Warning! ’Numbers and Counting in Japanese’ will make your head spin!

  • 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.

    The Basics

    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.)

    Saying Time, Months and Dates

    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

    Counting in General

    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.

    More on Counting

    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!