One of the harder parts of Japanese is all the counters. Unlike English, you can’t just tack a number onto the front of a noun (like “2 dogs”) and call it good. Different types of things have different ways of being counted in Japanese.
So, for instance, the way you count books is different than how you would count people. The way you count your age is different from how you count your year in school. The numbers are usually the same, but at the end, there’s something called a counter, a little word that lets you know what kind of thing is being counted.
Because there are so many, Japanese counters aren’t something that you learn all in one sitting. They might seem tough at first, but if you start to incorporate them little by little into your Japanese, you’ll have them memorized in no time.
Navigating the world of Japanese counters can be tricky, but there are some tips that you can use to steer around the hard parts.
- Sometimes the kanji for a particular counter will stay the same (like, for people, １人, ２人, ３人, etc.), but the pronunciation won’t. Be careful!
- The numbers 1, 6, and 8 are sometimes shortened. Instead of using their full, normal pronunciation – i.e. “ichi,” “roku,” and “hachi” – they’ll only use half - “i,” “ro,” and “ha.”
- The number 4, 7, and 9 all have two readings each. 4 can be read as either yon or shi, 7 is read as nana and shichi; and 9 is ku and kyu. Every once in a while, a counter will throw you a curve ball and give you the reading that you’re not used to, so keep your eyes out for that!
- You can tack the Japanese word for what, 何 (なん), onto the front of any counter to ask “how many?” For instance, saying 何人 means “how many people”,” 何歳 means “how old?,” and 何分 means “how many minutes?.”
Let’s look at some of the most common counters you’ll see in Japanese and how to use them:
To start out, I’m going to give you a bit of a shortcut. This is a counter you can use if you don’t know the proper counters for what you’re talking about. They’ll do in a pinch, but you should try to learn the proper counters for everything so you don’t sound lazy or uneducated.
Basically, these are used to count things… often things that don’t have counters or aren’t specified. How many do you have? Uh… let’s see… 三つあります (I have three of these things).
Number Of Times
Let’s start out nice and easy with the counter for the number of times you’ve done something. If you want to tell somebody how many times you’ve run around the track, been to a restaurant, or read through this guide, then just add on “kai” to the end of the number.
So, how many times have you visited Tofugu? Probably 10回 (ten times) or more, because you’re a fabulous looking reader of this blog, right?
The counter for people is “nin” but, in typical Japanese counter fashion, the first two are pronounced completely differently from the rest of the counters.
Don’t worry though, once you have those first two under your belt, the rest come naturally and easily. The first two really are just exceptions to the rule.
This keeps going on and on and on, until you have 百人 (ひゃくにん・100 people) and more (and so on). So, how many people are coming to your birthday party? ３人. Speaking of birthday parties…
Counting age is really easy. The counter for age is “sai,” so you just (for the most part) say the number, then add “sai” onto the end.
The only real exception is when you hit 20 years old. 20 is a special age in Japan, it’s when children officially come of age, and earn the right to (legally) vote, drink, and smoke. It’s such a special age that they get a fancy word for 20 years old: “hatachi.”
|１歳||いっさい||Issai||One year old|
|２歳||にさい||Nisai||Two years old|
|３歳||さんさい||Sansai||Three years old|
|４歳||よんさい||Yonsai||Four years old|
|５歳||ごさい||Gosai||Five years old|
|６歳||ろくさい||Rokusai||Six years old|
|７歳||ななさい||Nanasai||Seven years old|
|８歳||はっさい||Hassai||Eight years old|
|９歳||きゅうさい||Kyuusai||Nine years old|
|１０歳||じゅうさい||Juusai||Ten years old|
|２０歳||はたち||Hatachi||Twenty years old|
Other than that weird exception for 20, counting ages is pretty straight forward… that is, unless you’re talking to an old person, than they’ll say they’re ３９歳 until the day they die.
Days Of The Month
Counting days of the month is a little weird, especially the first ten days. There’s no real pattern for the first through the tenth, so you’ll pretty much have to just memorize them.
There are also a few other weird exceptions like 14 (juuyokka), 24 (nijuuyokka), and 20 (hatsuka).
But aside from those, counting the days after ten is pretty straight-forward. Just count normally and add on “nichi” to the end.
Do you know what day it is today?
Hours, unlike days of the month, are really easy. All you have to do is tack on “ji” at the end of the number and it’s magically transformed into an hour!
There are a few irregularities (of course) – 4 is “yo” instead of “yon” – but for the most part they make a lot of sense.
To round out our list of time counters, here are minutes. These are tricky, because they alternate between the counter “pun” and “fun.”
Fortunately for us, all we have to do is memorize the pattern of the first ten minutes because it repeats from eleven onward.
So, 14 would be pronounced じゅうよんぷん, 17 would be じゅうななふん, and so on. The patterns remain the same.
Long, Cylindrical Objects
Japanese counters can get oddly specific, too, referring to the way an object is shaped. In this case, it’s long, cylindrical objects like trees, pens, bottles, chopsticks, fingers, pencils, etc..
The counter is “hon,” but can also sometimes be “bon” or “pon.”
Strangely enough, 本 does not refer to actual books. That’s 冊. This is probably because “books” used to actually be “scrolls” which were, as I’m sure you know, long cylindrical objects. Everything makes a surprising amount of sense!
Flat, Thin Objects
For flat thin objects (like paper, cloth, tickets, sheets, shirts, etc.), you simply use the counter “mai.” That’s it! No exceptions, weird rules, or irregularities. Weird, huh?
Yes, even types of animals get their own counter. There are, as expected, some confusing exceptions to this counter – birds and rabbits don’t count as small animals and instead get their own, separate counter (“wa”).
The counter for small animals is “hiki,” but can be “piki” and “biki” too.
Figuring Out Exceptions
There are (as you’ve probably seen) a lot of exceptions. Believe it or not, though, there are a few patterns to all this madness. I’m not sure if learning the patterns is actually any faster than just learning the counters and exceptions, but just in case, here they are. The top row shows you what the counter would start with (for example, if H is there, it could be the counter ひき, which starts with an H sound). The first column is the numbers. Inside the table the most common exceptions are written. Even though there are multiple sounds within each section (for example, H has は, ひ, ふ, へ, and ほ), the example in the table will show the first one (は) and you’ll have to assume the rest.
There are tons more Japanese counters out there, but a lot of the time you can just get away with the first set you learned from this guide (一つ, 二つ, etc) if you don’t know the correct counter. Heck, most Japanese people don’t know all the counters (seriously, there’s a lot of them), so don’t feel bad if you don’t get them all. These are a lot of the most common ones, though, so we’d definitely recommend learning these first, before moving on to longer lists. We hope you enjoyed this guide. Check out the rest of our guides by clicking the button, below ↓