Counting in Japanese

Japanese Numbers: Counting in Japanese - Japanese numbering explained

Numbering in Japan is overwhelmingly 'Western-style' (i.e. Arabic). However, when dining and/or drinking, especially in more traditional establishments, it may be useful to know how to read Japanese (i.e. Chinese character) numbers.

Like the Arabic system, it is based on the number 10, but, unlike it, it includes additional characters for 100, 1000, and 10,000.

Counting in Japanese

Numbers vs Counters

One of the tricky things about Japanese numbering is that there is more than one way of saying each number. The 'standard' way of counting from 1 to 10 treats the numerals as mathematical entities, simply representing abstract numbers. The other way of counting is when you are talking about the number of actual, tangible objects.

Thus, when repeating a phone number that begins with 123, you would say 'ichi ni san'. However, if counting out how many sweets you won you'd would say 'hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu ' We will call the first kind 'numbers' and the second 'counters'.

It gets even trickier. Different kinds of objects require different kinds of counters. But as a non-native speaker you will be more than forgiven for sticking to the basics as described below.

Counting People

There is only one quirk of object-specific counting that you should remember: numbers of persons. If you enter a restaurant alone and are asked 'nan nin desu ka?' (How many people?), a reply of 'hitotsu' (or 'ichi') will get you, at least for a few moments, a blank stare. One human is 'hitori', two is 'futari', but after that it's easy. Simply affix 'nin' to the end of the 'number', thereby creating a 'counter' for humans.

The Characters

Fortunately, the characters themselves are probably the simplest of all the characters that make up written Japanese. Here is an introduction to them. After two or three readings, and perhaps a little practice, you'll master the traditional Japanese numbering system in no time.

Reading and writing Japanese numbers

Ichi = one

1. As a number, pronounced 'ichi' (rhymes with 'peachy'); as a counter 'hitotsu'.
1 is written as a single horizontal stroke, like an Arabic one, but on its side.

ni = two

2. As a number, pronounced 'ni' (like 'knee'); as a counter 'futatsu'.
2 is, you guessed it, 2 'one's again, on their side.

san/mittsu = three

3. As a number, pronounced 'san' (like 'sun'); as a counter 'mittsu' (pronounce both t's, thus holding the t sound for a moment before continuing to 'su'.)
3 'one's on their side.

yon/yottsu = four

4. As a number, pronounced 'yon' (more like 'yong' actually); as a counter 'yottsu'.
Getting a little trickier in terms of shape.Ignore the bits inside and just think of it as a four-sided object.

go/itsutsu = five

5. As a number, pronounced 'go' (a very short sound); as a counter 'itsutsu'.
5 is conveniently made up of five lines.

roku/muttsu = 6

6. As a number, pronounced 'roku' (pronouncing it as 'loku' is actually closer to native pronunciation); as a counter 'muttsu' (i.e. moot-tsoo).
This is a character you'll just have to commit to memory!

nana/shichi/nanatsu = seven

7. As a number, pronounced 'nana' or 'shichi' (shee-chee); as a counter 'nanatsu'.
A badly twisted 7?

hachi/yattsu = eight

8. As a number, pronounced 'hachi'; as a counter 'yattsu'.
Another very simple character. With only two strokes, it is not to be confused with 'ni'.

kyu/kokonotsu = nine

9. As a number, pronounced 'kyu' (just like the letter Q); as a counter 'kokonotsu'.

ju/toh = ten

10. As a number, pronounced 'ju'; as a counter 'toh'.
A simple cross shape: a neat ending to a sequence that began with a horizontal line.

hyaku = hundred

100 Pronounced 'hyaku'.

sen = thousand

1000 Pronounced 'sen'

man = ten thousand

10,000 Pronounced 'man'. Japanese high numbering is based on sets of four zeros rather than the three we are used to. Therefore a million is 'hyaku man' (one hundred ten thousands), 2 million is 'ni hyaku man', etc. 'Ichi man' is the highest denomination Japanese banknote.

oku = hundred million

100,000,000 Pronounced 'oku'. Probably not a number you will see or use much. But Japan's population is about 'ichi oku, ni-sen-man', or 120 million.

cho = trillion

1,000,000,000,000 Pronounced 'cho'. Far out!

Putting them together

Putting these characters together is fairly straightforward. 11 is ju-ichi = 11.

21 is ni-ju-ichi = 21.

Once you get to the hundreds, things are starting toget distinctly unwieldy.

Test yourself with this one:ni-hyaku-san-ju-hachi = 238.

Holdyour mouse over it to see if you were correct.

But higher numbers do not necessarily mean longer numbers. Things are simpler the closer you are to the basic unit.

Therefore, 70,000 is expressed efficiently asnana-man = 70,000. But 77,777 is a monster: nana-man-nana-sen-nana-hyaku-nana-ju-nana =77,777!!

Therefore, for numbers over 1000, you are more likely to see the number characters employed Arabic style if, indeed, used at all, e.g. nana-man-nana-sen-nana-hyaku-nana-ju-nana (77,777) Arabic style.

Incidentally, when shopping or dining, the en = yenmark you'll see at the end of these numbers means 'yen'. It is pronounced in Japanese without the 'y': 'en', and literally means 'circle', referring to the shape of a coin.

When all else fails

You are now the proud owner of a brand new numbering system. Have fun! Just don't try this in mathematics class, and remember, when all else fails, write it out - or use your fingers.

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