In most cases, the Japanese counter 羽 (わ/wa) counts something that's easy to identify: birds.
In most cases, the Japanese counter 羽 (わ/wa) counts something that's easy to identify: birds. The kanji 羽 means "wings," and while all birds have wings, 羽 is also used to count a few non-bird exceptions, including bats and rabbits. We'll talk about these details in a moment. Be aware, though, that plenty of things with wings don't get counted using 羽: flying insects, winged monsters, and flying dinosaurs, for example, are all counted with 匹 (ひき) or 頭 (とう).
- Counting with the Japanese Counter 羽
- The Things You Can Count with the Counter 羽
- Now You're Not Just WING-ing It
Counting with the Japanese Counter 羽
Before we get into the details of 羽, however, let's take a look at its pronunciation table so you can learn to count all those parrots you have living in your home!
Unlike some Japanese counters, the pronunciation for 羽 can be tricky, and occasionally downright strange. We'll go over some of the exceptional numbers below. (If you'd like a general explanation of counters and how to count with them, take a look at our handy Japanese Counters guide.)
3 Birds: さんわ vs さんば
Both さんわ and さんば are common. In the case of the idiom 三羽烏 (さんばがらす), meaning a "distinguished trio," the reading is always ば.
- I have three peacocks.
- Those three are called "the three most able persons in the Japanese learning resource world."
4 Birds: よわ vs よんわ vs よんば
While よんわ is the most common pronunciation, よんば is listed as the preferred reading in the NHK Accent Dictionary. It's unlikely you'll run into よわ, which is becoming archaic.
- Four baby chickens ran away.
- Somewhere in this painting, you'll see four penguins.
6 Birds: ろくわ vs ろっぱ
Both are correct, although ろくわ is more common.
- Six parakeets were chirping.
- There were six ravens looking down on us from the tree.
7 Birds: ななわ vs しちわ
Because the reading しちわ sounds a little like いちわ (１羽), it's more common to read ７羽 as ななわ. Both are technically correct, however.
- Seven chickens laid eggs.
- Seven beautiful flamingos were standing there.
8 Birds: はちわ vs はっぱ
Both are correct, but はちわ is more common.
- Eight canaries were for sale.
- Kyūbei has nine mynahs.
10 Birds: じゅうわ vs じゅっぱ vs じっぱ
All three are correct. じゅうわ is the most common, with じゅっぱ a close second. Still, newsreaders consider じっぱ the correct pronunciation of １０羽, so you may hear it during those news reports about ten birds.
- At the waterside, about ten ducks were playing around.
- There are ten hens in the henhouse.
- I used to raise ten quails.
100 Birds: ひゃくわ vs ひゃっぱ
While ひゃくわ is more common, newsreaders consider ひゃっぱ the correct pronunciation. In reports that talk about a hundred-plus birds, you may hear that pronunciation instead.
- More than a hundred seagulls were flying in the sky.
- I was surrounded by about a hundred albatrosses.
1,000 Birds: せんわ vs せんば
Both せんわ and せんば are common pronunciations, though newsreaders consider せんば to be correct. One thousand paper cranes—those origami birds you fold to aid in someone's recovery from an illness—uses this pronunciation. They're called 千羽鶴 (せんばづる) in Japanese.
- In the lake, there were a thousand swans.
- We made a thousand origami cranes.
10,000 Birds: いちまんわ vs いちまんば
いちまんば is more common than いちまんわ, though いちまんば is the one that's considered more correct.
- That was the Penguin Kingdom, where over ten thousand penguins live.
- It's said about ten thousand condors are living here.
How Many Birds?: なんわ Vs なんば
In asking about the number of birds somewhere, combine 何 with the counter 羽; the pronunciation can be either なんわ or なんば, though both are common.
- How many ducks are there?
- How many horned owls have you seen before?
The Things You Can Count with the Counter 羽
With these pronunciation exceptions addressed, let's talk about the uses for this counter. 羽 is the counter for birds. But 羽 is also used to count bats and rabbits. Bats, which are pretty bird-like, make sense. But… rabbits?
You can use the Japanese counter 羽 to count pretty much any kind of bird. Even birds that can't fly—as long as they're smaller, like penguins and kiwis—fit this category. (More about certain bigger flightless birds in a moment.)
- One pink-colored parrot escaped.
- There are three sparrows on the power line.
- There were ten geese on the edge of the lake.
Very, very big birds, like ostriches and emus, may be counted using the big animal counter 頭. And you would probably count Big Bird, the Sesame Street character, using the person counter 人 (にん/り), since he's a monster who's friendly to people.
Once a live bird turns into meat, the method of counting it changes.
Okay, so you can count (almost) any bird with 羽. But what about bird meat? It's technically still bird, right? There's nothing more 羽 than buffalo wings! (Buffaloes are counted with 頭, the big animal counter. 🙃)
Once a live bird turns into meat, the method of counting it changes. Take chicken, for example: small pieces of its meat, like chicken meatballs or chicken nuggets, are counted using the counter 個 (こ). Slices, if they're flat enough, may be counted with the flat-and-long things counter 枚 (まい). Drumsticks or wings, which can be stretched out to be long, might be counted with the long things counter 本 (ほん). If the chicken meat comes in a package, you'd probably count it using パック.
- I deep-fried thirty pieces of karaage.
- It says two slices of chicken breast for ¥298.
- I ate thirty-three chicken wings by myself!
Yet there's still one situation in which a once-live bird, now meat, is still counted using 羽. We'll give you a hint: think "Thanksgiving."
- I wonder, will the whole turkey fit in our oven?
That's right: when the chicken, duck, turkey, quail, or any other bird is considered to be meat but still whole, you continue to use 羽.
Bats aren't birds, but they still have wings. Remember the kanji: 羽. They too are counted with this counter. It makes sense!
- There are over a hundred bats in this cave.
Batman, on the other hand, would be counted with the 人 counter, most likely. The infamous Batman villain Man-Bat, however, would probably be counted with 匹—the animal/monster counter.
While we mentioned above that rabbits are counted with 羽, these days the small animal counter 匹 is more common. Still, you'll still see this done often enough that it's worth learning.
- We keep three rabbits at our school.
But hold on. They don't have wings, so why are rabbits included in the birds category? No one knows for sure. One theory is that back in the day, monks were allowed to eat birds but not other kinds of meat. They added rabbits to the bird category so that they could start eating these delicious, hopping meat-sacks.
Another theory is that someone somewhere thought a rabbit's ears looked like wings and put them on the 羽 list. While it's a little ridiculous, we actually prefer this theory, because 🐰🐰🐰 are cute and furry, and we don't want to think about them getting eaten. Whatever the reason, in the end, you'll just have to remember that even though they're wingless and flightless, rabbits are counted using 羽.
Now You're Not Just WING-ing It
And if this was your first counters experience, we suggest you read about the basics of Japanese counters, before heading 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. ↩