Example from Minna No Nihongo:

Lesson 4 : あした 6 時に起きます。

Lesson 9 : きょう  早く 帰ります。

Why is は sometimes used with such a time words and sometimes not?

  • As in many other situations 'は ha/wa' can denote a special significance this time. For example あした 6 時に起きます。plainly states that the subject of the sentence will wake up at 6 tomorrow.
  • For the other example, きょう は 早く 帰ります。 there is a 'は ha/wa' inserted so it would add a nuance that I am waking up early today AND that this is not common for me to do this, i.e. normally I would wake up later.

In spoken English you might accentuate the "Today" as in "TODAY, I'm waking up early."

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  1. Denotes the topic.

  2. For comparing, emphasis

So in your second example

きょう は 早く 帰ります。

You wanna emphasize TODAY, you may always go back home late, but not today.

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