Whether you start out learning Japanese, one of the first things you’ll probably learn is how to count. Counting and using numbers is important for your day to day life. But in Japanese, counting is considerably different than it is in English.
In fact, you may have to think about counting and numbers in an entirely different way, because Japanese operates on the principle of fours instead of threes. In English, when you break a number like 10,000,000 into sets, you do it by threes, hence the comma every three numbers.
But, in Japanese, however, this number is represented as 1000,0000. Thankfully for you, you can (and should) still write it as 10,000,000. However, verbally, it is pronounced as issen man, or one thousand ten thousands, instead of English’s ten million.
This difference is what causes some confusion when learning Japanese numbers and counting. However, the Japanese number system is actually very consistent, and you can predict how to count if you know the basics.
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The Base Numbers
To start, it will be best to master numbers 1 through 10. These form the basis for all other numbers, and once you understand the patterns, you can make any number that you’d like.
You are also allowed to use numerals (like 1, 9, and so on) instead of kanji if you like.
- ichi 一
- ni 二
- san 三
- shi 四
- go 五
- roku 六
- shichi 七
- hachi 八
- kyuu 九
- jyuu 十
It is important to note that 4 and 7 have special readings. Shi 四 shares the same sound as shi 死, meaning “death,” so the sound yon is more often used for 4. This means that you’ll need to keep in mind that 4 can be either yon or shi. Similarly, 7 can be shichi or nana depending on what comes next.
In English, you have special words like twenty and forty that you have to memorize separately of individual numbers. In Japanese, this is not true; you can simply put number words together.
- 1: ichi
- 11: jyuu ichi (10 and 1)
- 41: yon jyuu ichi (4 10s and a 1)
- 91: kyuu jyuu ichi (9 10s and a 1)
Japanese Numbers After 99
This strategy will allow you to count all the way to 99. After that, the same principles apply, but you’ll need a couple more vocabulary words in order to make the system work.
- 100 hyaku 百
- 1,000 sen 千
- 10,000 man 万
The same principles work here:
- 296: ni hyaku kyuu jyuu roku (2 hundreds, 9 10s and a 6)
- 1570: issen go hyaku nana jyuu (1 thousand, 5 hundreds and 7 10s)
Of note here are a few words that change from their standard form.
These words are:
- 300 sanbyaku (not sanhyaku)
- 600 roppyaku (not rokuhyaku)
- 800 happyaku (not hachihyaku)
- 3,000 sanzen (not sansen)
- 8,000 hassen (not hachisen)
As you can see, these particular words don’t behave like all the others. You will need to memorize these individual pronunciations separately.
Above The Thousands
Once you get above the thousands, you will need to carefully consider how to describe man based upon the principle that Japanese goes by sets of fours.
So in English, we might say ten thousand, describing the fact that 10,000 is 10 sets of 1,000. But in Japanese, 10,000 is merely man. Unlike English, Japanese speakers have a specific word for 10,000.
In turn, this means that 30,000 is not thirty sets of one thousand (thirty thousand), but rather three sets of man (or three man, sanman).
Japanese differs from English when you begin to count things. In Japanese, you cannot simply say “I see three people.” Instead, Japanese has a number (no pun intended!) of counters, or words that follow the number that help to describe exactly what that number is counting.
Take the example of people. The counter for people, conveniently, is nin 人, which also means “person.” So instead of simply saying three, you say three[person].
There are counters for a wide variety of things. Here are some of the most common that you can expect to use:
- 本 hon/pon/bon: For long objects. Think of chopsticks or bottles.
- Exceptions: 1 = ippon, 3 = sanbon, 6 = roppon, 10 = juppon
- Example: I have one pencil. Enpitsu ha ippon arimasu. えんぴつは一本あります。
- 枚 mai: For thin objects. Most often for paper, but also for shirts and other things like cutting boards.
- Example: I have three shirts. Shatsu ha sanmai aru yo. シャツは三枚あるよ。
- 匹 hiki/biki/piki: For counting small animals like dogs and cats.
- Exceptions: 1 = ippiki, 3 = sanbiki, 6 = roppiki, 8 = happiki, 10 = juppiki
- 歳 sai: For counting someone’s age.
- Exceptions: 1 = issai, 8 = hassai, 10 = jussai
- 個 ko: For counting small objects. They are usually round, like marbles.
- Exceptions: 1 = ikko, 6 = rokko, 8 = hakko, 10 = jukko
- 回 kai: For counting how often something happens.
- Exceptions: 1 = ikkai, 6 = rokkai, 10 = jukkai
- Example: I went to Japan 5 times last year. Kyonen nihon ni gokai ikimashita. 去年日本に五回行きました。
Generic Japanese Counters
You may find that the thing you are trying to count doesn’t fall into common categories that have their own counter words. If this is the case, Japanese has some generic counter words that you can use for many situations. These are:
- hitotsu 一つ
- futatsu 二つ
- mittsu 三つ
- yottsu 四つ
- itsutsu 五つ
- muttsu 三つ
- nanatsu 七つ
- yatsu 八つ
- kokonotsu 九つ
- too とお
At this point, you may have noticed that some particular numbers tend to create irregular words. Numbers 1, 3, 6, and 10 are the most common, but 8 can sometimes do it too.
As you continue to practice, you will begin to notice by sound when a word doesn’t feel right, and you’ll gradually be able to guess what the word might be instead. And because these numbers are consistently inconsistent, you’ll likely already be primed to pay attention to possible differences when you use them.
Ordering With Japanese Numbers
Sometimes, you might have a need to put things in order using numbers. In English, this is usually done through the use of a couple special words created just for this purpose: first, second, third, and so on.
In Japanese, much like many other types of words also have special kanji that come after them to influence what the number means, there is also a counter to put things in order.
This counter is 目, read as me. The number 1, when followed by me, becomes “first.” This also works if you have already used a counter on the number.
- 二回目nikaime, the second time (“two times” plus the me counter for ordering)
- 四人目yoninme, the fourth person (“four people” plus the me counter for ordering)
Counters that come after numbers may seem cumbersome to use at first, but with practice, you will begin to see that they can add detail and ease to your sentences so that people can understand you faster. That being said, they certainly require practice, since English doesn’t have a structure that behaves in the same way.
Continuing On With Japanese Numbers
Don’t give up if you feel like you can’t keep track of the numerous counters that pop up in the Japanese language.
Think about what you talk about most often and make sure you know what counters will be most helpful to you. From there, you may continue to pick them up as you listen to others speak or as you read more in Japanese.
The best way to figure out what you might be missing is to fully immerse yourself in the language. Actively speaking with native Japanese speakers will alert you of any areas where you might wish you could count better, and it can provide a valuable opportunity for more practice.
After a little while, you likely won’t even notice the counters anymore!