I have two examples of this structure which does not obviously correspond to a pattern in English although it is quite common. I'd like to know what it means, why it is used and how it should be translated (because if I can do that I know I understand it).

Example 1

I heard this on a TV series yesterday. The final scene of one part portrayed two sisters, かよ and はな. かよ was grieving over the death of her fiance and はな could not say anything to her and get a calm reasonable response. The narrator said:



It is easy to reword this final sentence as


And capture most of the literal meaning. In English I might have narrated, "Hana could not say anything to Kayo." or perhaps "Poor Hana, as far as Kayo was concerned, what ever Hana said, it was the wrong thing to say." but something, I am not sure what, is missing.

Example 2

The following is the final paragraph from a magazine article on how convenience stores have developed over the past 40 years, particularly since the earthquake in March 2011:


This is in "newspaper Japanese" so the copula is omitted. I would have written:


In both examples the writers seem to have deliberately chosen this "relative clause - noun - copula" structure (in the second case a zero copula). We have some questions on 体言止め help with my first question below I should be grateful if somebody could explain:

1) Why or when is this structure used?
2) How it should be translated? (because if I can do that I know I understand it).
3) Are there any redundant subjects/topics omitted because they not necessary? (eg If we take AはBでした as a complete sentence then in example 1 we have "Bでした" but not "Aは")

Supplementary note
Last night I thought I had a new example from the TV. After a doing bungy jump a woman said to the camera 「挑戦してよかった、あたし」. It sounded like the construction in example one. Then I realised it is just an example of somebody inverting the order of the parts a spoken sentence. It may just be coincidence but the similarity of how this exclamation and example one sounded to me as a listener (and how the information is received) struck me.)

  • I think it's extremely common in novels and comic books. It sounds to me like: freeze-frame = stage + actor です/でした.
    – Yang Muye
    Aug 3, 2014 at 13:20
  • I think a lot of headlines have this structure, e.g. here's one from Yomiuri: "新聞読み「自分では」警察に電話したひき逃げ男". I too wonder what would the correct translation be for these kind of sentences. Aug 3, 2014 at 14:58
  • We discussed this a little here: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/3586/…
    – Hyperworm
    Aug 3, 2014 at 17:55
  • @Hyperworm : Scene setting sounds right. I have added more context to example 1 - it was the closing statement by the narrator in one part of a series, so perhaps it was setting the scene for next episode. In example 2 it seems to be setting the scene for the final sentence given. It is difficult to translate - I am sure there must some subjects/topics omitted because they can be understood from the context.
    – Tim
    Aug 4, 2014 at 7:58
  • I added a new tag, information-structure, for discussions of different ways to structure the same information; also called information packaging because the information is the same as in a basic sentence, but it's packaged differently: "I ate the cake" versus "It was I who ate the cake", or "A man was walking down the street" versus "There was a man walking down the street", etc. Maybe we could find some older related questions and tag them, too.
    – user1478
    Aug 4, 2014 at 8:19

2 Answers 2


How about using the English copula in this case too? "And there was Hanako, lost for words to comfort her sister, Kayo"

Or in the case of the second, "the" could work too: "The ever evolving convenience store: with 40 years since its inception, blah blah blah"

As for meaning, it doesn't mean anything special per se, but to me it feels "defining" for lack of a better word, or like something used in narrative (like your example). Almost like the tone used in English nature documentaries if that helps:

"The fickle and mysterious domestic cat: superb hunter and ubiquitous human companion animal"

  • Brandon, @Yang Muye Thank you. I think this is common expression too. Those are interesting suggestions - have you seen such translations in practice or heard an explanation for what effect this construction has?
    – Tim
    Aug 3, 2014 at 15:12

When there is no copula and nothing seems to be omitted, as in your second example, I interpret the sentence as simply a fragment, used to "set the scene", and would translate it as such. It is very reminiscent of how fragments are used in descriptive passages in English:

Pale druggists in remote towns of the Epworth League and flannel nightgown belts, endlessly wrapping up bottles of Peruna. . . . Women hidden away in the damp kitchens of unpainted houses along the railroad tracks, frying tough beefsteaks. . . . Lime and cement dealers being initiated into the Knights of Pythias, the Red Men or the Woodmen of the World. . . . Watchmen at lonely railroad crossings in Iowa, hoping that they'll be able to get off to hear the United Brethren evangelist preach. . . . Ticket-sellers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form. . . . Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects. . . . Grocery-clerks trying to make assignations with soapy servant girls. . . . Women confined for the ninth or tenth time, wondering helplessly what it is all about. . . . Methodist preachers retired after forty years of service in the trenches of God, upon pensions of $600 a year.

-- H. L. Mencken, taken from here

Compare the above with this short Japanese passage that is clearly going for a similar, if not identical, effect:

何者かが何者かに切り殺されている気配。嘆き。叫び。 … 血塗られた背と折れた剣、砕けた柱……。

Hints of someone being slashed and slain by someone. Wails. Cries. ... A back smeared with blood and a broken sword, a crumbled pillar....

And your example translated in this way:


The convenience store that has grown while limberly changing shape, 40 years since its inception.

The form and function seem quite similar. There's practically no limit to how much the noun can be modified, be it adjectivally, adverbially, relatively, or phrasally. And what we get in effect is a snapshot, a picture, an isolated concept. The focus is not on what the noun is, does, did, etc, but on the very noun itself.

When the copula is present, as in your first example, I don't see how the sentence is any different in form from 「私です。」, as in response to 「誰ですか?」, only with additional modifiers:


It was a Hana who couldn't say anything to Kayo.

And before I get bashed for abusing English, let me just say that modifying proper nouns--and pronouns!--with the help of definite/indefinite articles is a well-established practice:

Mr Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work and Mrs Dursley gossiped away happily as she wrestled a screaming Dudley into his highchair. -- J.K. Rowling

The me I was yesterday is no more. Let the me of tomorrow come!

ASIDE: Brandon's suggestion is definitely more natural and would work in practice. However, I feel that it's more a translation of the following:


And there was Hana, unable to say anything to Kayo.

With there-insertion, was is no longer the linking-verb be, but the existential be.

EDIT: How does the Hana sentence fit as a narrative of the scenario? Why the relative-noun-copula structure?

Again, here's the sentence in question, with what I believe to be the omitted topic:


A subject + が doesn't seem likely here.

I don't believe this sentence is making a statement about Hana. If it were, it would instead be 「はなはかよに何も言えなかったんだ。」, your suggestion. Rather, it is a statement on the general state of affairs, quite fitting for an ending narration.

The distinction may not be obvious. To illustrate, I'll appeal to English's It, as the general-state-of-affairs idea is inherent in certain usages of It.

Consider the "weather it":

(1) It is raining.

(2) It is cold.

What might It be referring to?

In (1), one might argue that It = Rain, Rain is raining., where to rain means to fall. (Interestingly, this is how (1) is expressed in Japanese: 「雨が降っている。」)

However, the idea that the "weather it" refers to something concrete is problematic, especially in (2), where it is not obvious what that something is. The weather is cold? The air? The surrounding area? And yet everyone seems to understand the sentence perfectly fine! Thus, some linguists argue that It here simply refers to the general state of affairs.

Also, note how (2) is expressed in Japanese: 「寒いです。」, an X + copula construction. If we accept that Japanese's X + copula is similar to English's It + copula in that both can be statements on the general state of affairs, then it would not be too much a stretch to say that the difference between 「(それは)かよに何も言えないはなでした。」 and 「はなはかよに何も言えなかったんだ。」 is akin to the difference between "It was a cold day." and "The day was cold."

Hence, "It was a Hana who couldn't say anything to Kayo." (The general state of affairs: a Hana who couldn't say anything to Kayo.)

Evidence from literature:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. -- Charles Dickens

それは すべての時世の中で最もよい時世 でもあれば、すべての時世の中で最も悪い時世 でもあった

  • (Updated) Thank you. I like the wide choice of writers! The second example seems to work but I am not quite sure how your translation for the first one, about Hana, works as a the narrative for the scenario (context) I have described. It is a faithful translation but I prefer my own suggestion ("Hana could not say anything to Kayo."), unfortunately it is derived from the un-nominalised sentence and therefore not a faithful translation. Even so, I am all hears to hear why you are right...
    – Tim
    Sep 11, 2014 at 15:38
  • 1
    To me, the "it" in "it is obvious what you are talking about" or "it is hard to juggle" might be a clearer example of general-state-of-affairs "it". Sep 13, 2014 at 1:41
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    @3to5businessdays : Whatever, can we find a translation for example 1 that fits better my effort? [FWIW I am not sure what you mean by a "general-state-of-affairs 'it'": In both your cases "it" can be identified as (1) the unnamed subject being talked about and (2) the act of juggling. There are also other expressions such as のです which equate to "It is the case that" but that is a bit off topic.
    – Tim
    Sep 13, 2014 at 8:15
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    @Tim I don't recall saying that the literal translation is the only way to translate the sentence. I supplied it to make clear that the sentence is a statement on the general state of affairs, which answers questions (1) and (3). If we agree on that much, there's not much left for me to offer. Cases in which there are more than one way to translate, with respective merits/demerits, are common. So if you choose to translate the sentence as "Hana couldn't say anything to Kayo.", deeming it to be more fitting commentary on the situation, that's your choice as a translator and I respect it. Sep 13, 2014 at 21:41
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    @3to5businessdays That's a separate phenomenon called extraposition. "It is obvious what you are talking about." is equivalent to "What you are talking about is obvious." "It is hard to juggle." is equivalent to "To juggle is hard."/"Juggling is hard." Sep 13, 2014 at 21:48

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