if an adult person would have a difficult time picking up the animal, there's a good chance you can count it using 頭.
The Japanese counter 頭 (とう/tou) is usually described as "the counter for big animals." This includes horses, cows, elephants, and even big lizards. Its counterpart, the small-to-medium-sized animal counter 匹, overlaps with 頭 slightly; this article will help you to learn more precisely how it applies.
And yet… 頭 is the kanji for "head." Why then is 頭 used to count big animals? To answer that, we need only step back in time to the Meiji period, when Western ways were gaining influence in Japan. Westerners referred to cattle as "heads of cattle." From there, usage spread to other large (non-cattle) animals.
- Pronunciation of Japanese Counter 頭
- Large-Sized Animals (Mammals)
- Large Fish
- Large Reptiles & Amphibians
- Large Birds
- Professional Dogs
- Experimental Subjects
- Animals in Facilities
- Now You Tō-tally Know How to Count with 頭
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 頭
Before heading into what 頭 counts, though, let's learn the correct pronunciation for this counter.
Because 頭 has a t- sound, the pronunciations of 1, 8, and 10 aren't completely straightforward. Be careful of this, and don't forget you can always study the general counting rules in our Japanese Counters Guide.
Large-Sized Animals (Mammals)
Here's the easiest way to determine if 頭 is used: if an adult person would have a difficult time picking up the animal, there's a good chance you can count it using 頭—this means horses, cows, bears, elephants, and even whales. What about dolphins? Dolphins aren't that big, and you could probably pick one up. Nevertheless, dolphins get grouped with whales and are therefore counted with 頭. 🐬 🐬 🐬
- On this farm there are eight horses.
- My uncle keeps two cows at his house.
- There are three polar bears in this zoo.
- We observed one whale and a group of about thirty dolphins.
There are exceptions, of course. Certain smaller animals are also counted with 頭, but generally they're creatures that are raised for consumption, like pigs or sheep. Again, this harkens back to the history of animals referred to as "heads."
- I bought a whole sheep.
- Lechon is a Filipino dish where you roast a whole pig on charcoal.
As for other smaller animals, certain big, strong, or aggressive-looking dogs may also be counted with 頭. We'll talk more about this in the "professional dogs" category in a moment, but it's worth mentioning here.
- That house has four Dobermans running free in their yard.
Regular fish are usually counted with 匹, although some people count big fish such as whale sharks or orcas using 頭.
- There was a huge whale shark over there.
Regular fish are usually counted with 匹, although some people count big fish such as whale sharks or orcas using 頭.
As they might for other edible mammals, some people use 頭 to emphasize the size of a big, whole fish, such as a tuna, although in cases like these, the counter 本 will be used most often.
Consider this: when it's alive, a tuna is usually counted with 匹. When captured, it's counted with 尾, 本, or 頭. When the head is cut off, it's counted with ドレス (the "-less" of "headless"). As the fish gets cut into smaller and smaller pieces, its counter continues to change. But we'll refrain from those details for now, because what we're teaching you is 頭!
Are you understanding how complicated this is yet?
- At the bottom of the tranquil ocean, there were three tuna brothers living together.
- We are going to hold a whole tuna filleting event this Sunday.
- This izakaya buys whole tuna and serves them, so the price is reasonable.
Large Reptiles & Amphibians
Large reptiles and amphibians can also be counted with 頭, including crocodiles, alligators, monitor lizards, dinosaurs, and so on.
- I drew an illustration where two dinosaurs and Tofugu were playing together.
- How many alligators are there in Banana Wani?
Although turtles and tortoises aren't necessarily very big, they can also be counted with 頭. Amphibians in general can be counted with either 匹 or 頭. If you feel like they're on the smaller side, go with 匹. If you feel like they're pretty big, go with 頭, even if you can technically pick them up. Don't stress out about it too much; counting these creatures often goes either way.
- I heard that Viet keeps one monitor lizard as his pet.
- I saw two alligator snapping turtles in that pond.
- Two alligator snapping turtles were captured in this pond last week.
It's rare, but there are times when large birds get counted with 頭. Think of ostriches or emus.
- I took a photo of seven ostriches running.
As for the question on everybody's mind: would Sesame Street's Big Bird be counted with 頭? We would say no, as Big Bird is a friend of humans and can talk. That means he'd be counted with the person counter 人, despite basically being a (very friendly large yellow) monster, which can be counted with 匹.
Even if they are very small, professional, job-holding dogs trained by humans—police dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, guide dogs, or rescue dogs—are usually counted with 頭.
- Three Chihuahuas are working hard as police dogs.
- I saw one Shiba Inu at the airport, but it seems it was a drug-sniffing dog.
- This year, five Labrador Retrievers from this school became guide dogs.
In theory, other "professional animals" would be counted with 頭, too—a drug-sniffing chimpanzee or mouse, for example.
Animals that are being experimented upon have a "job" and are "professionals," in a way.
Even though you can probably easily pick most of them up, animals like lab rats who are the subjects of experimentation are counted with 頭, even if they're small. Think of this as an extension of "professional animals": even though they didn't sign up for it, animals that are being experimented upon have a "job" and are "professionals," in a way.
- Twenty rats were used for this experiment.
Rare / Valuable Animals and Insects
Rare or valuable animals can be counted with 頭, too, regardless of size. Endangered animals like the golden hamster, or expensive insects like the stag beetle are counted this way.
- Four wolves in danger of extinction were caught for protection.
- I caught three rare insects.
- This beetle is very valuable, so it's traded at ¥22,000 per beetle.
To emphasize how valuable and rare their stock is, pet shops in Japan tend to count everything with 頭. It makes things seem more fancy, even if you're only buying a common gerbil.
For the most part, insects are counted with 匹. In an academic setting, however, they're done so using 頭. Think of it like insects on display in a museum, or being used in a classroom for study: these bugs are "professional job-holding" bugs, although their job is to be dead and to be studied. 🐞
- 3,000 insects are stored in this insect museum.
- There are four butterflies painted on this hanging scroll.
- In this room, fifteen specimens of Dorcus antaeus are on display.
This academic usage of 頭 actually expanded to normal-life use for a while. People once counted butterflies using 頭, though this particular use has become archaic. These days, we'd recommend using 匹 for living and non-academic butterflies.
Harmful Animals and Insects
When an insect or animal is harmful to humans, it can be counted with 頭, regardless of size. Here's an example: you count regular beetles using 匹; if you're a farmer, however, and a swarm of them arrives and eats all your corn, you'd count them with 頭. The 頭 here emphasizes the harm the animal is causing.
- We caught a hundred Japanese beetle grubs that eat rose roots.
- We exterminated four wild boars that messed up our field.
Although the category overlaps with several others, farm animals, and even farm insects like silkworms, are generally counted with 頭. This is especially true when they are listed in an official report. This is another example of "professional animals with jobs." Whether it's to be eaten, produce wool or silk, or provide milk, they have a job to do!
- Mami has two pigs in her backyard.
- It was reported that 450 of the 2,020 pigs in a Canadian piggery have been infected by a new type of virus.
- The government announced that they will pay $100 per pig to the pig farmers as compensation.
- On this farm, forty-eight mother sheep are expected to give birth this year.
- I heard that my grandpa's cocoonery used to have over a thousand silkworms.
That said, there will be times when these kinds of animals can be counted with 匹 as well.
- It seems two sheep strayed from the flock.
- Five baby pigs were sleeping soundly beside the mother pig.
Animals in Facilities
Like farm animals, other animals kept in facilities tend to be counted with 頭. For example, the zookeepers of the Ueno Zoo count every kind of animal there with 頭, regardless of size. Iida Asako, the author of the book 日本の助数詞に親しむ, interviewed one of the zookeepers to ask him why. He didn't know why this was the case. The only animals he could think of that are counted with 匹 were the grasshoppers used to feed the iguanas.
- It seems at least 300 wild chimpanzees are living on this mountain.
- One new male chimpanzee and four new female chimpanzees are coming to this zoo.
- In this center, about 20% of the 148 monkeys are suffering from allergies.
- The Japan Monkey Center raises and displays about 800 monkeys.
Now You Tō-tally Know How to Count with 頭
How would you count Crabigator, our WaniKani mascot? Even we're not 100% sure!
That's all the categories for counting with 頭. A quick review: 頭 is used to count not only big animals but professional animals as well, although the definition of "professional" gets stretched sometimes. Some exceptions outside those two broad categories exist, including rare animals and insects and animals that cause humans harm.
In considering the gray areas between the Japanese counters 頭 and 匹, both can be valid, so don't worry about it too much. Just be sure to read about 匹 too, so you can make an educated guess.
For example, how would you count Crabigator, our WaniKani mascot? Even we're not 100% sure! We have to consider things like, "How big is it?" as well as, "Is it rare, valuable, or harmful to humans?" With those questions in mind, we would have to lean towards 頭. Crabigator is quite large, rare, valuable, and harmful to humans (at least those humans who don't want to learn kanji). By thinking through these kinds of questions, you'll be more likely to guess whether 頭 or 匹 is the right counter to use. Sometimes your answer will be: "Why not both?"
And with that, we bet you're pretty full of counter knowledge for now (you have to take time to let it all digest in your brain). But next time you're hungry for counters, we've got you covered: 台, 個, and 〜つ are some of the other "deep dives" we've written.
And if this was your first counters experience, we suggest you read about the basics of Japanese counters, and then head 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.
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. ↩