The difference between absolutely essential grammar は and が is one of the most fearsome struggles for any Japanese learner. You usually have one of two options after learning the basics. Read and learn in depth the subtle and detailed differences between the two, hoping to be able to put that to accurate practice. Or you hope to acquire it naturally through enough exposure and use.
I’m not here to tell you which method is better. I’m also not here to give you a lesson discussing the two as this has been done a thousand different ways in a thousand different places. I actually try to stay as far away as possible from these type of academic debates over grammar.
However, I came across a recent dramatic presentation in the new fun Jdrama 弱くても勝てます (You Can Win Even If You’re Weak) of the difference between は and が. I thought it was an interesting take on the subject during a motivational speech to a horribly untalented high school baseball team. If anything, it’s memorable, and maybe it will help you. Though it really is just an entertaining explanation more about feeling than grammar.
The coach is trying to decide everyone’s position on the team, and no one really knows what they are good at, and which position they should be. The coach wants them to decide themselves what position they desire, but they are hesitant and uncertain.
I’m keeping the key phrases in Japanese as this is required to make any sense. So here are the words/phrases you need to know to understand the below:
僕はライトです: I am right-field
俺はレフトです: I am left-field
俺がライトだ: I am right-field
俺がレフトだ: I am left-field
僕: I (used by guys, somewhat polite)
俺: I (used by guys, rough and casual)
です: polite way to end sentences
だ: casual way to end sentences
Coach: Just like that, you guys are going to claim your position with “僕はライトです” or “俺はレフトです?”
It feels like when I’m talking to you guys, all you ever say is 僕は or 俺は, and not one person will say 俺が!
I want to hear が from you guys. Not は.
(Said in a meek voice) 俺は・・・ライトです・・・
(Said in an enthusiastic voice) 俺がライトだ〜！
Player: I kinda feel that’s just the way you said it…
Coach: No, that’s not it!
With は there’s a nuance of it being someone else’s matter, and not your own.
The feeling is “I guess it looks like 僕はライトです,” right? But the instant it changes to が, you are pushing that “someone else” aside, and aggressively naming your position.
(Said in an enthusiastic voice) 俺がライトだ！！！
Player: That’s just because of the way you said it though right?
Coach: If that’s the case that’s fine. Not は, but が makes you want to say it like that.
What I’m saying is it has the power to make you feel this way. So from now on I want you guys to use が. Not は.
Always consider yourself the main character.
はぁ…何かさぁ、お前たちと話をしてると、「僕は」とか「俺は」ばっかりで、誰一人 「俺が」と言い出さない！ いや、俺はさ、お前たちから、「は」じゃなくて、「が」が聞きたいんだよ。
Do you “feel” the difference now?