Japanese language: wa and ga used with ichimen

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
一面は 対 一面が

The particles wa (は) and ga (が) rarely cease to be problematic aspect of the Japanese language even for the experienced foreign Japanese speaker. Although nothing to do grammatically or semantically with the English a and the, they are equally as resistant to complete mastery by the non-native speaker.

My latest encounter with wa and ga was through the noun ichimen (一面) which, broken down into its kanji components means "one" (一) "face/side/aspect" (面). However, most confusingly, the dictionaries list several different meanings for ichimen, the first being "one face/side/aspect" and the second being "the whole surface of."

"one aspect of" and "the whole of" is a big difference in a single vocabulary item. There are parallels, however in English, such as the word "quite": compare, for example, "It's quite hot this evening" (rephraseable as "It is somewhat hot this evening.") with "She's quite the lady" (rephraseable as "She is very much a lady.")

But there is a way of generally distinguishing the two opposite meanings of ichimen, and it is per kind favor of wa and ga.  

wa is generally used to introduce the topic of a sentence, and is often loosely translated as "as for (such and such/so and so), ..." or "when it comes to (such and such/so and so), ..." When used with wa, ichimen indicates the particular meaning, as well as the abstract use, of ichimen, i.e. "one aspect (of the issue)" as opposed to "one side (of the house)."

It would take too long here to go into how ga differs grammatically from wa, and this post is meant more as a handy tip - or yet just another example - rather than a full explanation. So let's just continue by saying that "ichimen ga" refers more to the general ("all over") meaning, as well as the concrete use, of ichimen, i.e. "all around, all over."

Oryo no sakana de ichimen ga makkuro ni natta kawa
A river that's gone black all over with teeming fish

Ichimen wa shinbun no kao
One aspect [of it] is [as the] face of the newspaper.

But remember this is a language we are talking about, not math, so you will find exceptions. Context is everything!

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