Japanese Particle combination では (de wa) and じゃ (ja)

By | February 26, 2015

In this post I’d like to look at the particle combination で+は = では (pronounced ‘de wa’) and the related word じゃ (ja).

To a certain extent, the various usages of “では”can be understood by taking a sum of the usages of で and は when used separately, but in some cases thinking in this way may not be intuitive, so I’ll go over some specific examples to make things clear.

I’m not planning on going over all the meanings of で or は when used on their own, as each of these particles can be pretty complex with many ways of using them. However I will go over some of this quickly in this post. If you want to learn some of the nitty gritty details of は, you can check out this post of mine.

Let’s start with one of the basic usages of で, which is to represent a tool or something that being used to perform an action. This also includes a location where an action is being performed. One simple example is languages, which usually have a で before them when you are speaking, reading, writing, or doing something with them. For example:

  • 日本語読めます。
  • I can read in Japanese.

One of the functions of は is to imply something applies for the word before the は, but there may be other cases that do not apply.    For example:

  • 小説読みます。
  • I do read novels.

This implies that the speaker reads novels, but there is probably something he or she doesn’t read (maybe short stories?).

If we take the functions of both particles and put them together, we end up with using something with an implication about using other things.

  • まだ小説は日本語では読めません。
  • I can’t read novels in Japanese yet.

Here the implication of the は within the “では” is that the person can’t read novels in Japanese, but he or she can probably read something else in Japanese (maybe children’s books?). It’s difficult to capture this essence in the English translation, though in a larger context (in the middle of a conversation or article) it would be easier to include all the nuances of the original text.

For another example, imagine you asked someone if you could get to Hokkaido via train or plane, and they answered:

  • 飛行機では行けますよ。
  • You can go via airplane.

Again, the addition of the は means that you probably can’t go via some other means (like train).

One of the other main uses of は is when you want to introduce a topic in order to say something about it.

  • 日本、昔からある。
  • Japanese has existed since a long time ago. (More literally, “As for Japan, it has existed since a long time ago”)

The other meaning of は I mentioned above (where there is an implication that other things do not apply) is tightly related to this one, but I think it helps to think of them separately.

Putting these two meaning together, we end up with introducing a topic which are using or taking action in. This can be easily seen when talking about a country or a language.

  • 日本では、公園が多い。
  • In Japan, there are a lot of parks.
  • 日本語では、文字が多い。
  • In Japanese, there are a lot of characters.

Interestingly enough, if we removed the は from either sentence we would end up with awkward Japanese. I think the reason is because in both cases there is an implication that there is ‘less’ of something somewhere else (less parks in another country, or less characters in another language). Therefore は is necessary.

Another way では can be used is when talking about a situation or condition, in the sense of “with such a situation…”.

Imagine someone tried to explain a movie’s plot with a confusing set of scene descriptions which were out of order. You might reply to them:

  • それでは分からないよ!
  • That’s not enough for me to understand! (literally: “With that, I won’t understand”)

Let’s look at another example.

  • 教科書だけでは足りないよ。
  • Only a textbook is not enough. (to become fluent, etc.)

You may have noticed both of these examples talk about something negative (can’t understand, not enough), and this is one of the nuances of は.

I think it’s time we talked about “じゃ”. It’s simply a abbreviation for ”では”, although it isn’t interchangeable in all cases.

For example in the above two sentences, it’s perfectly natural to replace では with じゃ, and I would argue it sounds best with じゃ.

  • それじゃ分からないよ!
  • 教科書だけじゃ足りないよ。

However, if the sentence doesn’t express something negative, it sounds unnatural to use じゃ. (except for a few cases I’ll talk about below).

  • 日本じゃ、公園が多い    (unnatural)

Shortening of “ではない” (is not) to “じゃない”, is just following the same pattern which fits because of the negative meaning. Sometimes this gets shortened to “じゃん” in modern slang, as in the phrase “すごいじゃん!” (“is is not awesome?”)

One place you may be used to seeing では and じゃ is in common expressions for bidding farewell to someone.

For example, the expression “それでは”, which literally means something like “And with that…”, is used as a simple “goodbye”. I’ve used this many times in emails before I write my name at the bottom.

Although it isn’t negative, it is common to abbreviate this as “それじゃ” or just “じゃ”.

The expression “じゃ〜ね” pretty much means the same thing, though I don’t think I’ve heard it said as “ではね”.

To end with, there is a another meaning for じゃ which I’d like to talk about.

”じゃ” or “じゃあ” can be used when you are thinking about something, often right before you make a decision or suggestion.

  • 雨が降ってる?じゃあ、図書館に行こう?
  • It’s raining? Alright… do you want to go to the library?

The “じゃ” here is literally close to “In that case”, so this form is often used when there is some condition that limits what you decide, like in the example above where the rain limits possible activities.

Is is another example involving making a suggestion after someone said they don’t like Italian food.

  • じゃあ、お寿司はどう?
  • Well, what do you think about (having) sushi?

And one more example:

  • じゃ、行こう!
  • Alright, lets go!

In this case there is the implication that was something going on which is just finishing up, and now a new activity will be started.

One thing in common with most of these examples is that there is a sense of transition to some new state or idea. So it may help you to think in those terms.

Although I’ve used “well” or “alright” in the English translations above, those are just rough estimates and I wouldn’t memorize “じゃ” as always meaning either of these. In some cases it can be translated to “so” as well and doesn’t necessary.

When there is a short じゃ I think it’s OK to replace it with では, though that feels a little stiff and less conversational (as in “では、行きましょう”). In cases where you are thinking with a long “じゃ〜〜”, it would sound odd to replace it with a “では〜〜”.














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