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Ages in Japanese - How to Say Years Old in Japanese

Sunday, April 2, 2017
Words related to ages, people's ages, in Japanese are tricky ones. This is because for every single word there seems to be a very similar word which is the wrong on. Even the phrase "years old" in English doesn't translate word-per-word to Japanese.

Index:

If you tried to translate it word-per-word, you'd first need the word for "years" in Japanese. Like "20 years" which would be ni jyuu nen 20年. That, that nen, is a Japanese counter, and it goes without saying you'd need to know the numbers in Japanese to use it.

After that, watashi wa nijyuu nen 私は20年 would be "I'm 20 years." Since I'm sure you aren't a length of time worth 2 decades, that would be the wrong way to say it. We want to say "years old" so we need a word for that "old."

However, Japanese doesn't work that way. You can just say "X years" and suffix a word for "old" and have "years old." Instead, you use the sai 歳 counter, which counts years of age specifically. That is, nen 年 counts "years," and sai 歳 counts "years old".

So, to say "I am 20 years old" in Japanese, you'd say watashi wa ni jyuu sai 私は20歳. Except not, because the readings of the kanji get glued together, so it'd become nijyussai にじゅっさい or nijissai にじっさい instead. Except that that, too, would be the wrong way. Because the correct word for "20 years old" in Japanese is hatachi 20歳.

Counting Years Old

I'll admit it. This is confusing. Basically, every single other age is read normally, see:
  1. issai 一歳
    One year old
  2. nisai 二歳
    Two years old
  3. sansai 三歳
    Three years old.
  4. yonsai 四歳
    Four years old.
  5. gosai 五歳
    Five years old.
  6. rokusai 六歳
    Six years old.
  7. nanasai 七歳
    Seven years old.
  8. hassai 八歳
    Eight years old.
  9. kyuusai 九歳
    Nine years old.
  10. jyussai 十歳
    Ten years old.
  11. jyuu issai 十一歳
    Eleven years old.
  12. jyuu nisai 十二歳
    Twelve years old.
  13. jyuu sansai十三歳
    Thirteen years old.
  14. jyuu yonsai 十四歳
    Fourteen years old.
  15. jyuu gosai 十五歳
    Fifteen years old.
  16. jyuu rokusai 十六歳
    Sixteen years old.
  17. jyuu nanasai 十七歳
    Seventeen years old.
  18. jyuu hassai 十八歳
    Eighteen years old.
  19. jyuu kyuusai 十九歳
    Nineteen years old.

(as a matter of fact, zerosai ゼロ歳 would be "zero years old," but you probably won't find this word unless you are reading Saiki Kusuo no Psi-Nan 斉木楠雄のΨ難)

Hatachi 二十歳

But then, when it gets to 20, it's not ni jyussai 二十歳, as one would expect, but hatachi 二十歳 which is totally different.

This is a "special kanji reading," or jyukujikun 熟字訓, and it happened because the archaic word hata meaning "twenty (not specifically years old)" was used with the also archaic chi suffix centuries ago, before the introduction of kanji in Japan. So it kind of stuck. (source: 20歳はなぜ「はたち」)

From there on, the readings get normal again.
  • nijyuu issai 二十一歳
    Twenty one years old.
  • nijyuu nisai 二十二歳
    Twenty two years old.
  • nijyuu sansai 二十三歳
    Twenty three years old.
  • san jyussai 三十歳
    Thirty years old.
  • yon jyussai 四十歳
    Forty years old.
  • go jyussai 五十歳
    Fifty years old.
  • roku jyussai 六十歳
    Sixty years old.
  • hyakusai 百歳
    One hundred years old

Sai 歳 vs. Sai

Now, I'm pretty sure when you looked at the sai 歳 kanji you thought: "how the ******* **** do you even write this thing?!" And you're right, it's a difficult kanji.

Which is why sometimes a simpler kanji, sai 才, is used in its place. Like this: jyuu hassai 18才, "eighteen years old" instead of jyuu hassai 18歳.

The kanji for age: 歳 and 才. Both have the same reading, sai, but one is easier to write having only 3 strokes compared to 13 strokes.

In this case, the difference between 歳 and 才 is exactly none. They are interchangeable. This is mostly because 歳 is taught in high-school while 才 is taught years earlier, meaning that when a middle-school student needs to write down his age he may not know the complex 13-stroke 歳 kanji but he may know the simpler 3-stroke 才 kanji which has the same reading, so that one ends up being used instead. In every other situation, you can't replace 歳 with 才.

Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties

Sometimes ages are not referred to as exact but as classes of ten. You don't say "there's something you have to learn by your 30th birthday," you say "there's something you have to learn by twenties." In Japanese, this is said by using another counter, the one for "eras" (seriously), "generations" or "reigns:" dai 代.
  • jyuu dai 10代
    Tens
  • nijyuu dai 20代
    Twenties
  • sanjyuu dai 30代
    Thirties
  • yonjyuu dai 40代
    Forties
  • gojyuu dai 50代
    Fifties

And so on.

Do note that because this counter is meant for eras, it isn't necessarily always about ages like above. For example, in Naruto ナルト, the "Third Hokage" would be san-dai-me hokage 三代目火影. Literally "Third Generation Hokage." The words above can't be used for random things either, only for years. You can't say "tens of things" or something alike with them.

Another way to refer to tens of years would be the soji 十路 words: futasoji 二十路, misoji 三十路, yosoji 四十路, isoji 五十路, etc. These represent the ages twenty, thirty, forty and fifty respectively.

Words For Age in Japanese

Now we know how to say "years old" in Japanese, but how do you say "age"?

It depends.

The most literal way to say "age" (of people) is nenrei 年齢, but toshi 年 also may mean someone's age in some cases. Do note that these words use the kanji for "years" (年) and not the one for "age" (歳), which only adds to the confusion.

Also note that toshi 年 can mean just "year," as in any year. The word kotoshi 今年 means "this (current) year" for example. To avoid ambiguity, some authors will use the kanji for "age" with the toshi reading when they mean the age and not the year: toshi 歳.

In English, though we may not notice it, the word "age" has multiple different meanings. Most of the time it's about someone's age, but when it's not, the word in Japanese becomes different. For example, jidai 時代 refers to a given span of the world's age. A certain time. For example:
  • kaizoku no jidai 海賊の時代
    Age of pirates
  • mukashi wa souiu jidai dattanda 昔はそういう時代だったんだ
    In the past it was that kind of age. (where that kind of stuff was normal)

Aging and Getting Old

The word toshi 年 is also part of other words about age, specifically about aging.

First off, to say someone's older or younger than someone else, that is, an "elder" or a "junior" to him, the toshi word is used in combination with the up and down directions in Japanese to create toshiue 年上 and toshishita 年下, literally "year above" (elder) and "year below" (junior). This is slightly different from senpai 先輩 and kouhai 後輩 as it deals strictly with age.

Normally, to say respect your "elders," relatively, you'd use toshiue, however, in some cases, specially in games, an absolute "elder" is used instead. "The elder of the village," for example. In this case, the word would be roujin 老人, literally an "old person."

In verbs, oiru 老いる means to "grow old" and so does the phrase toshi wo toru 年を取る, although it may sound kind of funny because the latter literally says "pick years" (then again, English has "get old"). These two verbs can also be used as adjectives when conjugated to the past: oita hito 老いた人 and toshi wo totta hito 年を取った人 meaning "old people" or, more literally, "people who have gotten old."

It's important to note that there's no simple adjective word that means "old" in Japanese for people. The word furui 古い is an adjective, it means "old," but you can't use it with people, because it means some thing is old. Old clothes, old house, old words, etc. It isn't used to talk about the age of people.

However, for some reason, there are adjective word to say "young" in Japanese. And not just one of them, either. First there's wakai 若い, literally "young." A wakai hito 若い人 is a "young person," there's also wakamono 若者, same thing. Then, there the adjective osanai 幼い, which means "very young," younger than wakai, and found in that famous osananajimi 幼なじみ word, which means "childhood friend," the kind of trope character that always does something in the plot.

Asking Someone's Age in Japanese

Finally, about asking someone's age, there are a couple ways to go about it.

First off, in English we say "how old are you?" This is an adjective-measuring question, like saying "how tall is that building?" or "how fast is an unladen swallow?" In Japanese, something like that isn't used and instead you'd ask how many years of age does a person have. See:
  • toshi wa ikutsu desu ka? 歳はいくつですか?
    otoshi wa ikutsu desu ka? お歳はいくつですか?
    How old are you?

(note: the o prefix is usually used when talking about things of other people. In this case, of their age)

In the phrase above, we ask directly about the "years of age" of a person. A variation of this uses the person itself as the grammatical topic. See:
  • anata wa ikutsu desu ka? あなたはいくつですか?
    How old are you? (literary: how many are you?)
  • kare wa ikutsu des uka? 彼はいくつですか?
    How old is he?
  • kanojo wa ikutsu desu ka? 彼女はいくつですか?
    How old is she?

Another variation of this uses no topic at all. Just an o prefixed ikutsu.
  • oikutsu desu ka? おいくつですか?
    How old are you?

There must be a hundred ways to use this word to say the exact same thing You can use da instead of desu ka, drop the topic particle, use a different pronoun, etc. The ikutsu alone stays the same.

Part about 106 year old elf in Drifters manga. omae toshi ikutsu da, How old are you, hyakuroku sai dakedo, 106 years old

Another way of asking someone's age in Japanese is using a counter question through the sai 歳 counter, the same way it would be done with any other counter. For example:
  • anata wa nansai desu ka? あなたは何歳ですか?
    How old are you? (literary: how many years old are you?)
  • kare wa nansai desu ka? 彼は何歳ですか?
    How old is he?

Note: anata あなた, "you," or whoever it may be, is often omitted in speech and inferred from context. So nansai desu ka? 何歳ですか is a valid phrase in certain contexts even though it sounds like someone's just saying "how old?"

How Old Will You Be?

Sometimes, specially when people talk about their "birthdays," tanjoubi 誕生日, the talk shifts from how old they are right now to how old are they going to be after their special day. In this case, the verb "to become," naru なる, is often used to ask future questions.
  • kotoshi de oikutsu ni narundesuka? 今年でおいくつになるんですか?
    How old are [you] going to be this year?

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