japanese counters

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.

Contents

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.

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?

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:

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 conversations. Even when asked “何名様ですか,” it’s safe to reply using 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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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!

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