The phrase “itsumo wa” in Japanese (what is the opposite of “always”?)

By | November 4, 2015

The Japanese particle “wa” in Japanese (written “は”) is a fundamental part of the language and is used very frequently, although it can difficult for students to learn since there is no direct parallel in English (see my blog post on “wa” and “ga”).

To give a quick summary, this particle is used to establish the topic of a sentence, and sometimes can be thought of in terms of “~ as for”. So “僕は…” would mean “As for me…”. One of the other nuances of this word is that it can imply that the condition that follows applies to the word before “wa”, however there are other cases where this condition doesn’t apply. This is much easier to understand with an example:

  • 映画見たくない。 [eiga ha mitakunai]
  • I don’t want to see a movie.

Here, using the ”は” particle instead of the “を” particle implies that the speaker doesn’t want to see a movie, but he or she may want to watch something else. That doesn’t really translate well to English, though one could say “I don’t want to see a movie, but there is something I do want to see” if you really wanted to emphasize this part of the Japanese sentence.

Usually adding the “wa” particle doesn’t change the meaning of the word before it, since ”映画は” still refers to a movie.

However, recently I discovered a case where it does change the meaning. Take a look at the below sentence.

  • いつもTシャツを着てるよ。[itsumo ha T-shatsu wo kiteru yo]

Since “itsumo” means “always”, at face value, “itsumo ha” means that the person speaking always wears a T-shirt, except for when it is ‘not always’. This sounds strange, since the opposite of “always” should be “never”, right?

It turns out that in this case いつも actually means “usually”, so the full meaning of this sentence would be something like:

  • Usually I wear a T-shirt (even though right now I am wearing something else…).

“usually” is actually listed as a definition for “itsumo” in the dictionary, but in everyday conversation this word is used to mean “always” more often than not. But when you have a “wa” after it, you know it is being used to mean “usually”.


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