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 when you learn a foreign language. But counting in Japanese is considerably different than it is in English.
In fact, you may have to think about Japanese counting and numbers in an entirely different way. Why? 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.
However, this number in Japanese is represented as 1000,0000. Thankfully for you, you can (and should) still write Japanese numbers the same, so in this case 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 people learn 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 to 10 in Japanese. These form the basis for all Japanese numbers, and once you understand the patterns of the Japanese number system, you can make any number that you’d like.
Most Japanese writing will use the kanji characters for the numbers instead of spelling out their hiragana, so if you haven’t begun learning the Japanese writing system yet, the numbers in kanji are a great place to start!
Instead of using kanji numerals, or Japanese numerals, you can also use Arabic numerals (like 1, 9, and so on) if you prefer.
- ichi 一
- ni 二
- san 三
- shi 四
- go 五
- roku 六
- shichi 七
- hachi 八
- kyuu 九
- jyuu 十
A little bit of practice, and you’ll soon know how to count in Japanese to 10.
In English, you have special words like twenty and forty that you have to memorize separately for individual numbers. This is not the case with Japanese numbers; you can simply put number words together.
- The Japanese word for 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)
Lucky and Unlucky Numbers in Japanese
When learning Japanese, you should keep in mind the Japanese number superstitions.
You could learn this the hard way by accidentally using one of the numbers in the wrong way, or just memorize the rules now!
It is important to note that numbers 4 and 9 have special readings.
Shi 四 shares the same sound as shi 死, meaning “death,” so the sound yon in Japanese is more often used for 4. This means that you’ll need to keep in mind that 4 can be either yon or shi.
Number 9 – kyuu 九 can sound like the word for suffering and torture, so avoid using this number as much as you can.
You will find prices in Japan are often not 1 cent below the full number like 9.99 because it's considered unlucky.
Many buildings also skip calling the fourth floor the fourth floor and you will find the number 4 missing in elevators.
Many Japanese people also believe the number 49 is another of the unlucky numbers because it sounds similar to the term shiku which means to suffer and die.
Never give gifts in fours or nines! Always stick to threes or eights if you want to adhere to the superstitions.
On the other hand, number 7 is one of the lucky numbers as it's an important number in Buddhism and there are seven gods of luck. Number 7 also has two readings; 7 can be shichi or nana, depending on what comes next.
Eight is also considered a lucky number in Japan because of its shape. The wide bottom of the number's kanji character – hachi 八 is the shape of a fan which is a sign of growth, wealth, and prosperity.
Japanese Numbers After 99
This strategy will allow you to count in Japanese all the way to 99. After that, the same principles apply to the Japanese number system, but you’ll need a bit more vocabulary in order to make the system work.
- 100 hyaku 百
- 1,000 sen 千
- 10,000 man 万
The same principles of the Japanese counting system 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)
There are a few exceptions: some Japanese numbers deviate 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 numbers in Japanese don’t behave like all the others. You will need to memorize these separately.
Above The Thousands
Once you get above the thousands, you will need to carefully consider how to describe man based on the principle that the Japanese cunting system 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 switch your attention to numbers in Japan, and you'll see that 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 Counter Words
When you begin to count in Japanese, you'll see how different it is 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 counting people. The Japanese counter for people, conveniently, is nin 人, which also means “person.” So instead of simply saying three, you say three[person].
There are Japanese counters for a wide variety of things, and it's important to use the correct counter word in order to be understood.
Here are some of the most common Japanese counters that you can expect to use:
|本 hon/pon/bon||For long objects. Think of objects like chopsticks or bottles.|| 1 = ippon|
|Enpitsu ha ippon arimasu. えんぴつは一本あります。(I have one pencil.)|
|枚 mai||For thin objects and flat objects. Most often for paper, but also for thin objects like shirts and other things like cutting boards.||Shatsu ha sanmai aru yo. シャツは三枚あるよ。(I have three shirts.)|
|匹 hiki/biki/piki||For counting small animals like dogs and cats.||1 = ippiki|
|歳 sai||For counting someone’s age.||1 = issai|
8 = hassai
|個 ko||For counting small objects. They are usually round, like marbles.||1 = ikko|
6 = rokko
|回 kai||For counting how often something happens.||1 = ikkai|
|Kyonen nihon ni gokai ikimashita. 去年日本に五回行きました。(I went to Japan 5 times last year.)|
|For counting units of time|
For counting minutes
For counting hours
For counting months
For counting years
Generic Japanese Counters
You may find that the thing you are trying to count doesn’t fall into any of the categories of common counters. 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 of 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 the numbers in Japanese 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 With Numbers In Japanese
Don’t give up if you feel like you can’t keep track of the numerous counters that pop up in the Japanese language. That's just the fear villain talking!
Think about what you talk about most often, and make sure you know what counters will be most helpful to you. You only need to know what you talk about!
From there, you may continue to pick the most common counters up as you listen to others speak or as you read more in Japanese. Reading, especially reading stories, is at the heart of the StoryLearning® method.
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!