One of the most confusing and difficult parts in learning the Japanese language is learning how to count and saying numbers. In English, we simply say one, two, three and so on for cardinal numbers. One apple, three bags, two cars. We say first, second and third and so on for ordinal numbers, and that’s it. But in Japanese, there are many ways to count and say numbers.

Let us study how to say numbers in Japanese:

one – ichi

two – ni

three – san

four – shi/yon

five – go

six – roku

seven – shichi/nana

eight – hachi

nine – kyuu/ku

ten – juu

(From eleven to nineteen, simply combine 10 which is juu and numbers 1-9 , for example one which is ichi, so for eleven you say juuichi; but so as not to make our study hard, let’s just focus on numbers 1-10.)

If you can memorize the basic way of counting shown above, it will be easy for you to say the time and months in Japanese. For time, simply say the number and add “ji”, the reading for 時, which stands for time (i.e. ichiji – one o’clock, niji – two o’clock and so on). The same for months, simply add “gatsu” for 月 the kanji for months (i.e ichigatsu – January, nigatsu – February and so on). For saying days, just simply add 日, which stands for “nichi” at the end of the number, (i.e. eleventh – juuichinichi ). However, this is not the case for the first ten days and the twentieth. They have special names. The first day is called “tsuitachi” instead of “ichinichi” which means one day.

1st – tsuitachi

2nd – futsuka

3rd – mikka

4th – yokka

5th – itsuka

6th – muika

7th – nanoka

8th – youka

9th – kokonoka

10th – touka

20th – hatsuka

Generally, to say “How many?” in Japanese, you may say “Ikutsu?”. This is the way to answer this:

one – hitotsu

two – futatsu

three – mittsu

four – yottsu

five – itsutsu

six – muttsu

seven – nanatsu

eight – yattsu

nine – kokonotsu

ten – tou

You can use this generic counting if you are counting small items. Take note, however that ikutsu can also mean “How old?”, which you can also ask by saying “nansai?”, using 歳, read as “sai” as counter for age. To answer, simply add “sai” after the number (i.e. 5 years old – gosai), except for 1 – issai, 8 – hassai, and 10 – jussai.

There are so many ways of counting in Japanese depending on what type of object you are counting. When you are simply counting numbers, you use the basic, ichi、ni、san, and so on. But, the fun begins when you want to count something else, you have to use something called a counter which depends on what type of object you are counting.

A. Counting People

The counter for people is 人, which is read, in this case as “nin” ( this kanji is also read as hito,jin). “How many people?” is “Nannin?” in Japanese. To answer this question, simply add “nin” at the end of each number (i.e 8 people – hachinin), except for 1, 2 and 4:

one – hitori

two – futari

three – sannin

four – yonin (instead of shinin)

five – gonin

six – rokunin

seven – nananin

eight – hachinin

nine – kyuunin

ten – juunin

B. Counting Objects

1. For long, cylindrical objects (i.e. sticks, bottles), you ask “Nan-bon?”, using the counter 本 read as “hon”, but the first letter “h”sound can change to “p” or “b”. Take a look.

one – ippon

two – nihon

three – sanbon

four – yonhon

five – gohon

six – roppon

seven – nanahon

eight – happon

nine – kyuuhon

ten – juppon

2. For cups, ask “Nan-bai?”, using the counter 杯, read as “hai”, with sound changes from “h” to “p” or “b”.

one – ippai

two – nihai

three – sanbai

four – yonhai

five – gohai

six – roppai

seven – nanahai

eight – happai

nine – kyuuhai

ten – juppai

3. For small round items (i.e apples, oranges, buttons), use the counter 個, read as “ko”. To ask, say “Nanko?” To answer, simply say the number and add “ko” at the end. Except for 1, 6, 8 and 10.

one – ikko

two – niko

three – sanko

four – yonko

five – goko

six – rokko

seven – nanako

eight – hakko

nine – kyuuko

ten – jukko

More Counters!

There are so many counters in Japanese that I’d rather not discuss them all to avoid more confusion for the easily discouraged learners. You may do a further study about this if you want to learn more. Below are some more counters for your guidance.

1. 枚 “mai” – for counting sheets or thin objects (i.e. paper, sheets)

2. 匹 “hiki” – for counting animals (with sound changes from “h” to “p” or “b”.)

3. 台 “dai” – for counting machines including vehicles

4. 冊 “satsu” – for counting books

5. 回 “kai” – for counting the number of times (first time, second time and so on)

6. 階 “kai” – for counting floors (first floor, second floor and so on)

7. 間 “kan” – for counting span of time:

分間 “funkan”– span of minutes (with sound changes from “f” to “p”.)

時間 “jikan” – for span of hours

週間 “shuukan” – for span of weeks

月間 “getsukan” – for span of months

年間 “nenkan” – for span of years.

“How many ~ ?” is a question that might sound easy for you to say and answer but not in Japan. This is not really easy even for some Japanese, especially the kids.

This is quite challenging and might put you in an awkward situation like when my friend, also an international student (on our first week of studying Japanese), in confusion said “Futari, onengaishimasu. “when trying to buy two sticks of barbecue. The vendor’s eyes grew wide in surprise!