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In old stories I often find the following structure:

general place specific place story unfolds

for example:

① 江戸は芝、増上寺門前町で (例: ◯◯人が歩いた)
② 東海道は宮宿、ただいま名古屋市の熱田神宮辺で (例: ◯◯浪人の二人が出会った)

  • I took it for granted so far, but how exactly does it work? What is the function of ? It just sets the place of the story, so it is hard to call it "topic marker".

  • Why place names are not combined with の particle like 「江戸の芝の増上寺門前町で〜」 or 「東海道の宮宿はただ今〜」?

  • Is this construction limited to literature? Is it used contemporarily? Like let's say... 「東京は新宿、JR駅前にコカ・コーラの自動販売機がございます」 :) How does it sound?

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It is a little remnant of [美文調]{びぶんちょう}, the ornate writing style that was popular in the literary circle for a decade or two in Meiji Era. The style as a whole has largely, if not completely, died out in literature but has remained alive in [浪曲]{ろうきょく}, which is a recitation of stories that sounds like a mixture of singing and speaking. (Please go to YouTube if interested.)

The pattern 「Place + + Sub-place」 is probably much more common even today than Japanese-learners might think. In documentaries, narrations, stories, etc. we still use it quite often. In meaning, it is exactly the same as 「Place + + Sub-place」. So, we say things like:

「今、イギリスロンドンからメールしています。」"I am now e-mailing from London, England."

「京大経済学部の出身です。」"I hail from the Economics Department of Kyoto University."

In both sentences above, the 「は」 functions as a fancy version of 「の」.

I took it for granted so far, but how exactly does it work? What is the function of は? It just sets the place of the story, so it is hard to call it "topic marker".

It is no topic marker; It is a [係助詞]{かかりじょし} (a binding particle). It is used to specify the preceding word/phrase. That is to say the pattern will always be:

「Larger & More General Entity + は or の + Smaller & More Specific Entity」

As I stated above, this 「は」 is used just like 「の」 in the "usual", non-ornate speech style.

Why place names are not combined with の particle like 「江戸の芝の増上寺門前町で〜」 or 「東海道の宮宿はただ今〜」?

Because that would not help create one's intended aesthetic effect, which in this case is a more stylized story-opener with dramatic impact. Any 3-year-old native speaker could form those phrases using 「の」. Using 「の」 would only make the phrases sound "bare factual", which is fine as you do not expect a 3-year-old to speak an ornate type of language.

Is this construction limited to literature? Is it used contemporarily? Like let's say... 「東京は新宿、JR駅前にコカ・コーラの自動販売機がございます」 :) How does it sound?

Though it might depend on the larger context, that sentence sounds pretty funny (and unnatural) all by itself if I may be honest. Why? Because it is a cold and factual piece of information that one is trying to convey. Where is the need to dramatize it?

This 「は」 is used over 「の」 contemporarily in personal letters, conversations, self-introductions, etc. by quite a few adults if not by teenagers.

If I asked someone where he was from and he just said 「北海道です。」, I might reply 「北海道どちらですか。」 to ask for a specific city or region. Unless the other person is a kid or teenager, I would rarely use 「の」 there as it would not make me sound like a seasoned speaker.

Unlike the sentence about the location of a Coke machine that you mentioned, this is about a real person that I am trying to get to know. That makes a huge difference even though I know Coke is real as well.

  • Great answer! My story (about what happened in front of the vending machine was not finished yet, just an intro), but I have a general feeling of how it would sound complete. As for the 「北海道はどちらですか」 isn't は a topic marker here ("As for Hokkaido where (are you) from?") not 係助詞? – macraf Sep 27 '15 at 21:30
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    @macraf 参考になるかどうかわかりませんが、明鏡国語辞典では助詞の「は」は「副助詞」と分類されていて(明鏡は「品詞解説」にあるように「係助詞は副助詞の一部とし…」ているためで、「係助詞」と考えていいと思います)、「は」の5番の項に『≪時や場所など、場面を表す語に付いて≫後のさらに細かな場面設定を導く。「時元禄一四年」「江戸神田の生まれよ」「芸大美術の出身」』とあります。「北海道はどちらですか?」の「は」も、この5番の「は」で、「北海道の、どこですか?」という意味です。 – Chocolate Oct 4 '15 at 6:53
  • @Shoko Very interesting. So は in 「国はどこですか」 is also this 5th meaning? – macraf Oct 4 '15 at 7:26
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    No,「お国はどこですか」 would be "Where is your home town?", in which お国 is the subject. This is not rephrased as 「*お国のどこですか」. The 「北海道はどちらですか」 mentioned in this post is "Where in Hokkaido?" (=「北海道のどちらですか」) – Chocolate Oct 4 '15 at 7:51
  • Does the accent differ depending on whether 「北海道はどちらですか。」 means 'Where is Hokkaido?' or 'Where in Hokkaido?'? – Aeon Akechi Nov 3 '19 at 22:28

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