Japanese particles can be really confusing for non-native speakers – and often times the more you learn, the harder they become to figure out! Minoru Aizawa, JCMU’s Japanese Language Coordinator in Hikone, talks about the Japanese particle ga and how it serves important roles in conversation beyond just the word “but.”
There being virtually no English equivalents, it is only natural that American students tend to struggle with Japanese particles, whether they are phrase particles, clause particles, or sentence particles. Let me take ga, one of the clause particles, as an example.
Even a beginning student may already be familiar with this particle. One might automatically assume that ga (and its alternates of kedo, keredo, keredomo, etc.) means “but” in English. However, this is not always the case. For example, consider the following sentences:
I am an office worker, but Ms. T is a student.
Mr. Y is kind but stingy.
As you correctly assume, gas in the sentences above can be interpreted as “but” as they are used to express contrasting ideas. One important rule of thumb in its usage is that what comes before and after ga should always be in the same form. It is unnatural, therefore, to rephrase the second example as follows.
Now let’s go back to the meaning of ga. What about the following examples?
“But” does not work as a translation of ga in both cases above. The reason for this is that the meaning of ga here becomes very weak: it only provides relevant information for the second half. This is where English usually requires two independent sentences. Knowing this, one such example sentence can be translated like so:
I am a student. How much is a ticket?
This person is asking the price of a ticket when special student rates are likely offered. You would be forever lost in this instance if you stuck to the idea of ga always meaning “but,” so be careful!
When you are able to understand how to use this clause particle, your Japanese will certainly sound more natural. This might answer any lingering questions you may have of why Japanese people frequently use ga (and its alternates) in speech. These gas may seem to mean “but” at first glance, but do not actually mean but – but I hope this helps clear things up for you!