Japanese Numbers: All You Need to Know about How to Count in Japanese?

Introduction

Do you know the Japanese way of counting? When you start learning Japanese, one of the first things you’ll probably learn is how to count. Counting and dealing with numbers is important to your daily life. But in Japanese, counting is very different from counting in English. As hard as they may seem if you don’t yet know their logic, Japanese numbers are easy to master once you understand the basics. So, let’s dive in and learn how to count in Japanese.

1. A Brief Overview

Before you learn to count in Japanese, there are a few things you need to know. First, people in Japan don’t always use Japanese numbers. Like the rest of the world, they rely heavily on Arabic numerals for writing. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the Japanese number system. People still use the Japanese kanji numerals.

Second, the Japanese number system is based on two types of pronunciation: “Chinese-Japanese readings” or (On-yomi or “On-reading”), which are based on the Chinese numerals, and “native Japanese readings” or (Kun-yomi or “Kun-reading”), which are based on the native Japanese words.

Moreover, since the native Japanese reading is only used for up to 10, the “Chinese Japanese reading” is the one you’ll use most often. But here’s the tricky part, because the “Chinese-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 indicate what kind of objects you’re counting in Japanese. These can be long objects, animals, small objects, machines, and so on.

Source: O-DAN

2. How to Count One to Ten in Japanese

For starters, it’s best if you know the numbers 1 to 10. They form the basis for all other numbers, and once you understand the patterns, you can form any number you want. The Japanese number system consists of two groups of numbers: “Sino-Japanese numbers” and “Native Japanese numbers“. The most common Japanese numbers are the “Sino-Japanese numbers”. But you’ll often come across the numbers 1-10 in the Japanese numbers.

NOSino-Japanese NumbersKanjiNative Japanese Numbers Kanji
1いち (Ichi)ひとつ (Hitotsu)一つ
2に (Ni) ふたつ (futatsu)二つ
3さん (san) 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) むっつ (muttsu)六つ
7しち、なな (shichi, nana)七 ななつ (nanatsu)七 つ
8  はち (hachi)  やっつ (yattsu)八つ
9く、きゅう (ku, kyuu)ここのつ (kokonotsu)   九つ
10   じゅう (juu) /とう (tou)   十    とう(tou)  十    
0  れい、ゼロ (rei, zero)  れい、ゼロ (rei, zero)

   

3. Native Japanese Numbers Counter

Let’s look at the Native Japanese series first. You’ll see this system only up to the number 10, which makes it easier. This number series is considered a universal counter. With it, you can count everything except money, time, and people. So if you forget the right counter, use these numbers! The tip to remember these numbers is that they all end in “Tsu[つ] except 10, which is “Tou[とう].

Then, you can always tell which counting system is used by whether or not the kanji is followed by a “tsu[つ] (except for 10). Counters indicate what kind of object you’re counting in Japanese. In Japanese, there are many, many forms of counters for everything from long objects to machines. This is considered one of the most confusing points in learning Japanese. But there are some tips to help you deal with it.

The Further Guide

If you don’t know the counter for an item, you can use the “Hitotsu, Futatsu[一つ、二つ] system to count your items to ten. This will save you a lot of trouble if you memorize the native Japanese numbers! Also, you should note that some numbers are conjugated differently with certain counters. You should watch out for 1, 3, 6, and 8. Further, please note that 1 changes about half the time, while 3, 6, and 8 change most of the time.

  • 3【三】: Changes the first letter of any counter from the “H” column of the kana chart to “B” or “P”. For example 三分 (Sanpun) Three minutes
  • 6 六 : Changes the “H” kana to “PP” 
    For example 六匹 (Roppiki) Six animals
  • 8 八 : Changes “H” kana to “PP” counters the same as 6, usually. This is not quite a rule, but common enough to help you when you are getting started.
    八匹(Happiki)Eight animals

① Counters for People

When you count people in Japanese, you use the counter “Nin” [人] for 3 or more people. For one person, you say “Hitori” [ひとり], and for two people you say “Futari” [ふたり]. Any number after that is the “Sino-Japanese” number system followed by “Nin” [にん], such as 三人 (sannin, “three people”).

When you need to count people in Japanese, you use the counter “Hitori” [ひとり] for one person, “Futari” [ふたり] for two people, and “Nin” [にん] for three or more people.

② Counters for Long Objects

For long, thin objects, like pens, chopsticks, or bottles, the counter is “Hon” [本].

  • 4本のペン (Yon hon no pen)
    Means, Four pens.

Although “Hon”[本] means “Book” in Japanese, it isn’t the counter for books (that’s “Satsu” [冊], which is the counter for bound objects, like manga). “Hon” [本] is also the counter for things like roads, rivers, and train tracks.

③ Counters for Small Objects

Used for small objects, connect “Ko” [個] to the number to count it. And it’s also used for round objects.

  • Apples: リンゴ二個 (Ringo niko)
    Means, Two apples

④ Counters for Animals

When counting small animals, you use “Hiki” [匹] like dogs and cats. For larger animals, like horses or elephants, you use “Tou” [頭].

  • 三匹の犬 (Sanbiki no inu)
    Means, Three dogs – also note the change from h to b in hiki
  • 三頭の馬 (Santou no uma)
    Means, Three horses

⑤ Counters for Mechanical Objects

Even cars, your washer and dryer, and your video game console for playing games in Japanese have their own counter. Bicycles fall under this category, too. You use “Dai” [] for these objects.

  • 二台の車 (Nidai no kuruma)
    Means, Two cars

⑥ Counters for Thin, flat objects

To count thin and flat objects (like sheets of paper, plates or articles of clothing), in Japanese you need to use the “Mai” [まい] counter.

  • 二枚のかみ (Nimai no kami)
    Means, Two papers

Counters for Units of time

To make sure people understand you are talking about seconds, minutes, or hours, you must use counters in Japanese. So you’ll express seconds with “Byou” [], minutes with “Fun or Pun” [], and hours with “ ji” [].

Other Common Ways to Count

Other counters you’ll stumble across often are “Kai” [回], and “Kai or Gai” [階]. “Kai” [回] is used to express the number of times, like the number of times in a week you workout. “Kai or Gai” [階] is used to count the number of floors in a building.

4. How to Count to 100 in Japanese

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) = 10 (Juu) + 1 (Ichi)
  • 12 is 十二 (Juuni) =10 (Juu) + 2 (Ni).
  • 20 is 二十 (Nijuu) = 2 (Ni) 10s (Juu), then
  • 21 is 二十一 (Nijuuichi) = 2 (Ni) 10s (Juu) + 1 (Ichi)
  • 70 is 七十 (Nanajuu) = 7 (Nana) 10s (Juu), then
  • 76 is 七十六 (Nanajuuroku) = 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?

NumberKanjiHiraganaRomaji
101百一ひゃくいちHyaku ichi
145百四十五      ひゃくよんじゅうご Hyaku yon-ju go
199百九十九     ひゃくきゅうじゅうきゅうHyaku kyu-ju kyu
200二百     にひゃくNihyaku
201 二百一にひゃくいちNihyaku ichi
300 三百  さんびゃく    Sanbyaku
400四百 よんひゃく Yonhyaku
1,000 千 せんSen
10,000  一万まん Ichiman

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 keep stacking the 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 as an example:

千二百八十九 in kanji
せんにひゃくはちじゅうきゅう in Hiragana.
1000 (Sen) + 2 (Ni) 100s (Hyaku) + 8 (Hachi) 10s (Ju) + 9 (Kyuu) Sen nihyaku hachijuu kyuu.

Source: O-DAN

5. The Additional Tips

In Japan, certain numbers are lucky and unlucky. It’s really important to know these numbers because if you don’t know them, you might accidentally tell someone that you wish them a slow, agonizing death when you give them omiyage (お土産, keepsake or souvenirs).

The Unlucky Numbers in Japanese

Now a few comments on the basic “1 to 10 in Japanese“. You probably noticed that 4, 7, and 9 each have two different readings. While in the Western world the number 13 is considered unlucky, the Japanese consider the numbers 4 and 9 unlucky because “Shi” [し] – 4 and “Ku” [く] – 9 sound the same as the words for “death” (死, shi) and “suffering, torment, or torture” (苦, ku).

Therefore, the Japanese avoid these unlucky words as much as possible. Some buildings, such as hospitals, don’t have fourth or ninth floors, although I personally have never seen one. Maternity wards may not have room 043 because it sounds like “shisan” (死産 – stillbirth).

The Lucky Numbers

As in many countries of the world, the number seven is considered lucky in Japan. This isn’t imported, but rooted in the country’s religious traditions. Seven is an important number in Buddhism. Japanese Buddhists celebrate the seventh day of a baby’s birth and mourn the seventh day after a person’s death when the soul is said to pass away.

Moreover, in Japanese folklore, there is the “Shichifukuin” (七福神 – the seven gods of happiness). “Tanabata” (七夕 – an evening of the seventh) is an important vacation in summer, celebrated on July 7 (7/7). The number seven also appears frequently in pachinko arcades and scratch cards.

Although somewhat less well-known, 8 is also a lucky number. This is due to its form –. It’s called “suehirogari” (末広がり) and brings good luck because it widens downward, suggesting prosperity and growth. Japanese people are very superstitious, which is why lucky and unlucky numbers are so important. You should never give someone four or nine of anything. Gifts are instead given in threes and fives.

Source: Photo by Antoine Dautry on Unsplash

Summarize

To sum up, this article, let’s review one more time the above information in the following points. Please take your note and share your thoughts in the comment column below!

  • Please note that the numbers 1, 3, 6, and 8 are conjugated differently for certain counters.
  • The Japanese number system is based on two types of pronunciations: “Chinese-Japanese readings” (On-yomi or “On-reading”), which are based on the Chinese numerals, and “native Japanese readings” (Kun-yomi or “Kun-reading”), which are based on the native Japanese words.
  • The Japanese counting system is somewhat complicated, but if you don’t know the counter for an item, you can use the “Hitotsu, Futatsu” [一つ、二つ] system to count your items to ten.
  • Japanese counting is changed based on objects, so when you use it, please be careful.
  • In Japan, 4 and 9 are unlucky numbers, so keep in mind if you use this in daily life, on the other hand, 7 and 8 have a good and important meaning in cultural aspects and are regarded as the lucky numbers for Japanese.

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About Yuri Sensei 25 Articles
I am Yuri. I have worked for several companies, involved in assisting foreigners and teaching Japanese. I have also worked in Vietnam, teaching Japanese. I would like to help students abroad and teach Japanese culture. My hobbies are traveling abroad and sports, like tennis. Following excitement and discovering new things inspires me a lot. My joy in life is to help people overseas so that I can pass on the charm of Japanese culture.