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There’s no denying that Japanese is a very complex and beautiful language. In fact, Japanese is so complex that a native English speaker would need around 2200 hours of study to achieve Japanese fluency. So learning Japanese can certainly be considered one of the greatest achievements in anyone’s life. But that doesn’t mean it’s next to impossible to learn Japanese. Not at all! We already discussed and clarified the Japanese alphabet and the Japanese writing system. Now, the Japanese numbers are easy peasy Japanesey.
No, really! As hard as they seem now when you don’t know the logic behind them yet, the Japanese numbers are actually easy to master once you understand the basics. So let’s dive in and learn how to count in Japanese.
Japanese numbers & how to count in Japanese – an overview
Before learning the art of counting in Japanese, there are a few things you need to know. First of all, people in Japan don’t always use the Japanese numbers. Like the rest of the world, they rely a lot on the Arab numerals when writing (lucky for us, Japanese disciples!). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the Japanese number system. There are contexts – like traditional ceremonies – where people still use the Japanese kanji numerals.
Second of all, the Japanese number system is based on two sets of pronunciations (or readings): the Sino-Japanese readings (on’yomi or “On reading”) that are based on the Chinese numerals and the Native Japanese readings (kun’yomi or “Kun reading”) that are based on the Japanese yamato kotoba (native words).
Since the Native Japanese reading is used only up to 10, the Sino-Japanese reading is the one you’ll use more often. But now comes the tricky part because the Sino-Japanese reading (ichi, ni, san or “one, two, three” as we say in English) uses counters. We’ll talk more about counters in a moment, but what you need to know now is that counters specify what kind of objects you are counting in Japanese. There can be long objects, animals, small objects, machinery and so on.
Now going back to the Native Japanese reading, we should mention that this reading (that – remember – is generally used only up to 10) requires no counters – (yey!). So this reading is considered a universal counter you can use to count everything in Japanese except people, money, and time.
To identify which type of Japanese numbers are used in a written text, remember that the Native Japanese numbers all end in つ (tsu) – except for 10, which is とう (tou).
That being said, you are now ready to learn how to count to 10 in Japanese!
Basic Japanese counting: 1 to 10 in Japanese
|Nr.||Sino-Japanese reading||Kanji||Native Japanese reading||Kanji|
|1||いち (ichi)||一||ひとつ (hitotsu)||一つ|
|2||に (ni)||二||ふたつ (futatsu)||二つ|
|3||さん (san)||三||みっつ (mittsu)||三つ|
|4||し、よん (shi, yon)||四||よっつ (yottsu)||四つ|
|5||ご (go)||五||いつつ (itsutsu)||五つ|
|6||ろく (roku)||六||むっつ (muttsu)||六つ|
|7||しち、なな (shichi, nana)||七||ななつ (nanatsu)||七つ|
|8||はち (hachi)||八||やっつ (yattsu)||八つ|
|9||く、きゅう (ku, kyuu)||九||ここのつ (kokonotsu)||九つ|
|10||じゅう (juu)||十||とう (tou)||十|
|0||れい、ゼロ、マル (rei, zero, maru)||零|
And this is how you count to 10 in Japanese using both Sino-Japanese and Native Japanese readings. If need to hear the proper pronunciation for the 1 to 10 numbers in Japanese, you can play this short video:
What unlucky Japanese numbers you should avoid?
Now, a few remarks about the basic “1 to 10 in Japanese”. You probably noticed that 4, 7, and 9 have two different readings each. As we, in the Western world, consider the number 13 to bring bad luck, the Japanese people consider the numbers 4 and 9 to be unlucky because し (shi – 4)) and く (ku – 9) sound the same as the words for “death” (死, shi) and “suffering, agony or torture” (苦, ku). Thus, Japanese people avoid using these unlucky numbers as much as possible. If you ever travel to Japan, pay close attention to the prices. Chances are you won’t see prices like 9.99 or 4.99 anywhere.
On the other hand, although 7 is considered a lucky number in Japan, its reading – しち (shichi) – contains the Japanese mora し (shi) as well, so it’s way more common to say its other reading: なな (nana).
Zero in Japanese
For zero in Japanese, the kanji is 零 (rei). However, it is more common to use and say “zero” the same way we say it in English: ゼロ (zero). Or マル (maru) which translates to “circle” and it’s used the same way we say “oh” instead of “zero” in English when reading individual digits of a number.
A popular example where the Japanese use the マル (maru) reading is the 109 store in Tokyo. Instead of saying ひゃくきゅう in hiragana or 百九 in kanji (hyakukyuu), they say 一〇九 (ichi maru kyu).
Master bigger Japanese numbers: count to 100 in Japanese
To help you learn the Japanese numbers to 100 faster, we created this table that includes both kanji and hiragana. Besides that, we also added the romaji writing so you’ll know how to pronounce each number even if you are not familiar with the Japanese writing system. In other words, this table has everything you need to learn how to count to 100 in Japanese!
Aren’t the Japanese numbers fascinating? Once you learn how to count to 10, counting to 100 is just a game of repeatedly compounding and adding. Here are a few examples to help you better understand the process of counting to 100 in Japanese:
- 11 is 十一 (juuichi) or 10 (juu) + 1 (ichi);
- following the exact same rule, 12 is 十二 (juuni) or 10 (juu) + 2 (ni).
Once you change the prefix, the rule remains the same. All you need to do is count the 10s (two 10s, three 10s, four 10s and so on) and then add the next number:
- if 20 is 二十 (nijuu) or 2 (ni) 10s (juu), then 21 is 二十一 (nijuuichi) or 2 (ni) 10s (juu) + 1 (ichi);
- if 70 is 七十 (nanajuu) or 7 (nana) 10s (juu), then 76 is 七十六 (nanajuuroku) or 7 (nana) 10s (juu) + 6 (roku);
- then 100 comes with a new word: 百 (hyaku).
Japanese numbers to 10,000 and beyond
Now that you understood the magic rule of always adding and adding and adding to get new numbers, let’s look at the bigger leagues of Japanese numbers. How do you continue after 100? But after 10,000?
|hyaku yon-ju go|
|hyaku kyu-ju kyu|
As you can see, the rule we learned for the first 100 Japanese numbers is still valid. To count further than 100 in Japanese, you just continue to stack numbers. Then, when you get to 1,000, hyaku becomes sen and so on.
Let’s look at a more complex example and make sure you understood the rule. Let’s take the number 1289. That’s 千二百八十九 in kanji and せんにひゃくはちじゅうきゅう in hiragana. So 1000 (sen) + 2 (ni) 100s (hyaku) + 8 (hachi) 10s (ju) + 9 (kyuu) is sen nihyaku hachijuu kyuu.
As you probably have already realized, it’s easier to read or write Japanese numbers using kanji since the hiragana can get pretty long with numbers such as 1289. But then again, don’t forget that the Japanese use the Arab numerals as well especially when it comes to bigger numbers.
What are Japanese counters and how you should use them?
Now that you know how to count in Japanese, it’s time to get to the next level and learn more about the Japanese counters. As we mentioned in the overview, Japanese counters are specific words you need to add after the number when counting specific objects. If we were to transfer the Japanese counters in English, we’d say “two pieces of pie” and not “two pies”. So the word “pieces” is the counter in this situation. So depending on the objects you are counting, you need to choose the counter word accordingly.
For instance, for flat and thin objects, the counter word you need to use is まい (mai). Thus, if you want to say “three shirts”, you’ll say シャツさんまい (shatsu san mai) – where shatsu means “shirts”, san is “three” and mai is the counter word.
7 Japanese counters that you should know
Before looking at this list of most common Japanese counters, there’s something you need to know. Hoping we won’t scare you off… here it is: there are over 500 counters in the Japanese language. But don’t despair! Luckily, not all of them are in common use. So let’s look at the ones you’ll absolutely need in a basic Japanese interaction.
Japanese counters for units of time
To make sure people understand you are talking about seconds, minutes or hours, you have to use counters in Japanese. So you’ll express seconds with ~秒 (byou), minutes with ~分 (fun or pun), hours with ~時 (ji), months with ~月 (getsu), and years with ~年 (nen).
Japanese counters for people
If you need to count people in Japanese, you use the counter ひとり (hitori) for one person, ふたり (futari) for two people, and ~人 (nin) for three or more people.
Japanese counters for long, thin objects
Long and thin objects like pencils, bottles, chopsticks, umbrellas, rivers, train tracks or roads have their own Japanese counter: ~本 (hon).
When counting these long and thin objects in Japanese, all the numbers end in -hon, except 3 – which ends in -bon – and the numbers 1, 6, 8 and 10 which end in -pon. This may seem a bit overwhelming in the beginning, but practicing will help you master the exceptions faster.
Japanese counters for small, round objects
To count small and round objects like apples or tennis balls, in Japanese you have to use the ~個 (ko) counter.
Japanese counters for thin, flat objects
As we already mentioned, to count thin and flat objects (like sheets of paper, plates or articles of clothing), in Japanese you need to use the まい mai counter.
Japanese counters for animals
For small animals like insects, fish, dogs or cats, you need to use the counter ~匹 (hiki) and for larger animals like elephants, the counter ~頭 (tou) is the one you are looking for.
Japanese counters for cars, bicycles and other mechanical devices
If your head is not spinning yet, for cars, machines and all kinds of household appliances, you need to use the counter ~台 (dai).
Not ready to dive into Japanese counters yet? Then just use the general-purpose counter based on the Native-Japanese reading (一つhitotsu , 二つ futatsu and so on). Using this system, you can count almost any kind of object up to ten without worrying you’ll mistake the counter.
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