6 Japanese Counters You Need to Survive in Japan [+ Bonus Counters]
Japanese counters are used to count everything. And learning them is essential if you want to move beyond the beginner level, sound more natural and speak fluent Japanese.
Different items need different counters. For example, you won’t count people the same as you would thin, flat objects.
In this blog post, you’ll learn how to use six of the most important counters in Japanese, as well as a few unique ones.
- 1. General Objects Counter: つ
- 2. People Counter: 人 (にん)
- 3. Small Animals Counter: 匹 (ひき)
- 4. Long, Thin Objects Counter: 本 (ほん)
- 5. Machines Counter: 台 (だい)
- 6. Flat, Thin Objects Counter: 枚 (まい)
- Bonus Japanese Counters
- Tips on Learning Japanese Counters
1. General Objects Counter: つ
一つ (ひとつ) — one thing
二つ (ふたつ) — two things
三つ (みっつ) — three things
四つ (よっつ) — four things
五つ (いつつ) — five things
六つ (むっつ) — six things
七つ (ななつ) — seven things
八つ (やっつ) — eight things
九つ (ここのつ) — nine things
十 (とお) — ten things
いくつ — how many things?
The つ counter is for counting things of a handleable size that don’t have their own specific counter.
It’s also common to use in Japanese restaurants when ordering food and drinks.
(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?
Note: there isn’t a counter for “zero.”
Counters are a way of grouping objects. If there’s “zero” of something, there’s nothing to count!
2. People Counter: 人 (にん)
一人 (ひとり) — one person
二人 (ふたり) — two people
三人 (さんにん) — three people
四人 (よにん) — four people
五人 (ごにん) — five people
六人 (ろくにん) — six people
七人 (ななにん) — seven people
八人 (はちにん) — eight people
九人 (きゅうにん) — nine people
十人 (じゅうにん) — ten people
何人 (なんにん) — how many people?
When you go to a restaurant in Japan, you’ll like be asked:
How many people?
The 名 (めい) is the polite counter for people.
人 (にん) is much more common in conversations. Even when asked “何名様ですか,” it’s safe to reply using 一人, 二人, 三人…
(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.
3. Small Animals Counter: 匹 (ひき)
一匹 (いっぴき) — one small animal
二匹 (にひき) — two small animals
三匹 (さんびき) — three small animals
四匹 (よんひき) — four small animals
五匹 (ごひき) — five small animals
六匹 (ろっぴき) — six small animals
七匹 (ななひき) — seven small animals
八匹 (はっぴき) — eight small animals
九匹 (きゅうひき) — nine small animlas
十匹 (じっぴき) — ten small animals
何匹 (なんびき) — how many small animals?
Cats are counted using 匹 (ひき), the “small animals counter.”
It changes slightly depending on the cardinal number it’s being glued onto, though—take a look at one, three and six in the examples.
If you’re lucky enough to have two adorable cats on the desk in front of you, say:
On the desk, there are two cats.
4. Long, Thin Objects Counter: 本 (ほん)
一本 (いっぽん) — one long thin object
二本 (にほん*) — two long thing objects
三本 (さんぼん) — three long thin objects
四本 (よんほん) — four long thin objects
五本 (ごほん) — five long thin objects
六本 (ろっぽん) — six long thin objects
七本 (ななほん) — seven long thin objects
八本 (はっぽん) — eight long thin objects
九本 (きゅうほん) — nine long thin objects
十本 (じっぽん) — ten long thin objects
何本 (なんぼん) — how many long thin objects?
本 is used for long, thin objects, such as bottles of beer, pencils and cucumbers.
Note that the number two with this counter (二本) is pronounced with a high tone to a low tone. にほん (日本), as in Japan, is pronounced low tone to high tone.
(にわに きが ごほんある。)
There are five trees in the yard.
5. Machines Counter: 台 (だい)
一台 (いちだい) — one machine
二台 (にだい) — two machines
三台 (さんだい) — three machines
四台 (よんだい) — four machines
五台 (ごだい) — five machines
六台 (ろくだい) — six machines
七台 (ななだい) — seven machines
八台 (はちだい) — eight machines
九台 (きゅうだい) — nine machines
十台 (じゅうだい) — ten machines
何台 (なんだい) — how many machines?
This one’s an easy one! No pesky sound changes to worry about at all.
You can use 台 for anything mechanical or electronic, like cars, washing machines, computers and fax machines (which they still use in Japan).
The only exception is machines that have their own special counter, such as 艘 (そう) for boats and 機 (き) for aircrafts.
(かれは こんぴゅーたーをよんだい もっている。)
He has four computers.
6. Flat, Thin Objects Counter: 枚 (まい)
一枚 (いちまい) — one flat thin object
二枚 (にまい) — two flat thin objects
三枚 (さんまい) — three flat thin objects
四枚 (よんまい) — four flat thin objects
五枚 (ごまい) — five flat thin objects
六枚 (ろくまい) — six flat thin objects
七枚 (ななまい) — seven flat thin objects
八枚 (はちまい) — eight flat thin objects
九枚 (きゅうまい) — nine flat thin objects
十枚 (じゅうまい) — ten flat thin objects
何枚 (なんまい) — how many flat thin objects?
Use this counter for flat, thin objects, like sheets of paper, tickets, shirts and slices of bread.
(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 Japanese Counters
Pairs of Chopsticks, Bowls of Rice: 膳 (ぜん)
一膳 (いちぜん) — one pair of chopsticks/bowl of rice
二膳 (にぜん) — two pairs of chopsticks/bowls of rice
三膳 (さんぜん) — three pairs of chopsticks/bowls of rice
Pairs of Shoes: 足 (そく)
一足 (いっそく) — one pair of shoes
二足 (にそく) — two pairs of shoes
三足 (さんぞく) — three pairs of shoes
Flower Bloom, Wheel: 輪 (りん)
一輪 (いちりん) — one flower bloom/wheel
二輪 (にりん) — two flower blooms/wheels
三輪 (さんりん) — three flower blooms/wheels
Tatami Mats: 畳 (じょう)
一畳 (いちじょう) — one tatami mat
二畳 (にじょう) — two tatami mats
三畳 (さんじょう) — three tatami mats
Tips on Learning Japanese Counters
The most important thing is to take it slowly.
Get to grips with the most common counters—the ones that you’re most likely to encounter when speaking to Japanese people.
Later, you can branch out into more advanced counters like the ones in the “bonus” section.
And if you’re overwhelmed by the number of counters out there, don’t be. Some young Japanese people don’t even know the most advanced ones.
You’ll become much more natural at using counters and getting to know which are actually used by Japanese people by immersing yourself in native Japanese content—something you can easily do with FluentU.
FluentU is a language learning program that lets you learn Japanese from hundreds of internet videos, from music videos to episodes of your favorite animes.
The interactive subtitles are especially useful for learning in context. As you watch a video, you can tap or click on words you don’t know (like unfamiliar counters) to instantly get a definition, example sentences and other videos that use it.
And there you have it—six must-know Japanese counters and how to use them.
Practice with a language partner, create your own example sentences and count sheep in bed tonight!