Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Counting in Japanese

Have you ever wondered how do anime characters count things in Japanese? How do these Japanese numbers work and everything else? It all starts with ichi 一, ni 二, san 三, right? Or was it hitotsu 一つ, futatsu 二つ and mittsu 三つ? What's the difference? Is there a difference?? What do these words really mean?! How do you even count in Japanese???

Counting to 10 in Japanese

To begin with, let's see how you count all the numbers all the way to 10 in Japanese. That's pretty easy, take a look:
  1. ichi
  2. ni
  3. san
  4. yon
  5. go
  6. roku
  7. nana
  8. hachi
  9. kyuu
  10. juu
By the way, "to count" in Japanese is kazoeru 数える. A "number" is kazu 数. A digit is suuji 数字. And the study of "mathematics" is suugaku 数学.

This article is only about counting things, not about the numbers used to count. If you want to know more about the numbers, see the article about numbers in Japanese.

Counting Numbers vs. Counting Things

Anyway, now that you know how to count to 10 in Japanese you can start counting things, right?


What you have learned just now is how to count to 10... in numbers. Like when you say "one, two, three," etc. You don't count things in Japanese those words.
  • futatsu yaranakereba naranai koto ga aru 二つやらなければならないことがある
    There are two things I must do
In the example above, we have the word and number "two" in the translation, but there is no ni 二 in the Japanese version. This is because there futatsu 二つ has the meaning of "two things." I have counted the things I must do and they are futatsu 二つ, "two things."

This might sound confusing... because it is. But the basic idea is that you can't use the words for the number alone to count any sort of thing in Japanese. You can only use them to count the numbers themselves if you're playing peekaboo or counting down to the launch of a spaceship like in Utchuu Kyoudai 宇宙兄弟 (Space Brothers).

Counting to 10 things in Japanese

So, to count things in Japanese, up to 10, you must use these words:
  1. hitotsu 一つ
  2. futatsu 二つ
  3. mittsu 三つ
  4. yottsu 四つ
  5. itsutsu 五つ
  6. muttsu 六つ
  7. nanatsu 七つ
  8. yattsu 八つ
  9. kokonotsu 九つ

And... wait, we're one number short here? Where is 10? What happened to 10?!

Well. There is no 10. It ends in 9. There is no way to count 10 things in Japanese like this.

How to count in Japanese: hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, yottsu, itsutsu, muttsu, nanatsu, yattsu, kokonotsu. 一つ  二つ 三つ 四つ 五つ 六つ 七つ 八つ 九つ

These are the most common, generic Japanese words used to count whatever... up to 9. Like, you go to a bakery, see bread, you can point to it and say kokonotsu kudasai 九つ下さい to mean "give me nine of these," but to say "give me 10 of these" you need something else.

You need to use counters.

What are Japanese Counters

The suffixes known as "counters" in Japanese, josuushi 助数詞, are the most confusing, mind-boggling bullshit you'll ever find learning the language and only exist to further your hate of the Japanese kanji.

Basically, to count a random kind of thing in Japanese, like bread for example, you don't say something simple like juu pan 十パン, which would be just the word for the number 10, juu 十, with the word for bread, pan パン.

No. That would be too easy.

Instead, you're supposed to use one of the dozens of counters in Japanese, each of which used only in a given situation to count only a one type of thing with certain, determined properties. Words which only exist to count stuff and nothing else. Words such as ko 個, which exists to count "articles" and "individual items" and is pretty much the most generic counter of all.

So to count "ten bread" in Japanese, you don't even use the word for "bread," you just say juuko 十個, and if it's a "bread," "egg" or even a fucking "brick" you're counting about depends on the context or the words used in the phrase. See:
  • pan wo juuko kudasai パンを十個ください
    Give me 10 bread.
  • tamago wo juuko kudasai 卵を十個ください
    Give me 10 eggs.
  • renga wo juuko kudasai レンガを十個ください
    Give me 10 bricks.

What's happening up there is that juuko 十個 only actually means 10 of something that's an article. It literally means only the number 10, except that it's counted something. So you're saying stuff like, "of bread, give me 10" or "of eggs, give me 10."

To say "10 bread" as a noun, you'd have to say juuko no pan 十個のパン for example.
  • juuko no pan wo kudasai 十個のパンをください,
    Give me 10 bread.

Counters Count Certain Things Only

By now you're probably thinking I exaggerated my hate for counters, aren't you? They look easy, don't they? Just throw a ko 個 at the end and be done with it, right? Ha ha. Of course not.

While you can use ko 個 for basically anything that's countable, you're supposed to use a more specific counter when talking about numbers of more specific things. And that's where shit hits the fan.

Take "swords", for example, katana 刀. And "fingers", yubi 指. And "cigars", tabako タバコ. Now, tell me, what do swords, fingers and cigars have in common?


You don't know?

Well, according to the fucking Japanese language, they are all cylindrical objects. THEREFORE:
  • tabako ippon タバコ一本
    One cigar.
  • katana nihon 刀二本
    Two swords.
  • yubi sanbon 指三本
    Three fingers.

Yes. Believe it or not, these things are all counted with the hon 本 counter because the hon 本 counter counts things which are cylindrical. That is the only property that matters. It doesn't matter if it's a part of your body, a thing that can kill you quickly, or a thing that can kill you slowly, it's all counted the same way for that reason alone.

But wait! THERE IS MORE!!!

The word hon 本 is actually a word besides being a counter! It means "book." Now the question is: do you count hon 本 with the hon 本 counter? LOL OFC NOT. You count books with the satsu 冊 counter which is a counter for books, and for books specifically!!! That's the only way it would make sense, RIGHT??!?!?!?!??

Using Counters

Now a quick lesson about how to use the counters. Basically, just throw a number before them and that's about it. (see the article about numbers in Japanese if you don't know the numbers)

If you want to ask "how much X" or "how many X" that's also pretty easy:
  • nan X desu ka? 何Xですか?
    How many X?

The real problem most of the time, however, is knowing what IS the counter. So here are some of them, just in case.

Counting Items

The most generic counter we got is ko 個, which can count any generic individual item. When in doubt, use ko 個. You'll most likely be wrong, but what other option do you have?
  • ikko 一個
    One item.
  • ni ko 二個
    Two items
  • san ko 三個
    Three items.
  • juu ko 十個
    Ten items.
  • hyakko 百個
    One hundred items.
  • nanko desu ka? 何個ですか?
    How many items?

Counting Ordinals

Next we have the counter me 目, which is the read the same as the word me 目, which means "eye." It pretty much turns a number into an ordinal.
  • ichi me 1目
    The first.
  • ni me 2目
    The second.
  • san me 3目
    The third.
  • yon me 4目
    The fourth.
  • go me 5目
    The fifth.
  • juu me 10目
    The tenth.
  • hyaku me 100目
    The hundredth.
  • nanme desu ka 何目ですか?
    Which place/position?

This is mainly used to count things in a list, in an order or in a series. You can use it to say the first of a queue, the second from left to right, the third hokage, and so on. There is only one detail, however.

The prefix dai 第 has a similar use, except it can only be used in ordered series of things. It can't be used in questions like the other counters because it's not a counter so it wouldn't make sense.
  • dai ichi 第一
    The first.
  • dai ni 第二
    The second.
  • dai san 第三
    The third.

The difference between dai 第 and me 目 is that dai 第 is used in an objective way, like saying the name of certain things. Like "the second attack," dai ni kougeki 第二攻撃, "the third question", "the fourth clause of the contract states that blah blah blah." Meanwhile, me 目 is used like you looked, saw something was the first, second or third place of something, and then just said it.

Another thing is tha both can be used on top of other counters, keeping their nuances of course. For example, dai ni kai 第二回 is "THE second time," while ni kai me 二回目 is that "second time."

Counting People

The counter for people is nin 人, which is the same kanji for the word "person," hito 人.
  • hitori 一人
    One person.
  • futari 二人
    Two people.
  • san nin 三人
    Three people.
  • yon nin 四人
    Four people.
  • go nin 五人
    Five people
  • juu nin 十人
    Ten people
  • hyaku nin 百人
    Hundred people
  • nan nin desu ka? 何人ですか?
    How many people?

Counting Days

Counting days is basically the most confusing thing ever amongst the most confusing thing ever that is counters.

This is because it often uses kun'yomi readings (like the generic tsu つ counter do) of the numbers together with a ka 日 suffix, except when it uses on'yomi like the rest of the counters do only with a nichi 日 suffix. So the words have pretty much no standard whatsoever.

Thankfully this is one of the few exceptions out there.
  • ichinichi 一日
    One day
  • futsuka 二日
    Two days.
  • mikka 三日
    Three days.
  • yokka 四日
    Four days
  • itsuka 五日
    Five days.
  • muika 六日
    Six days.
  • nanoka 七日
    Seven days.
  • youka 八日
    Eight days.
  • kokonoka 九日
    Nine days.
  • tooka 十日
    Ten days.
  • nan nichi desu ka? 何日ですか?
    How many days?
    What day is it? (of the week, month)

So far so good... except that from then on we have stuff like juu yokka 十四日 and juu yon nichi 十四日, both of which are correct and mean "fourteen days."

Also, this counter can be used either to count a number of days or to says the day on the calendar.

Counting Long Cylindrical Objects

Once again, our old friend hon 本, which means "book," but can also be used to count fingers, swords, cigars, among others *cough* long cylindrical objects *cough*. Take note that the reading of counters starting with h is a bit tricky.
  • ippon 一本
    One long cylindrical object.
  • nihon 二本
    Two long cylindrical objects.
  • sanbon 三本
    Three long cylindrical objects.
  • yon hon 四本
    Four long cylindrical objects.
  • go hon 五本
    Five long cylindrical objects.
  • jippon 十本
    Ten long cylindrical objects.
  • hyappon 百本
    One hundred long cylindrical objects..
  • nan bon desu ka? 何本ですか?
    How many long cylindrical objects?

Counting Occurrences

The counter for occurrences is kai 回. It counts how many times something happened.
  • ikkai 一回
  • ni kai 二回
  • san kai 三回
  • yon kai 四回
    Frice, I mean, four times.
  • go kai 五回
    Five times.
  • juu kai 十回
    Ten times.
  • hyakkai 百回
    One hundred times.
  • nan kai desu ka? 何回ですか
    How many times?

Counting Floors

The counter for floors of a building is kai 階, which, indeed, has the same reading as the counter kai 回 above which counts something completely different. That's Japanese for you.
  • ikkai 一階
    First floor.
  • ni kai 二階
    Second floor.
  • san kai 三階
    Third floor.
  • yon kai 四階
    Fourth floor.
  • go kai 五階
    Fifth floor.
  • juu kai 十階
    Tenth floor.
  • hyakkai 百階
    Hundredth floor. (this building is tall!)
  • nan kai desu ka? 何階ですか
    Which floor?

Counting Drinks

The counter for drinks is hai 杯.
  • ippai 一杯
    One drink.
    (also means "a lot")
  • ni hai 二杯
    Two drinks.
  • san bai 三杯
    Three drinks.
  • yon hai 四杯
    Four drinks.
  • go hai 五杯
    Five drinks.
  • juu hai 十杯
    Ten drinks.
  • hyaku hai 百杯
    One hundred drinks. (alcoholism is bad, okay?)
  • nan pai desu ka? 何杯ですか
    How many drinks?

Counting Machines and Vehicles

The counter for machines and vehicles is dai 台. I'm going to use car in the list, but it works for refrigerators, ovens, and stuff like that too.
  • ichi dai 一杯
    One cars.
  • ni dai 二台
    Two cars.
  • san dai 三台
    Three cars.
  • yon dai 四台
    Four cars.
  • go dai 五台
    Five cars.
  • juu dai 十台
    Ten cars. (wow!)
  • hyaku dai 百台
    One hundred cars. (why?!)
  • nan dai desu ka? 何台ですか
    How many cars?

Counting Points

The counter for points is ten 点. This is like your score on an exam, or how many points you got in a game.
  • itten 一点
    One point.
  • ni ten 二点
    Two points.
  • san ten 三点
    Three points.
  • yon ten 四点
    Four points.
  • go ten 五点
    Five points.
  • juu ten 十点
    Ten points.
  • hyaku ten 百点
    One hundred points. (perfect!!!)
  • nan ten desu ka? 何点ですか
    How many points?

As an extra, manten 満点 means "full points," and it's used when you score all questions in a test, or get all 10's from judges, or whatever sort of perfect in the score you're talking about.

Counting Shots

The counter for shots, explosions, strikes and stuff like that is hatsu 発. You often hear this when there are guns being shot in an anime.
  • ippatsu 一発
    One shot.
  • ni hatsu 二発
    Two shots.
  • san patsu 三発
    Three shots.
  • yon hatsu 四発
    Four shots.
  • go hatsu 五発
    Five shots.
  • juu hatsu 十発
    Ten shots.
  • hyappatsu 百発
    One hundred shots. (but how many hits?)
  • nan patsu desu ka? 何発ですか?
    How many shots?

Counting Small Animals

The counter for small animals is hiki 匹. This is only for small animals. Only small. And only animals. Except most animals are considered small, and except that in anime it can be used for small monsters and demons and whatever too. And sometimes used by non-humans to refer to small humans. Anyway, you get the idea. Small creatures.
  • ippiki 一匹
    One small animal.
  • ni hiki 二匹
    Two small animals.
  • san biki 三匹
    Three small animals.
  • yon hiki 四匹
    Four small animals.
  • go hiki 五匹
    Five small animals.
  • juu hiki 十匹
    Ten small animals.
  • hyappiki 百匹
    One hundred small animals. (fit in a single room)
  • nan biki desu ka? 何匹ですか?
    How many small animals?

Counting Large Animals

If there is a counter for small animals then, obviously, there is one for large animals too.

The counter tou 頭, which has the same kanji as the word "head," atama 頭, is often used to count head...s... heads of cattle. Yeah. Ironically. But it works for pretty any large animal.
  • ittou 一頭
    One large animal.
  • ni tou 二頭
    Two large animals.
  • san tou 三頭
    Three large animals.
  • yon tou 四頭
    Four large animals.
  • go tou 五頭
    Five large animals.
  • juu tou 十頭
    Ten large animals.
  • hyaku tou 百頭
    One hundred large animals. (fit in a single arc)
  • nan tou desu ka? 何頭ですか?
    How many large animals?

Counting Other Things

Did you think it was over? Well, this article is over. But the counters are not.

There are more counters than described here in the Japanese language, and while they may sound harmless, you shouldn't underestimate them. They'll show up when you least expect, causing the most damage, throwing you into confusion and the world into utter chaos.

Beware of the counters!!!


Leave your komento コメント in this posuto ポスト of this burogu ブログ with your questions about Japanese, doubts or whatever!

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  1. I studied Japanese for about two years, about 9 years ago.
    I thought hey, I used to know it pretty well, maybe I'll pick it back up.
    I've been doing pretty well, remembering conjunction, and kanji and what not.
    But just as I was getting overconfident, and I least expected it, BAM. These god-damned counters came back from my long suppressed nightmares.
    Luckily they're not too bad to relearn. But for anyone learning these fuckers for the first time... I'm so, so sorry.

    For anyone trying to learn these, my only advice is to not over think about them. Don't try to make sense of them, because there isn't very much sense. At least not from an English speaking perspective. Just take your time and learn each counter one at a time.

  2. I'm loving this article! Great explanation and humor!

  3. Yeah, but what does "manten" mean? Like, does that mean 10,000 points or something?

    1. It allows you to draw two more cards.

      Err, I mean, I had copy-pasted it and forgot to delete. Thanks for telling me. ;)

  4. You've mention Hokages in your explanation and you've clear all my doubts except one. Is there a reason why the First Hokage is 初代火影 Shodai Hokage apart from the use of 初??

    1. 初 means first (in time), like in hajimete 初めて. So shodai 初代 is the first generation, the founder.

      There's no particular reason. It's just that when referring to people there usually are some special words for the first, the second and last person, because they're more like important titles.

      For example, chounan 長男 is the first son, the "eldest" son, jinan 次男, is the "next" son, the second son, and then you have numbers, san'nan 三男, the third son. The youngest son, however, the "last" son, is batsunan 末男.