies, they are good undies. They’re strong!]

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