Numbers and counting in Japanese are difficult enough to require its own section. First of all, the number system is in units of four instead of three, which can make converting into English quite difficult. Also, there are things called counters, which are required to count different types of objects, animals, or people. We will learn the most generic and widely used counters to get you started so that you can learn more on your own. To be honest, counters might be the only thing that’ll make you want to quit learning Japanese, it’s that bad. I recommend you digest only a little bit of this section at a time because it’s an awful lot of things to memorize.
The Number System
The Japanese number system is spread into units of four. So a number such as 10,000,000 is actually split up as 1000,0000. However, thanks to the strong influence of the Western world and the standardization of numbers, when numbers are actually written, the split-off is three digits. Here are the first ten numbers.
As the chart indicates, 4 can either be 「し」 or 「よん」 and 7 can either be 「しち」 or 「なな」. Basically, both are acceptable up to 10. However, past ten, the reading is almost always 「よん」 and 「なな」. In general, 「よん」 and 「なな」 are preferred over 「し」 and 「しち」 in most circumstances.
You can simply count from 1 to 99 with just these ten numbers. Japanese is easier than English in this respect because you do not have to memorize separate words such as “twenty” or “fifty”. In Japanese, it’s simply just “two ten” and “five ten”.
- 三十一 （さんじゅういち） = 31
- 五十四 （ごじゅうよん）= 54
- 七十七 （ななじゅうなな）= 77
- 二十 （にじゅう） = 20
Notice that numbers are either always written in kanji or numerals because hiragana can get rather long and hard to decipher.
Numbers past 99
Here are the higher numbers:
Notice how the numbers jumped four digits from 10^4 to 10^8 between 万 and 億? That’s because Japanese is divided into units of four. Once you get past 1万 (10,000), you start all over until you reach 9,999万, then it rotates to 1億 (100,000,000). By the way, 百 is 100 and 千 is 1,000, but anything past that, and you need to attach a 1 so the rest of the units become 一万 (10^4)、一億 (10^8)、一兆 (10^12).
Now you can count up to 9,999,999,999,999,999 just by chaining the numbers same as before. This is where the problems start, however. Try saying 「いちちょう」 、「ろくひゃく」、or 「さんせん」 really quickly, you’ll notice it’s difficult because of the repetition of similar consonant sounds. Therefore, Japanese people have decided to make it easier on themselves by pronouncing them as 「いっちょう」、 「ろっぴゃく」、and 「さんぜん」. Unfortunately, it makes it all the harder for you to remember how to pronounce everything. Here are all the slight sound changes.
- 四万三千七十六 （よんまんさんぜんななじゅうろく）
- 七億六百二十四万九千二百二十二 （ななおくろっぴゃくにじゅうよんまんきゅうせんにひゃくにじゅうに）
- 五百兆二万一 （ごひゃくちょうにまんいち）
Notice that it is customary to write large numbers only in numerals as even kanji can become difficult to decipher.
Numbers smaller or less than 1
- 零 【れい】 – zero
- ゼロ – zero
- マル – circle; zero
- 点 【てん】 – period; point
- マイナス – minus
Zero in Japanese is 「零」 but 「ゼロ」 or 「マル」 is more common in modern Japanese. There is no special method for reading decimals, you simply say 「点」 for the dot and read each individual number after the decimal point. Here’s an example:
- 0.0021 = ゼロ、点、ゼロ、ゼロ、二、一。
For negative numbers, everything is the same as positive numbers except that you say 「マイナス」 first.
- マイナス二十九 = -29
Counting and Counters
Ah, and now we come to the fun part. In Japanese, when you are simply counting numbers, everything is just as you would expect, 一、二、三、 and so on. However, if you want to count any type of object, you have to use something called a counter which depends on what type of object you are counting and on top of this, there are various sound changes similar to the ones we saw with 六百, etc.. The counter themselves are usually single kanji characters that often have a special reading just for the counter. First, let’s learn the counters for dates
- 平成 【へい・せい】 – Heisei era
- 昭和 【しょう・わ】 – Showa era
- 和暦 【わ・れき】 – Japanese calendar
- 一日 【いち・にち】 – one day
The year is very easy. All you have to do is say the number and add 「年」 which is pronounced here as 「ねん」. For example, Year 2003 becomes 2003年 (にせんさんねん）. The catch is that there is another calendar which starts over every time a new emperor ascends the throne. The year is preceded by the era, for example the year 2000 is: 平成12年. My birthday, 1981 is 昭和56年 (The Showa era lasted from 1926 to 1989). You may think that you don’t need to know this but if you’re going to be filling out forms in Japan, they often ask you for your birthday or the current date in the Japanese calendar （和暦）. So here’s a neat converter you can use to convert to the Japanese calendar.
Saying the months is actually easier than English because all you have to do is write the number (either in numerals or kanji) of the month and add 「月」 which is read as 「がつ」. However, you need to pay attention to April （４月）, July （７月）, and September （９月） which are pronounced 「しがつ」、 「しちがつ」、and 「くがつ」 respectively.
Finally, we get to the days of the month, which is where the headache starts. The first day of the month is 「ついたち」 （一日）; different from 「いちにち」 （一日）, which means “one day”. Besides this and some other exceptions we’ll soon cover, you can simply say the number and add 「日」 which is pronounced here as 「にち」. For example, the 26th becomes 26日 （にじゅうろくにち）. Pretty simple, however, the first 10 days, the 14th, 19th, 20th, 29th have special readings that you must separately memorize. If you like memorizing things, you’ll have a ball here. Notice that the kanji doesn’t change but the reading does.
In Japan, the full format for dates follows the international date format and looks like: XXXX年YY月ZZ日. For example, today’s date would be: 2003年12月 2日
Now, we’ll learn how to tell time. The hour is given by saying the number and adding 「時」 which is pronounced here as 「じ」. Here is a chart of exceptions to look out for.
|英語||4 o’clock||7 o’clock||9 o’clock|
Notice how the numbers 4, 7, and 9 keep coming up to be a pain in the butt? Well, those and sometimes 1, 6 and 8 are the numbers to watch out for.
The minutes are given by adding 「分」 which usually read as 「ふん」 with the following exceptions:
|英語||1 min||3 min||4 min||6 min||8 min||10 min|
For higher number, you use the normal pronunciation for the higher digits and rotate around the same readings for 1 to 10. For instance, 24 minutes is 「にじゅうよんぷん」 （二十四分） while 30 minutes is 「さんじゅっぷん」 （三十分）. There are also other less common but still correct pronunciations such as 「はちふん」 for 「八分」 and 「じっぷん」 for 「十分」 (this one is almost never used).
All readings for seconds consists of the number plus 「秒」, which is read as 「びょう」. There are no exceptions for seconds and all the readings are the same.
Some examples of time.
- 午後4時10分 （ごご・よじ・じゅっぷん）
- 午前9時16分 （ごぜん・くじ・じゅうろっぷん）
- 13時16分 （じゅうさんじ・じゅうろっぷん）
- 2時18分13秒 （にじ・じゅうはっぷん・じゅうさんびょう）
A Span of Time
Ha! I bet you thought you were done with dates and time, well guess again. This time we will learn counters for counting spans of time, days, months, and years. The basic counter for a span of time is 「間」, which is read as 「かん」. You can attach it to the end of hours, days, weeks, and years. Minutes (in general) and seconds do not need this counter and months have a separate counter, which we will cover next.
- 二時間四十分 （にじかん・よんじゅっぷん）
2 hours and 40 minutes
- 二十日間 （はつかかん）
- 十五日間 （じゅうごにちかん）
- 二年間 （にねんかん）
- 三週間 （さんしゅうかん）
- 一日 （いちにち）
As mentioned before, a period of one day is 「一日」 （いちにち） which is different from the 1st of the month: 「ついたち」.
Pronunciations to watch out for when counting weeks is one week: 「一週間」 （いっしゅうかん） and 8 weeks: 「八週間」 （はっしゅうかん）.
To count the number of months, you simple take a regular number and add 「か」 and 「月」 which is pronounced here as 「げつ」 and not 「がつ」. The 「か」 used in this counter is usually written as a small katakana 「ヶ」 which is confusing because it’s still pronounced as 「か」 and not 「け」. The small 「ヶ」 is actually totally different from the katakana 「ケ」 and is really an abbreviation for the kanji 「箇」, the original kanji for the counter. This small 「ヶ」 is also used in some place names such as 「千駄ヶ谷」 and other counters, such as the counter for location described in the “Other Counters” section below.
In counting months, you should watch out for the following sound changes:
|英語||1 month||6 months||10 months|
Just like minutes, the high numbers rotate back using the same sounds for 1 to 10.
- 十一ヶ月 （じゅういっかげつ）
- 二十ヶ月 （にじゅっかげつ）
- 三十三ヶ月 （さんじゅうさんかげつ）
Thirty three months
We’ll cover some of the most common counters so that you’ll be familiar with how counters work. This will hopefully allow you to learn other counters on your own because there are too many to even consider covering them all. The important thing to remember is that using the wrong counter is grammatically incorrect. If you are counting people, you must use the people counter, etc. Sometimes, it is acceptable to use a more generic counter when a less commonly used counter applies. Here are some counters.
|日本語||When to Use|
|人||To count the number of people|
|本||To count long, cylindrical objects such as bottles or chopsticks|
|枚||To count thin objects such as paper or shirts|
|冊||To count bound objects usually books|
|匹||To count small animals like cats or dogs|
|歳||To count the age of a living creatures such as people|
|個||To count small (often round) objects|
|回||To count number of times|
|ヶ所（箇所）||To count number of locations|
|つ||To count any generic object that has a rare or no counter|
The changed sounds have been highlighted.
You don’t count 0 because there is nothing to count. You can simply use 「ない」 or 「いない」. The chart has hiragana for pronunciation but, as before, it is usually written with either numbers or kanji plus the counter with the single exception of 「とお」 which is simply written as 「十」.
For higher numbers, it’s the same as before, you use the normal pronunciation for the higher digits and rotate around the same readings for 1 to 10 except for 「一人」 and 「二人」 which transforms to the normal 「いち」 and 「に」 once you get past the first two. So 「一人」 is 「ひとり」 while 「11人」 is 「じゅういちにん」. Also, the generic counter 「～つ」 only applies up to exactly ten items. Past that, you can just use regular plain numbers.
Note: The counter for age is often sometimes written as 「才」 for those who don’t have the time to write out the more complex kanji. Plus, age 20 is usually read as 「はたち」 and not 「にじゅっさい」.
Using 「目」 to show order
You can attach 「目」 (read as 「め」) to various counters to indicate the order. The most common example is the 「番」 counter. For example, 「一番」 which means “number one” becomes “the first” when you add 「目」 （一番目）. Similarly, 「一回目」 is the first time, 「二回目」 is the second time, 「四人目」 is the fourth person, and so on.