a beginner's guide to japanese counters

The Beginner’s Guide to Counting in Japanese Like a Native

If you read this title and thought, “Of course I can count to 10! 一 (いち), 二(に), 三 (さん), 四 (よん)… – 1, 2, 3, 4…, then I have good news and bad news for you.

The good news? Yes, that is a way to count to ten in Japanese.

The bad news? Unfortunately, it’s not the only way to count to ten—or to any other number, for that matter.

Or perhaps that should be “fortunately”; you’re here because you enjoy learning Japanese after all, and the wonderful variety of counters in Japanese just means there’s even more you can learn!

Counters are just one of the things that makes the Japanese language so fascinating. Master these and you’ll sound like a pro in no time.
 


 
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What Are Japanese Counters?

Japanese counters are the words used to count objects, people, lengths of time, events and so forth. Counters are usually single-kanji characters that have a special reading just applicable to their function as a counter.

Let’s think about counting in English. To count in English we usually take a cardinal number (i.e. one, two, three, etc.) and add it to an object. If we are making a plural, then we stick on that object’s plural ending. One cat becomes two cats; one fox, two foxes; one mouse, two mice.

Counting just doesn’t work like that in Japanese. Remember—Japanese has no real plural/singular endings, so it’s not going to be the same as the English system anyway.

So how do you count objects in Japanese? Japanese uses special counting words, which come in different categories according to what you are counting. The way to count long, narrow, cylindrical objects is different from the way you’d count thin, flat ones, for example. And the words for counting small animals differ from the words used for counting humans, etc.

Why Learn Japanese Counters?

Learning Japanese counters is an essential part of passing beyond the absolute beginner’s stage.

Although, for instance, the kind cashier at the コンビニ (こんびに – convenience store) will probably understand you if you do just stutter out a noun, e.g. coffee (コーヒー/こーひー), and cardinal number (一, 二, 三…) and hope for the best, it’s so much cooler to be able to count like an adult.

Correctly deploying Japanese counters is a sure-fire way to sound more natural and fluent in Japanese.

How Do I Use Japanese Counters?

To count in Japanese, all you have to do is:

1. Find the appropriate counter: are we talking people, animals, days, minutes, washing machines?

2. Adapt the counter for the number of said objects that you want to indicate by fusing the counter with the cardinal number.

Take cats, for a loveable example. The word for the noun “cat” is 猫 (ねこ). If we go through the above stages, we can count cats as follows.

Cats are counted using the “small animals counter.” The counter for small animals is 匹 (ひき). When used to count, this changes slightly depending on the cardinal number it’s being glued on to.

1 small animal – 一匹 (いっぴき)

2 small animals – 二匹 (にひき)

3 small animals – 三匹 (さんびき)

4 small animals – 四匹 (よんひき)

5 small animals – 五匹 (ごひき)

6 small animals – 六匹 (ろっぴき)

7 small animals – 七匹 (ななひき)

8 small animals – 八匹 (はっぴき)

9 small animals – 九匹 (きゅうひき)

10 small animals – 十匹 (じっぴき)

Question word (“How many?”) – 何匹 (なんびき)

Therefore, if we want to say “one cat” we will need to use 一匹 and if we wish to say “two cats,” we should use 二匹. So if you’re lucky enough to have two adorable cats on the desk in front of you, say:

机の上に、猫が二匹いる。 (つくえのうえに、ねこが にひきいる。)

On the desk, there are two cats.

You should remember that there isn’t a counter for “zero cats” (or zero anything else), since counters are a way of grouping objects, and if there are “zero” of something, there’s nothing to count! If there are zero cats on the desk (which would be sad), a Japanese person would say:

机の上に、猫はいない。 (つくえのうえに、ねこは いない。)

On the desk, there is no cat.

Tips on Learning Japanese Counters

The most important thing is to take it slowly: Get to grips with a few of the most common counters to begin with, the ones that you’re most likely to encounter when speaking to Japanese people.

Later you can branch out into the truly weird and wonderful if you wish, but be prepared, some young Japanese people might not even know these. Do try not to feel too smug if that happens, although we won’t blame you if you do.

Here are some of the most frequent Japanese counters:

The Most Common Japanese Counters

Objects

1 –  一つ (ひとつ)

2  – 二つ (ふたつ)

3 – 三つ (みっつ)

4 – 四つ (よっつ)

5 – 五つ (いつつ)

6 – 六つ (むっつ)

7 – 七つ (ななつ)

8 – 八つ (やっつ)

9 – 九つ (ここのつ)

10 – 十 (とお)

Question word – いくつ

These are for things of handleable size, that don’t have their own specific counter. By the way—in Japanese restaurants, no matter what the shape, it’s common to use these counters to order food and drinks, so that’s nice and simple, right?

Example:
ビールを二つとラーメンを一つください。(びーるをふたつと  らーめんをひとつ ください。)
May I have two beers and one ramen please?

People

1 person – 一人 (ひとり)

2 people – 二人 (ふたり)

3 people – 三人 (さんにん)

4 people – 四人 (よにん)

5 people – 五人 (ごにん)

6 people – 六人 (ろくにん)

7 people – 七人 (ななにん)

8 people – 八人 (はちにん)

9 people – 九人 (きゅうにん)

10 people – 十人 (じゅうにん)

Question word – 何人 (なんにん)

When you go into a restaurant in Japan, you’re more likely to be asked 何名様ですか (なんめいさまですか) – how many people? The 名 (めい) is the polite counter for people. 人 (にん) is much more common in conversation and even to 何名様ですか it’s safe to reply in 一人, 二人, 三人…

Example:
私には日本人の友達が十人いる。(わたしには にほんじんのともだちが じゅうにんいる。)
I have ten Japanese friends.

Long, Thin Objects

1 – 一本 (いっぽん)

2 – 二本 (にほん*)

3 – 三本 (さんぼん)

4 – 四本 (よんほん)

5 – 五本 (ごほん)

6 – 六本 (ろっぽん)

7 – 七本 (ななほん)

8 – 八本 (はっぽん)

9 – 九本 (きゅうほん)

10 – 十本 (じっぽん)

Question word – 何本 (なんぼん)

These are used for long, thin objects, such as bottles of beer, pencils, cucumbers…

*にほん (二本), as in two long thin things, is pronounced: high tone-low tone. にほん (日本), as in Japan, is pronounced low tone-high tone.

You might be wondering why some counters (一つ, 二つ, etc. as well as 一人 and 二人) seem so different from most other counters, which generally look like the cardinal numbers you’re used to (一, 二, 三…). In case you’re interested, ひと-, ふた-, み- etc. reflect the really old, indigenous Japanese numerals (i.e. before kanji came along). 一, 二, 三, and so on are numerals the Japanese language borrowed from Chinese way back when. Isn’t history fun?

Example:
庭に木が五本ある。(にわに きが ごほんある。)
There are five trees in the yard.

Machines

This one’s an easy one! No pesky sound changes to worry about at all.

1 – 一台 (いちだい)

2 – 二台 (にだい)

3 – 三台 (さんだい)

4 – 四台 (よんだい)

5 – 五台 (ごだい)

6 – 六台 (ろくだい)

7 – 七台 (ななだい)

8 – 八台 (はちだい)

9 – 九台 (きゅうだい)

10 – 十台 (じゅうだい)

Question word – 何台 (なんだい)

Used for anything mechanical or electronic (cars, washing machines, computers, fax machines—which they still use in Japan…) unless it has a special counter. For example, boats are counted in 艘 (そう), aircraft in 機 (き).

Example:
彼はコンピューターを四台持っている。(かれは こんぴゅーたーをよんだい もっている。)
He has four computers.

Flat, Thin Objects

Easy again: Simply add 枚 (まい) to the cardinal number.

1 – 一枚 (いちまい)

2 – 二枚 (にまい)

3 – 三枚 (さんまい)

4 – 四枚 (よんまい)

5 – 五枚 (ごまい)

6 – 六枚 (ろくまい)

7 – 七枚 (ななまい)

8 – 八枚 (はちまい)

9 – 九枚 (きゅうまい)

10 – 十枚 (じゅうまい)

Question word – 何枚 (なんまい)

Use this counter for flat, thin objects, including sheets of paper, tickets, shirts and slices of bread.

Example:
彼女は映画のチケットを三枚買った。(かのじょは えいがの ちけっとをさんまい かった。)
She bought three movie tickets.

Bonus Counters: Weird and Wonderful

Pairs of chopsticks, bowls of rice – 一膳 (いちぜん), 二膳 (にぜん), 三膳 (さんぜん)…

Pairs of shoes – 一足 (いっそく), 二足 (にそく), 三足 (さんぞく)…

A single flower bloom, a wheel – 一輪 (いちりん), 二輪 (にりん), 三輪 (さんりん)…

Tatami mats are actually pretty useful to keep in mind if you go house-hunting in Japan; tatami rooms are measured out in – 一畳 (いちじょう), 二畳 (にじょう), 三畳 (さんじょう)…

So there you have it, this is the world of Japanese counters!

It could feel strange at first, but the more you use and hear them, you’ll come to embrace Japanese counters as one of the fascinating parts of the language.

And counting sheep before bed will never be the same again… happy counting!

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