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If I've talked about a thing before, and want to ask whether or not it exists in another place (or time), would I use "は"?

For example, if I said "In Sydney, I saw a ryokan. Are there ryokans in Melbourne?", would I say "は" or "が" in

シドニーで、旅館を見ました。

メルボルンに旅館(は/が?)ありますか?

By contrast, if I hadn't talked about it before, would I use "が"?

私はメルボルンに行きます。

メルボルンに旅館がありますか?

(The reason I'm asking about this is that I probably got the wrong idea about when to use "が" and "は" because I misinterpreted the grammar section of "Japanese For Busy People I" Unit 4 (page 68 in the kana edition))

  • I think I would use が when I just saw a hotel (and I didn't expect there is one), but は when I just want to ask a general question. So my choices are: 1)が 2)は. But if it's not a question (there is no "か?"), I will use が in both cases. – Yang Muye Sep 5 '14 at 15:03
  • I didn't realize the first sentence is メルボルンに~ rather than シドニーに~. In this case I probably would say メルボルンには、旅館は(/が)ありますか? – Yang Muye Sep 5 '14 at 15:11
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In both cases, the natural particle choice would be 「は」. The speaker simply does not have enough reason to use「が」 in either of the two. You need a good reason to use 「が」 but J-learners tend to over-use it.

"In Sydney, I saw a ryokan. Are there ryokans in Melbourne?"

In this situation, the speaker does not know whether or not there are ryokan in Melbourne. To ask about that, you would use 「は」. The first sentence about Sydney has no effect on the particle choice after the 「[旅館]{りょかん}」 in the second sentence, but you must let it have effect on the particle after the 「メルボルン」. You would need 「には」 instead of 「に」 for the comparison between the two cities.

「メルボルンには旅館ありますか。」 would be a very natural-sounding sentence.

The second situation is no different in the sense that the speaker does not know whether or not there are ryokan in Melbourne.

「メルボルンに旅館ありますか。」

You could change the 「メルボルンに」 to 「メルボルンには」, but unlike in the first situation, it is optional. If you used 「には」 here, it would be for emphasis whereas it was for comparison in the first situation.

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    Is there any scenario where someone would use が, i.e. 「メルボルンに旅館がありますか。」? – 3 to 5 business days Sep 6 '14 at 7:40
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    That form is often used for a rhetorical question, i.e. equivalent to "There are not any ryokans in Melbourne, right?". That said, insufficient use of topic particles in interrogative sentences is not crutial (oppose to sentences of statement). It just winds up with being not the most natural. – user4092 Sep 7 '14 at 2:15
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Assuming there is no talk of 旅館 beforehand, then in the first conversation you have introduced the topic (旅館) with the first line so yes, you would use は not が when asking if there are 旅館 in Melbourne. But, rather than:

メルボルンに旅館はありますか?

I might have said:

旅館はメルボルンにもありますか?

or even:

メルボルンにもありますか?、旅館は・・

(You might even not have to mention 旅館 at all in the second line, but it all depends on the context, the moment and how obvious the topic is to the other party.)

In your second scenario you are introducing 旅館 in the second line so が would be appropriate.

Edit (after reading the other answers and giving it some thought).

1) In my answer I tried to avoid using には to keep it simple and chose a response using も.

2) The first scenario is easy because the topic has been mentioned. What is harder is explaining why が does not have to be used when 旅館 has not been mentioned. I think one short answer is that:

If you mentioned that you were going to Melbourne and asked about 旅館 because you were looking for somewhere to stay then は can be used because the listener can infer that from the previous statement. (This is admittedly more likely in Kyoto than Melbourne but if we assume its a conversation between two Japanese people it is easier to imagine.)

As mentioned は and が is a complicated subject and different books give different rules. You have cited a beginners text book if you are looking for short explanation, that can be difficult. My notes are below.


"A students guide to Japanese Grammar" by Naomi Hanaoka McGloin gives the following cases when it is not necessary to introduce a theme with が:

(i) Nouns mentioned in previous discourse

(ii) Nouns not mentioned but can be inferred such as エンジン in the following sentence.

先週車を買いました。エンジンは日本製です。

(iii) Nouns that have not been mentioned but can be identified non-linguistically. For example if you hold up a book and say;

これは私の本です。

(iv) Nouns uniquely identifiable such as the River Amazon in the following sentence:

アマゾン川は南アメリカにある。

(v) Generic nouns. For example:

日本人は寿司を食べる

Q: How can we apply these to the second scenario and conclude は is appropriate?

A: If you mentioned that you were going to Melbourne and asked about 旅館 because (for example) you were looking for somewhere to stay, and that was clear to listener then case 2 would apply.

Now, I am not going to argue my first answer is better (I am learner trying to learn from my mistakes and open to correction) but if you wish confirm the existence of something that could not be inferred from the prior conversation then が would be appropriate. To take a more clear cut example, if you wanted to ask if it rained in Melbourne very often then I think you might say:

私はメルボルンに行きます。

メルボルンでは雨がよく降りますか?

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