The Japanese counter 匹 (ひき/hiki) is generally described as the counter for "small or medium-sized animals." While this is mostly correct, we're going to go deeper so we can specify which animals get counted this way and which don't.
The Japanese counter 匹 (ひき) is generally described as the counter for "small or medium-sized animals."
According to the books How to Count Dictionary (数え方の辞典) and Become Friends with Japanese Counters (日本の助数詞に親しむ), years ago the kanji 匹 used to mean "pair." As for the counter 匹, perhaps it was referring to a pair of butt cheeks. If you unfocus your eyes, it kind of looks like a horse's butt, don't you think?
Although horses are no longer counted with 匹 (thanks to the addition of the 頭 counter), you can get an idea where this counter came from. Don't focus too much on the butts, though; 匹 can be used to count plenty of animals that lack a 匹-shaped derrière!
- Pronunciation of Japanese Counter 匹
- How to Use the Japanese Counter 匹
- Fish and Sea Animals
- Creatures, Characters, or Something That's Animal-like
- We're Counting on You!
Prerequisite: If you're completely new to Japanese counters, we recommend you learn the basics first. Make sure you know how to read hiragana and katakana. We'll mention the "kango/wago/gairaigo counting method," and you can learn about all three of these Japanese numbering systems in our Counting in Japanese article. Knowing the kanji for numbers will help, too. In our example sentences and explanations, we equally use Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3) and Japanese kanji (一, 二, 三), since both are quite common in Japanese.
Pronunciation of Japanese Counter 匹
Before we learn about the birds and the bugs, let's take a look at the table below to learn how to count with this counter.
|How many 匹||何匹||なんびき|
Follow the chart to see how each number's pronunciation changes. Because 匹 has an h-sound, it's plenty likely to rendaku on you. Remember that you can always check out our Japanese Counters Guide for a big-picture explanation on how to read counters.
How to Use the Japanese Counter 匹
So: 匹. How do you use it? We've broken it down into two main categories: animals and animal-like things, including monsters, robots, and hybrid creatures. It gets a little weird, but it's a lot of fun, too!
Small to Medium-Sized Animals
Think of it this way: if the animal can be lifted by an adult person, you can probably count it using 匹. Most dogs, cats, monkeys, opossums, raccoons, mice, small pigs, hedgehogs, sheep, and so on.
- There are thirty-six squirrels in this zoo.
- Koichi has one cat and one dog.
- I played with several hundred sheep on an English mountain.
With such broad rules, there are going to be exceptions. Very big, strong-looking, or professional job-holding dogs are counted not with 匹 but with the large animal counter 頭 (とう) instead. Rabbits are counted using 羽 (わ). The explanation for this is a bit long, so if you want to know why, please read our article on the counter 羽 (coming soon).
- There are two police dogs over there.
- I caught three rabbits.
What about much, much smaller animals like… bacteria? They're easy to lift, even if you're not an adult. Yet individual bacteria are counted using 個 (こ); a colony of bacteria (a culture, say) is counted with 株 (かぶ).
- In the microscope I counted about 6,000 bacteria.
Be aware that some 匹-counted animals can make their way into the 人 (person) counter category (coming soon). If they are considered a part of the family, dogs, cats, and other pets can be counted with 人. Smarter animals like chimpanzees are often counted with 人, too, by their handlers and researchers.
- My family increased by one.
- There are two chimpanzees in this laboratory.
It's all a matter of perspective.
Fish and Sea Animals
Don't just think of animals in terms of mammals other and land-dwellers. You can also use 匹 to count fish and other active sea creatures: octopi, shrimp, crabs and hermit crabs, salmon, tuna, haddock, jellyfish, and other water beings. Sea animals that don't really move—starfish, clams, sea cucumbers, mussels, oysters, geoducks—are counted using 個 or other counters, depending on their shape.
- I'd like five goldfish.
- I have ten jellyfish.
- I had Aya draw three octopi for me.
You can also use 匹 to count fish and other active sea creatures.
When you catch one of these 匹-counted fish, however, their counter is likely to start changing. Once captured, sea animals with tails—fish, shrimp, lobsters—get counted using 尾 (び). If they're long and cylindrical-shaped—tuna, yellowtail, bonito, saury pike—they're counted with 本 (ほん). Crabs would be counted using 杯 (はい), and if the sea creature is flat—flounders, flat clams, or even not-flat fish that have been filleted to become flat—they are counted with 枚.
If you'd like your mind blown, consider this: unagi (eel) is counted with 匹 when it's alive, 尾 once it's captured, 本 or 枚 when it's cut open, 串 (くし) when it's skewered, and 切れ (きれ) when it's sliced; then, when those pieces are beautifully arranged for eating, it's counted using 段 (だん) and, when packaged, using パック. 😖
- There were seven tuna swimming in the ocean.
- We caught two tunas today.
- How many eels are there in this lake?
- We bought fifty eels from a farm.
- Can you give me three skewered eels?
What about our Tofugu mascot? It's a living sea creature (we think), so you would count it with 匹. Our very own Crabigator over at WaniKani would be counted with 匹 too, though if she's really big, I'd suggest using 頭.
- One WaniKani ran away!
Actually, great big tuna are sometimes counted with 頭 as well, even after they've been caught by fishermen.
Reptiles and Amphibians
All reptiles and amphibians are counted with 匹. Lizards, snakes, frogs…
- There were two snakes in the toilet.
- I lost a lizard around here.
- Eight tadpoles became frogs.
Really big lizards, like Komodo dragons and alligators, may be counted using 頭. Otherwise, there's not much to say about this category.
We'll talk about the biggest lizards of all in just a moment.
All kinds of bugs are counted with 匹. Praying mantises, mosquitoes, beetles, flies, gnats, worms, caterpillars, ladybugs, potato bugs, and so on.
- I wonder how many cockroaches there are in this room.
- I caught six potato bugs.
- I killed ten mosquitoes at the same time.
In the academic world, butterflies are counted with 頭.
Did you notice an exception? In the academic world, butterflies are counted with 頭. Perhaps this is because 頭 was always used for "heads of cattle." Collecting butterflies for academic purposes is a little like collecting the "heads of butterflies." This became general use for a while, but nowadays everyday people use 匹 to count butterflies, too. You'll still see 頭 used for butterflies and other insects in museums.
- There are three hundred thirty-three butterflies in this museum.
- Mom, look! There are two butterflies over there.
Creatures, Characters, or Something That's Animal-like
Still with us? You have animals, and then you have things that are animal-like. You know, teenagers, robots, monsters… things like that. We're going to try to cover them here, though there are so many different things that it's difficult to classify them all.
If a person is animal-like, they may be counted with 匹. Think about taking your two-year-old to a fancy restaurant. 😱
- We have two kids, so it'll be difficult to go to a French restaurant.
匹 isn't just used for little kids, though. No matter what their age, if you want to say a person is animal-like, whether seriously or as a joke, count them using 匹.
- What the heck are you three middle-aged men doing out here?
Beyond that, you can also use it for truly wild people. Think Mowgli from The Jungle Book. Tarzan. George of the Jungle. There are plenty of stories like this, and 匹 could be used to count all of them.
Animal robots are counted with 匹, too, with these exceptions: if you want to emphasize their machine aspect, you might use 台; or, if you want to treat them like a person or a member of you family, you might use 人 instead.
(From a historical perspective, that's a pretty strange paragraph if you think about it.)
- We have a Sony Aibo.
Virtual Pets / Animals
Virtual animal-pets you "take care of" on your computer, tablet, or smartphone are counted using 匹, too. Here we're talking about those little digital Tamagotchis.
- I made my Oyajitchi Tamagotchi die, even though I'd worked hard to raise it.
Oddly, computer viruses are counted with 匹.
- There are a few viruses infecting this computer.
I suppose this is a little like counting bacteria with 匹, so maybe it's not so odd after all.
Animal-like Characters and Monsters
In a traditional fantasy book, elves and dwarves would be counted with 人, whereas orcs, ogres, and goblins may be counted with 匹.
This is where things get interesting. Fantasy creatures, particularly evil ones, are counted using 匹. The rule of thumb is that when they're more animal than human, they are counted as animals. Think oni (demons) and the like.
But when a monster or creature is friendly to humans, or when they are more human-like, they may be counted with 人. In a traditional fantasy book, elves and dwarves would be counted with 人, whereas orcs, ogres, and goblins may be counted with 匹. An orc that is friendly toward humans, however, may change to 人.
- I had a dream that I was Snow White and lived with seven dwarves.
- There are seven bad orcs living in the mountain.
What about a hybrid—a creature that's half-human and half-animal, like a mermaid or centaur? Because they're considered to be generally friendly to humans, they get counted with 人.
- Two werewolves ran that way!
- Three beautiful mermaids were playing on the surface of the lake.
Giant monsters like Godzilla are counted with 匹 instead of 頭, as are the Titans in Attack on Titan.
- Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan: the three of them got together and were finally able to defeat King Ghidorah.
To sum up, monsters and creatures without human-like features are counted with 匹. Hybrid creatures can be counted using 人 if they're friendly to humans, and 匹 if they're not.
We're Counting on You!
And that's it! I hope this lesson has given you a better idea of how the Japanese counter 匹 works (and doesn't). Don't worry, though—even if you get your counter wrong, people will understand. If it's animal-like, and you use 匹, you can't be far off the mark.
You've probably had your fill of counters for now, but you'll be hungry later. And when that time comes, we recommend you check out some of the other "deep dives" we've done: 枚, 頭, and 〜つ are solid choices.
And if this was your first counters experience, we suggest you read about the basics of Japanese counters, and then head on over to the big Japanese counters study list we put together, which also has links to every in-depth counters article we've written up to this point. Count on, child! 🔢
Cells with multiple entries divided by a
/indicate multiple pronunciations that are equally common. Cells with entries in parentheses indicate that the parenthesized word is an uncommon or archaic pronunciation. ↩