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Japanese Grammar: WA and DESU (は and です)

Watashi WA Keiko DESU


Before we begin to learn basic Japanese grammar, let’s take a step back and look at how we make a basic sentence in English:

A is B

This concept of “A is B” is the most basic form of a sentence in any language.  If I were to introduce myself, I would use the same structure:

A is B

Now I’m going to show you a Japanese sentence.

私はけいこです。Watashi wa Keiko desu.

(“I am Keiko“)

Please pay close attention to the way I colored the words.  Believe it or not, the heavy use of colors wasn’t just for fun.  Okay, maybe it was a little bit fun.. but it was also my best attempt to match the Japanese words with the English ones.  For example, “I” is represented with the color green in the English reading, and so is “Watashi wa” in the Japanese above it.  This is because they share a similar purpose in the sentence.  The other word, “am” is colored blue and is equivalent to “desu“.  Let’s break it down – starting with the first word, watashi.

  watashi わたし



わたし (watashi) is a personal pronoun.  It is similar to “I” in English.  We can place it at the beginning of the sentence.
  watashi wa わたし

Watashi wa


は (wa) always comes after the topic of the sentence.  In this case, the topic is our personal pronoun, “watashi“.  Since watashi is our topic, we need to attach は (wa).  In English we don’t attach anything to our topics, so this may seem strange at first.
  watashi wa keiko desu わたしはけいこです

Watashi wa Keiko desu.

(I am Keiko)

です (desu) is similar to “is” or “am” in English.  You may find a lot of textbooks referring to desu as the “copula“.  Whatever you want to call it, always place it at the end of the statement!

By the way, a topic can be dropped from a sentence if the context is already understood.  In our example, someone asks “What is your name?”  Responding with “Keiko” rather than “I am Keiko” is fine.

Keiko desu.

(I) am Keiko.

What you will find however, is that Japanese will drop the topic/subject a lot more than we do in English!  That will become more apparent as we continue on with the lessons.  Just keep that in mind as we keep pushing forward.

Up to this point, I have been using the western representation of Japanese sounds to help you.  This is also known as Romaji.  Romaji literally means “Roman letters” in Japanese, which you know as the alphabet.  While the Japanese writing system consists of it’s own characters “Hiragana” and “Katakana”, it is possible for a beginner to start practicing full sentences right away without being distracted by a new syllabary.  However, learning the Hiragana and Katakana writing system should be high on your priority list because it’s the foundation of the Japanese language.  Please consider visiting my Reading and Writing section to get started if you haven’t yet.  You will find that some people reject the idea of Romaji as a useful tool because it acts as a “crutch”, but I believe there is more than one path to learning a language.  Learning your first phrases with the English alphabet is perfectly acceptable, in my opinion – especially if time is a factor.  If you want to get serious about learning Japanese though, you should start learning Hiragana and Katakana as soon as you can.

Asking questions with か (ka) and なん (nan).

か (ka) marks a question.  It is similar to an English question mark (“?“). anata wa amerikajin desu ka


Anata wa Amerika-jin desu ka?

(Are you American?)

The response may be はい (hai) which means yes.. Hai. Watashi wa amerikajin desu


Hai.  Watashi wa Amerika-jin desu.

(Yes.  I am American.)

or いいえ (iie) which means no. Iie. Watashi wa nihonjin desu


iie.  Watashi wa Nihon-jin desu.

(No.  I am Japanese.)

なん (nan) can be used to ask what something is.  It is similar to “what”. nan desu ka


nan desu ka?

(what is it?)


A List of Common Personal Pronouns:

Now that we have learned basic Japanese sentence construction with WA (は) and DESU (です), let’s take a look at a list of Personal Pronouns that you can use.  Each one of these can substitute for A in our sentence “A wa B desu“.




This is gender neutral, but is usually seen as more feminine in casual conversation.   あなた



Replacing the pronoun with their name is usually better for most situations.
Plural form: わたしたち (Watashitachi) Plural form: あなたたち (Anatatachi)



Used by men.  It has a very rough image and usually used in a very casual setting with someone close. かれ



This can also be used to mean “boyfriend”.  Pretty versatile, isn’t it?
Plural form: おれたち (Oretachi) Plural form: かれたち (Karetachi)



Used by men.  This is much softer than Ore and is used by younger boys as well. かのじょ



This can also be used to mean “girlfriend”.
Plural form: ぼくたち (Bokutachi) Plural form: かのじょたち (Kanojotachi)

An important note to make here is that Japanese personal pronouns are not used as often as the English “you, “she” and “he”.  Japanese people usually use the name of the person instead of the pronoun.

When we are talking about someone among peers or public settings, we should add さん (san) to the end of their name.  It is similar to “Mr. and Ms.” in English.  It can be attached to the first or last name.  For example, our friend Tarou Suzuki can be referred to as Tarou-san or Suzuki-san.

Very close friends drop the –san.  The suffix ~kun used to when talking to men who are younger or the same age as the speaker (Jason-kun).  It is less polite than ~san.  We also use the suffix ~chan when we are talking to babies, young children or young women.  It doesn’t stop there — we can also use ~chan when we’re talking to a lover.  ~Chan can also refer to a close friend as well.


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