The kanji 人 means "person," and the Japanese counter 人 is used to count people. And although there are some exceptions—including very smart animals, pets, and "monsters" that are friendly to humans—we'll talk about those later. Most of your use of 人 will be related to good old homo sapiens.
- Counting with the Japanese Counter 人
- Portions of Food
- Smart Animals
- "Family Members"
- Human-Like Creatures, Friends of Humans
- Oh, the Humanity!
Counting with the Japanese Counter 人
Before you get into it, though, take a few moments to learn the pronunciation of 人 when it's used as a counter. It's a bit tricky, since it uses a mix of the wago and kango counting methods. The chart below and the notes that follow can help you.
|how many people||何人||なんにん|
The number 9 can be read either as く or きゅう, though きゅう is more common.
For one person and two people, we use the wago pronunciation for both number and counter. These come up a lot, so it's best just to memorize them. Three or more people are counted with the kango pronunciation. The only exceptions to this happen in a few very remote and rural areas in Japan, where pockets of citizens still use みたり for ３人 and よったり for ４人. But it's unlikely that you'll run into them in your travels.
But there are other oddities. With most counters, you read 4 as よん, but 人 is an oddball and ４人 is read よにん—with no ん. Even though the しち reading of a 7+counter is correct, people prefer the なな reading because of the potential confusion between いち and しち. But since 一人 is read ひとり, not いちにん, that's not a problem for 人. Still, many people these days are using the less common ななにん, because of the trend toward using なな in 7+counters overall.
Finally, the number 9 can be read either as く or きゅう, though きゅう is more common.
That should do it for the odd pronunciation exceptions. Let's find out what 人 counts, starting with its most common use: people!
"People" can be many things, of course: a woman, a man, a sister, a brother, a friend, an actor, an audience member, a baseball player, and so on. As long as they're people, they can be counted using 人.
- How many siblings do you have?
- Tofugu has about ten staff members.
- There was only one participant.
You can also use 人 to count things that belong to people: their shadows, their footprints, their pets—whatever is theirs!
- I could see three people's shadows.
- The fingerprints of two people were left there.
- There were four people's kiss marks on Koichi's shirt.
A More Polite People Counter
The Japanese counter 人 is fine for counting people. If you wanted to be more formal or polite, though, be aware that the counter 名 (めい) or 方 (かた) is sometimes preferred in certain contexts. You may walk into a restaurant and the host will ask, 何名様ですか?—essentially, "how many 名s?" If you are asked this, you would typically reply using the same counter: 一名 or 二名!
- A reservation for how many people?
- For five people? Understood.
- It seems like one more person is coming later.
If you want to know more about these not-quite-人 kinds of counters, you can find them as part of our big counter list.
Portions of Food
If the counter 人 is combined with the suffix 前 (まえ), it's used to count food portions. 一人前, for example, is one portion of food.
(Just a note: 一人前 and 二人前 both use the kango pronunciations, making them いちにんまえ and ににんまえ, not ひとりまえ and ふたりまえ.)
- Can we get two portions of edamame, please?
- The two of us split a one-person portion of curry.
- Did you really eat a seven-person portion of sushi all by yourself?
- Can we order one and a half portions of it?
The term 一人前 is actually used as an idiom, too. In this case, it means "grown-up," "adult," or "full-fledged."
- You are a grown-up now, so act your age.
- Thomas the Tank Engine said to me, "I'll make a man out of you!"
What's the difference between humans and animals? Not much, really. A few strands of DNA. And yet we like to believe that we're smarter. In terms of counters, when you're referring to a smart animal, like one who is specially trained or who lives in a research facility, they are usually counted with 人 rather than with the more typical animal counters 匹 (ひき) or 頭 (とう).
- Three chimpanzees are living in this research center.
The opposite is true, too: in Japanese, you can imply that you're downgrading certain humans to the level of an animal by counting them using 匹 instead. Whether you're referring to a child who was (actually) raised by wolves or just one that causes a lot of trouble, you can count him—or her—using the animal/monster counter 匹.
- Three brutes are living in that cave.
- We have two little rascals, so we can't go to a fancy restaurant.
- We got a new family member who is a miniature dachshund.
"Family Member" is in quotes here because we're not talking about your mother, your father, your uncle, or even your second-cousin. We're talking about that furry four-legged companion that lives in your house, the one whom you give kisses and treats to every day. That family member.
When a beloved pet crosses the line from being just an animal to being a part of the family, they can get counted using the 人 counter—in other words, just like your Auntie Melinda. And your sweet, adorable smooshy-wooshy-pie is probably way more human than she is, right? 🐶
- We got a new family member who is a miniature dachshund.
- I'm going on a trip alone with my dog.
Human-Like Creatures, Friends of Humans
In Lord of the Rings, you'll find a lot of non-humans: elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, and the like. Along with other human-like creatures such as mermaids, mermen, centaurs, angels, aliens, and so forth, these kinds of "monsters" all get counted with 人. This is as long as they're on Team Human™—by which we mean (generally) friendly to us homo sapiens.
- I met two fairies in the park.
- Do you remember all the names of the Seven Dwarves?
- In this class, there is an angel who is like a devil.
- I was attacked by five centaurs.
Cases in which the human-like creature is generally known to be unfriendly to humans—a Japanese ogre (oni), for example—are typically counted using the animal/monster counter 匹. And yet if one of these oni should decide to love us humans and not destroy us—as onis are wont to do—they may earn the 人 counter. It's a bit of a gray area, although the creature's loyalties and motives will tell you a lot. Study them carefully! And remember that you can always change your 人 to a 匹 (or back again) to emphasize how human (or un-human) you think they are. 👦🏻 ➡️ 👹
Oh, the Humanity!
Congratulations! You are now a 一人前 (full-fledged) graduate of the Japanese counter 人 basics! Next time you read Lord of the Rings, just think, "Would I count orcs with 人 or 匹?" (And then follow it up with, "Hmmm… does that make me a little bit racist?") Ouch! Japanese J.R.R. Tolkien knows how to hit us where it hurts.
And if you're new to this whole counters deal, we recommend you learn the basics of Japanese counters, and then scroll through our massive study list of Japanese counters, which can take you to all the counters we've written about in-depth.
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. ↩