I know that most beginners get overwhelmed and stumble when it comes to this topic. It's probably one of the most common questions I get from students as well. In this ultimate guide, I'll explain the differences between the は (wa) and が (ga) particles in Japanese.
は (wa) particle
Please note that the hiragana は should be pronounced as "Ha" when it is used as a word or as part of a word.
However, as a particle it's always pronounced as "Wa." In this capacity, it's known as a topic marker. In other words, it demonstrates what the topic of the sentence is.
- A wa B desu
- Speaking of A, it is B.
In the example above, “A” is the topic (remember, Japanese particles modify the preceding word). However, even though “A” is the topic, it does NOT mean that “A” is the main focus in the sentence.
Instead, Aは is just an introduction used to say "I'm going to talk about A!" So, what comes AFTER は is actually what is being stressed.
- Nihon-go WA kirei desu
- The Japanese language is beautiful.
Here, the topic is “Japanese,” while the main conclusion is “beautiful.”
- Watashi WA misa desu
- I am Misa.
Here, the topic is “I,” and the main conclusion is “Misa.”
Tips to help you sound more like a native!
Tip #1: Most of the time, you should omit the pronouns, especially “I” and “you.”
We HATE people who go "me, me, look at ME!"
Instead, Japanese culture appreciates a humble, modest, and quiet attitude. They say that "a real man doesn't brag about his greatness if he truly knows he's great."
Therefore, saying わたしは in every sentence (as in English) is not a good thing in Japanese. So the example "I am Misa" actually sounds better without わたしは.
So, if we want to express “I am Misa” in a true native way, we would say:
- Misa desu
Of course, in situations when it's not obvious who you are talking about, then you should put it in.
Tip #2: When the topic is clear, you should omit the subject (Aは, for example).
This happens in English too. However, Japanese people tend to omit it so frequently that sometimes it's impossible to figure out what the person is talking about.
Funny fact: I often get confused when texting my mum because we both omit the subject a lot of the time.
Also, please note that while a lot of beginners think は means "to be," that is not true! Instead, "to be" is です (desu).
An example of a sentence where it would be weird to translate は as "to be" is:
- Kyou wa tomodachi to asobi-masu
- Today, I'll hang out with my friends.
You see, 今日 (kyou, “today”), is just an introduction. Perhaps in this example, someone had just asked the speaker "What is your plan for today?"
が (ga) particle
While the は particle indicates the "topic" of a sentence, the が particle emphasizes what or who is taking the action.
Now, as we saw in the proceeding section, when using は, it is what comes AFTER は that is the main subject. However, when using が, it is what comes BEFORE が that is in fact what is being stressed.
So while は is often omitted, when you want to put emphasis on WHO takes an action, you shouldn't omit it.
For example, when answering the question "WHO did it", you should respond by using が:
- Dare GA shita n desu ka
- Who did it?
- Watashi GA shima-shita
- I did it. / I'm the one who did it.
Compare these sentences to see what specifically is emphasized:
- Kore WA watashi no pen desu
- This is my pen.
This construction is for describing what it is.
- This is my pen / This is the one that is my pen.
This construction is for showing which one is my pen.
Now have a look at these sets of sentences:
- Maiku WA amerika-jin desu
- Mike is American.
- Maiku GA amerika-jin desu
- Mike is (the one who is) American.
When both は (topic) and が (subject) exist in one sentence
Compare these sentences:
- Kono kouen WA kirei desu
- This park is beautiful, isn't it.
- Kono kouen WA sakura GA kirei desu ne
- As for this park, the sakura (cherry blossom) is beautiful. / This park has beautiful sakura.
The second set of sentences starts off with この公園は (kono kouen wa). As a result, we now know that the speaker is trying to tell the listener what he's going to talk about. Basically, the speaker is informing the listener of the topic.
But then, 桜が (sakura ga) appears in the sentence.
Now, this might make it look like there are actually two subjects in this sentence and you may wonder which one (the park or the sakura) the speaker thinks is beautiful.
However, there is no need to worry. That is what が is here for! が indicates WHAT is beautiful.
So when you see a sentence like this: XはYが...です。it is actually translated as “the main topic is X, but Y is the one that is ….”
Let’s look at another example:
- Watashi no neko WA me ga aoi desu
This time, try to translate the sentence above by yourself!
Now, let’s look at some further examples. But first, let me define some vocabulary:
- わたしのねこ (watashi no neko): my cat
- 目 (me): eyes
- 青い (aoi): blue
These words will be used in the example below. As you read it, ask yourself: What is blue in this sentence? The cat itself? Or its eyes?
- Watashi no neko WA me ga aoi desu
- As for my cat, his/her eyes are blue / My cat has blue eyes.
Here is another example, but once again, I’ll give you the vocabulary first:
- イタリア (itaria): Italy
- ピザ (piza): pizza
- おいしい (oishii): delicious
And now here is the second example sentence. In this case, ask yourself these questions: What is tasty? Italy or the pizza?
- Itaria wa piza ga oishii desu
- As for Italy, pizzas are delicious. / Italy has delicious pizza.
Finally, here is a third example. The necessary vocabulary is as follows:
- 日本 (nihon): Japan
- 東京 (toukyou): Tokyo
- 首都 (shuto): capital city
And the sentence:
- Nihon wa toukyou ga shuto desu
- As for Japan, Tokyo is the capital. / Tokyo is the capital in Japan.
Now that we’ve looked at those, here is a dialog to help you understand it further:
Person A: みさの髪は長いね。
Person B (Misa): え、首が長い？
Person A: いや、髪だよ。首じゃなくて、髪が長い。
Person A: Misa no kami wa nagai ne
Person B: E, kubi ga nagai?
Person A: Iya, kami da yo. Kubi ja nakute, kami ga nagai
Person A: Your hair is long (here は is describing what Misa's hair is like).
Person B: Heh? My neck is long? (emphasizing what is long)
Person A: No, your hair. Not your neck but your hair is long (clarifying what is long).
Many of the expressions that describe people use が (remember "XはYが..."?). Just like the examples we saw about the cat's eyes and Misa's hair, we use this construction to clarify what is blue, what is long and so on. Here are some more examples:
- (X wa) kami GA nagai
- (X has) long hair (literally: As for X, the hair is long).
Again, が indicates what is long. Otherwise, it would mean “X” him/herself is long.
- (X wa) kami ga mijikai
- (X has) short hair.
- (X wa) atama ga ii
- (X is) smart (Literally: As for X, the head is good).
- (X wa) atama ga warui
- (X is) stupid (Literally: As for X, the head is bad).
Please note that 頭が悪い is more formal than ばか.
- (X wa) se ga takai
- (X is) tall (Literally: As for X, the height (back) is tall).
Common mistake: 高い (takai) on its own can only be used for inanimate objects. For people, always use 背が (se ga).
- (X wa) se ga hikui
- (X is) short (Literally: As for X, the height (back) is low).
Common mistake: Do not use 短い (mijikai) for height.
And so on...
Here are some other expressions that take が most of the time.
- (watashi wa) ~ GA suki desu
- I like ～
- (watashi wa) ~ GA DAIsuki desu
- I love ～
The suki in these sentences is not the verb "to like," but actually a NA-adjective 好きな (suki-NA), which means "likable favourite."
In the sentences above, "I" is the topic (I am talking about myself). However, as I mentioned at the beginning, we usually omit the "I" part, so it generally does not appear. You need to use が to show what is likable / what you like.
- Nihon GA suki desu
- I like Japan.
In informal speech, が is omitted, being that the meaning is clear without it.
- Nihon dai-suki!
- I love Japan!
Note: You can actually use the は particle here, instead of が.
- Nihon WA suki desu
- As for Japan, I like it.
Maybe you can tell from the English translation that identifying the word "Japan" as a topic makes it sound like you are comparing it with something else. As in "I like Japan but I don't like ."
Person A: （Bは）すしが好き？
Person B: 魚は好き。でも、すしは嫌い。
Person A: (B wa) sushi GA suki?
Person B: Sakana WA suki. Demo, sushi WA kirai
Person A: Do you like sushi?
Person B: As for fish, I like it. / I like fish. But, I don't like sushi.
Here are some additional expressions that use が for the same reason:
- ~ ga wakari-masu
- I understand ～
- Chigai ga wakari-masu ka
- Do you understand the difference?
- ~ ga jouzu desu
- To be good at ～
- Nihon-go ga jouzu desu ne
- Your Japanese is good!
Common mistake: A lot of learners use the word いい (good) for this but that's a mistake. Whenever you are talking about skills, use jouzu.
- Haha wa ryouri ga jouzu desu
- My mum is good at cooking / My mum is a good cook.
- ~ ga heta desu
- To be bad at ～
- Mada nihon-go ga heta desu. Demo, ganbari-masu
- My Japanese is still bad. But I'll do my best.
Common mistake: Again, just like jouzu, it's a common mistake to use 悪い (warui) here, which means bad.
- ~ ga hoshii desu
- I want ～
- Atarashii pasokon ga hoshii desu
- I want a new computer.
- ~ ga itai desu
- ～ hurts / ～ is painful.
- Atama ga itai desu
- I've got a headache (Literally: My head hurts).
- ～がある (for non-living things)
- ~ ga aru
- ～がいる (for living things)
- ~ ga iru
- There is ～ / ～ exists.
Waifai ga ari-masu ka
Do you have Wi-Fi / Is there Wi-Fi?
- Kyoudai ga i-masu ka
- Do you have siblings? / Are there any siblings?
Note: Intransitive verbs usually take the が or は particle. An example of a transitive verb in a sentence would be: “I open the door.” Conversely, an example of an intransitive verb in a sentence would be: “The door opens.”
- ~ga hajimaru
- ～ starts.
- Shiai ga hajimatta
- The match started / began.
- ~ ga aku
- ～ opens.
- Doa ga aita
- The door opened.
Note: If you are speaking about a situation involving a store, then that should be the "topic":
- Ano omise wa shichi-ji ni aku
- That store opens at 7 am.
The は particle just indicates the topic. The main focus is what comes AFTER は.
The が particle puts emphasis on WHAT/WHO something is or WHAT/WHO is taking the action in the sentence.
I hope this article helped you!
- Kono kiji WA misa-sensei GA kaki-mashita
- As for this article, Misa sensei wrote it / This article was writen by Misa sensei.
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