Why Wa and Ga Ruin Lives

(Originally written in 2002)

For anybody who’s taken up learning the Japanese language, the particles wa and ga are evilly hard to understand. They’re there mocking you from the very beginning of learning the language, and they’ll be there even after you’ve lived in Japan for quite some time. Why do wa and ga have to be so evil? I’ll rant about it then maybe try to enlighten people about them as best as I can.

In ALL the textbooks out there, you’ll see “wa” called the so-called “topic particle” or “topic marker”, and ga is called the “subject particle” or “subject marker”. The root of the problem stems from these terms. They’re horribly vague and ambiguous from the very beginning. To lots of people “topic” and “subject” mean almost the same exact thing. Books and other people need to think up something better to avoid this confusion.

Wa and ga are as evil and difficult for us as “a”, “an”, “the”, and “some” are for Japanese speakers. We use “a” and “the” and those other articles without a second thought on how they should be used, if they’re right for a certain context, etc. Likewise, they can use wa and ga without even thinking about it. And in both cases, if a foreigner makes a mistake with either wa/ga or a/the, then it sounds really weird. Even the humorous stereotypes of foreigners incorporate these mistakes; if a Japanese person wants to sound like a foreigner, they’ll use lots of “wa”s and make some purposeful mistakes. If an English speaker wants to sound kind of Asian, he or she might use the word “the” where a native speaker normally wouldn’t.

So at least feel relieved that while we have problems with wa and ga, many Japanese have to go through similar traumatic experiences.

I won’t try to explain the difference between wa and ga too much here, I don’t want to add to the mess. I had taken about 2 – 2.5 years worth of Japanese classes before I went to Japan, and in all that time I was bombarded with what wa is for and what ga is for. I read lots of books and articles and stuff about them, but what they were trying to say never quite sunk in. I understood what they were saying but I didn’t “get” it.

I remember when finally I did “get” it. I was in a train on my way to school, and there was a little sticker/ad on the wall. It said a bunch of stuff promoting whatever they were selling, but in big letters it said “ima ga chansu!” The moment I read that everything just clicked. I can’t really explain the difference between wa and ga, it’s just something you have to experience on your own. If you live in Japan long enough you’ll probably naturally come to acquire that knowledge. But when I re-read all those old books and articles, I finally actually did get what they were trying to say. It’s just that it’s hard to explain, even for professional authors and native speakers.

Although I can tell the difference between the two, and can use them correctly most of the time, I’m 100% sure I misuse them sometimes when I’m not thinking. The point is that they try to explain these really difficult nuances from the very beginning of Japanese language education and it just makes things difficult. Learning Japanese in Japan from the very start would probably be the best way to lessen the effect of this bad wa and ga training.

So that’s it. Hope it was enlightening for you. Man, that was boring stuff.

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