Time Is of the Essence: How to Tell Time in Japanese Today


This is an all-important phrase in both English and Japanese, and I’m sure you’re familiar with it in at least one language.

It means “time is of the essence.”

When it comes to learning Japanese, this phrase has a bunch of layers to look at.

Yes, it’s important to learn how to talk about time in Japanese—and that’s what I’m going to teach you here.

But there’s one thing, an extra lesson that I want you to take away from this post: Work smart, not hard.

Approach Japanese with a no-nonsense attitude.

Learn systems and patterns.

We’ve got you covered for today. “A no nonsense method of learning to tell time in Japanese?” You ask. Yep. No nonsense, foolproof and easy. All you need to do is put in a little effort to memorize those patterns and the Japanese vocabulary to fill them in, and you’ll be well on your way!

Here, you’ll get a step-by-step guide—with only three steps!—to ace Japanese time-telling.

After this lesson, it’s up to you to continue working smart.


Why You Should Know How to Tell Time in Japanese

Picture this.

You’ve landed at Tokyo Narita International Airport.

You’re wandering the halls and shops of the airport, ready to flaunt your knowledge to everyone who’s willing to hear it.

You’ve prepared and rehearsed key phrases over and over again on the 18-hour flight.

You’ve said some friendly greetings to all the Japanese staff at the airport.

Before you know it, you’re discussing the next shuttle bus departures with the Japanese lady at the service desk, and she tells you:

“四時半に出発します。” (よじはんにしゅっぱつします。)

You stare back, thinking “What? I didn’t catch a single number in there! Did she say two? Three?”

Actually, what she said was “It’s departing at 4:30 p.m.”

Knowing how to decipher that important message about shuttle bus departures is just one major benefit of learning how to tell time in Japanese.

It’s basic Japanese. Telling the time is a basic topic in any language, and it’s obviously no different in Japanese. This post will essentially be your survival guide to maneuvering around busy, everyday life in Japan.

It’s so useful! Booking your flight, arranging your work interview, catching the bus and getting to classes on time all revolve around a central theme—time. In our current day and age, when everything depends on a schedule, you need to know how to express time. Especially in Japan, to show your respect to your employer and other superiors, being on schedule is a good start.

So without further ado, we’ll dive into our time telling lesson!

How to Tell Time in Japanese

Step 1: Learn the Japanese Numbers

Let’s get started by learning the 10 most important numbers in Japanese.

Believe it or not, that’s all you’ll need to know in order to tell time in Japanese—no need to overwhelm yourself with learning how to count into the hundreds or thousands.

(いち) — one

(に) — two

(さん) — three

(し or よん) — four

五 (ご) — five

六 (ろく) — six

七 (しち or なな) — seven

(はち) — eight

(く or きゅう) — nine

(じゅう) — ten

First, you may be wondering why I haven’t put eleven and twelve on the list, and that’s what I’ll explain now.

Japanese uses a number stacking system, which should be very familiar to those of you who already know an Asian language.

Remember in elementary school when you were learning place values? To be honest, neither do I. But place value is just separating 325 into three hundreds, two tens and one five.

This is exactly how you count in Japanese!

We’ll start with an easy example: 21.

The number 21 is broken up into two tens and one in Japanese, so you would write it as two-ten-one.

This looks like:

二十一 (にじゅういち) — 21

Got it? Try to translate these next numbers into Japanese on your own, then check below to see if you’re correct:





Did you get them?

四十八 (よんじゅうはち) — 48

八十三 (はちじゅうさん) — 83

五十九 (ごじゅうきゅう) — 59

十九 (じゅうきゅう) — 19

You might be wondering about those varying readings for four, seven and nine (seen in the original list of numbers one through ten above).

(し or よん) — four

七 (しち or なな) — seven

(く or きゅう) — nine

They’ve popped up again in the numbers like 40 and 59 above, and might have thrown you for a loop.

The former readings (し, しち and く) are used for more straightforward counting in a series of numbers, and occasionally in counters—including time-telling counters, but more on that in the third step.

The latter readings (よん, なな and きゅう) are the chosen for other things like telling time and compound numerals (e.g., 40 is 四十 and read as よんじゅう).

Got it? Let’s move on!

Step 2: Learn Time-related Words

Okay, now to get to the really timey part. Here are a bunch of words that you’ll need to know to tell the time.

午前 (ごぜん) — AM

午後 (ごご) — PM

(びょう) — Second

(ふん or ぷん) — Minute

(とじ) — Hour

(はん) — Half

時間 (じかん) — Time

All you need to do is fit in the numbers with the keywords! Here’s the word order they generally show up in:

AM/PM + Hour + Minute

午後九時四分 (ごごくじよんぷん) — 9:04 p.m.

AM/PM + Hour + Half

午前五時半 (ごぜんごじはん) — 5:30 a.m.

Make sure you keep the AM/PM in front!

Also, it’s completely possible to take out sections and not say the a.m./p.m. part, the same way you do in English.

So, are you confused? I hope you are, because I haven’t even begun explaining how to read that yet! That’s coming up in step 3, well done!

Step 3: Learn the Counters

Here comes the hardest part of learning any language—learning the exceptions.

A counter is essentially a word to describe a group of something. For example in English, we have “a flock of sheep,” “a bundle of sticks” or my personal favorite, “an intrusion of cockroaches.” (ew!)

For time-telling, it’s as follows:


一時 (いちじ) — one hour / one o’clock

二時 (にじ) — two hours / two o’clock

三時 (さんじ) — three hours / three o’clock

四時 (よじ not よんじ or しじ) — four hours / four o-clock

五時 (ごじ) — five hours / five o’clock

六時 (ろくじ) — six hours / six o’clock

七時 (しちじ not ななじ) — seven hours / seven o’clock

八時 (はちじ) — eight hours / eight o’clock

九時 (くじ not きゅうじ) — nine hours / nine o’clock

十時 (じゅうじ) — ten hours / ten o’clock

十一時 (じゅういちじ) — eleven hours / eleven o’clock

十二時 (じゅうにじ) — twelve hours / twelve o’clock

You’ll just have to remember 4, 7 and 9 as being exceptions as before, unfortunately.

Find a more interesting way to memorize these exceptions, like setting them as your phone passcode, making a rhyme or creating an acronym.


一分 (いっん) — one minute

二分 (にん) — two minutes

三分 (さんん) — three minutes

四分 (よんん) — four minutes

五分 (ごん) — five minutes

六分 (ろっぷん) — six minutes

七分 (ななん) — seven minutes

八分 (はっぷん) — eight minutes

九分 (きゅうふん) — nine minutes

十分 (じゅっぷん) — ten minutes

This might be the most difficult section. As you can see, not only have the number parts been changed, but the minute parts have been changed too!

Don’t fear, mnemonics are here! Mnemonics are memory devices—neat tricks to help you remember things. Examples include “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit” for the treble music notes and counting your knuckles for the days in each month.

To remember when minutes is read ふん and when it’s read ぷん, here’s a good one. Every P stands for ぷん, H for ふん:

Peter Has Purple Puppies, His Puppies Have Peter Happy Permanently


Luckily for you, seconds has no exceptions! It’s just the number with (びょう, “second”) after it.

一秒 (いちびょう) — one second

九秒 (きゅうびょう) — nine seconds

五十五秒 (ごじゅうごびょう) — 55 seconds

The Japanese Time Telling Challenge

Ready for one final challenge? Test yourself with this dialogue. Try to read the following sentences and pick up on the given times in Japanese:

田中: 山下さん、すみませんですが、今は何時ですか。(たなか: やましたさん、すみませんですが、いまはなんじですか。)

Tanaka: Mr. Yamashita, excuse me, what time is it right now?

山下: ええと、午後一時半ですよ。(やました: ええと、ごごいちじはんですよ。)

Yamashita: Um, it’s 1:30 p.m.

田中: ええ!会議は午前十一時四十五分でした! (たなか: ええ!かいぎはごぜんじゅういちじよんじゅうごふんでした!)

Tanaka: Oh! My meeting was at 11:45 p.m.!

How did you do?

For all the vocabulary in this lesson, I’ve made a Memrise course to help you out! If you haven’t heard of it yet, Memrise is a great digital flashcard program that really helps with memorization.

Good luck on your Japanese adventure. 頑張ってください! (がんばってください!) — Good luck, please do your best!

And don’t be late!

Kameron Lai is a full-time student in Melbourne, Australia. She has reached the standard of JLPT N2 in 2 years and a half, and is fluent in three languages. She has experience in being a tutor for high school Japanese, as well as experience volunteering in teaching English.

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