Japanese counters

Japanese Counters: How to Talk About Numbers Like a Native

Indiana Brown

Prerequisite of Japanese Counters: Counting in Japanese

This article builds off of a previous understanding of basic counting in Japanese. We suggest reading our article about Japanese numbers before continuing with this guide.

What Are Japanese Counters?

In Japanese, numerals cannot quantify nouns by themselves. Numerals must be combined with a counter word that corresponds with the object or concept being counted. These counters are also not independent words; they must appear with a numeric prefix. 

This may sound confusing at first, but let’s take a look at a similar pattern in English:

 “I have three bottles of wine at home.” 

“I have three wines at home.”

 ✔ “Can you give me three sheets of paper?” 

“Can you give me three papers?”

As you can see, this counter system is also at play when counting certain nouns in English. Some nouns just don’t sound natural when being counted unless you have a counter word describing them. However, the key difference between the two languages is that Japanese nouns will always have a counter associated with them while some English nouns do not (e.g. counting cats and dogs requires no counter in English).

So, you’re probably thinking, “Okay, teach me the most common counter words already so I can start speaking Japanese naturally!” But there’s one more thing you should know — the numeric prefix can be radically different depending on the syllables that follow it or the type of counter that follows it.

 

Japanese Counters and Three Counting Systems: Kango, Wago and Gairaigo

Japanese Counters: 3 different counting system
Three methods of counting with different linguistic origins in Japanese.
Wago, Kango, and Gairaigo Numbers 1 - 10
WagoKangoGairaigo
1一 (ひと)一 (いち)ワン
2二 (ふ)二 (に)ツー
3三 (み)三 (さん)スリー
4四 (よ)四 (よん・し)フォー
5五 (いつ)五 (ご)ファイブ
6六 (む)六 (ろく)シックス
7七 (なな)七 (しち・なな)セブン
8八 (や)八 (はち)エイト
9九 (ここ)九 (く・きゅう)ナイン
10十 (とお)十 (じゅう)テン

Japanese Counters with Kango 

The most common counting system is Kango (漢語). Kango means that the word is Sino-Japanese, or has its roots in the Chinese language. The pronunciation is similar to the original Chinese pronunciation of the kanji for numbers (See the chart above).

This is the counting method that’s taught first to Japanese learners because it appears most frequently. Commonplace counters for minutes (分), hours (時間), amount of yen (円), flat objects like sheets of paper (枚), long and thin object like bottles (本), and small animals (匹) go with Kango numbers. For example, 二分 (にふん) is two minutes and 五円 (ごえん) is five yen.

 

Japanese Counters with Wago

The next counting system is Wago (和語), meaning that the word is derived from native Japanese pronunciation. 

While Kango is seen far more frequently than Wago, it is still essential that you get used to counting in Wago style because there is a generic counter you can use for the idea of “things” that’s used for many physical and abstract nouns. Plus, it will come in handy if you forget the counter for a specific object. While using this counter may not sound natural for every object, you will be understood. (p.s. いくつ means “how many things?”).

One of the Japanese counters for things 1- 10 and their pronunciation: 

  •  一つ-ひとつ – one
  •  二つ-ふたつ – two
  •  三つ-みっつ – three
  •  四つ-よっつ – four
  •  五つ-いつつ – five
  •  六つ-むっつ – six
  •  七つ-ななつ – seven
  •  八つ-やっつ – eight
  •  九つ-ここのつ – nine
  •  十つ-とお – ten

*Take note — after you exceed ten things, the counter changes from つ to 個 (こ) and begins to follow Kango numbers. For example, fifteen things is 十五個 (じゅうごこ). You can also use the 個 counter for one through ten using Kango, but while 一つ (ひとつ) and 一個 (いっこ) are often interchangeable, there are some cases where one can’t replace the other.*

Besides the generic counter for “things,” you must also learn Wago numbers in order to express number of days and days of the month.

  • 一日 (いちにち・ついたち)  – one day ・ first of the month
  • 二日 (ふつか) – two days or 2nd of the month
  • 日 (みっか) – three days or 3rd of the month
  • 日 (よっか) – four days or 4th of the month
  • 日 (いつか) – five days or 5th of the month
  • 六日 (むいか) – six days or 6th of the month
  • 七日 (なのか) – seven days or 7th of the month
  • 八日 (ようか)  – eight days or 8th of the month
  • 九日 (ここのか)  – nine days or 9th of the month
  • 十日 (とおか) – ten days or 10th of the month
  • 何日 (なんにち) – how many days or what day?

You may have noticed that the pronunciation of some of these numerical prefixes is slightly different from the corresponding pronunciation in the “thing” counters (e.g. ふたつ and ふつか, やっつ and ようか). It’s easiest to just memorize these small differences as they come up, especially since the “thing” counter and days of the month are very common subjects in daily Japanese conversation. 

There are other counters in which “one” and “two” are counted with Wago numbers (and sometimes even a different pronunciation of the counter word) and the rest of the numbers are counted with Kango numbers. For example, 人 (にん), the counter for the number of people, starts with 一人 (ひとり), 二人 (ふたり), 三人 (さんにん), 四人 (よにん), 五人 (ごにん), and so on. These exceptions also just have to be memorized as you discover them.

 

Japanese Counters with Gairaigo

The last counting system in Japanese comes from the pronunciation of numbers in English. This is the least common counting system and is typically replaceable with a Kango number (See the chart above).

  • Example: ワンセット = one set

Easy enough, right? Don’t stress memorizing these numbers right away. They’re easy enough to pick up once you’ve grown accustomed to transliteration patterns in wasei-eigo (Japanese words of English origin) and mostly come in handy outside of the counter context (e.g. セブンイレブン = 7-Eleven, ワンパンマン = One Punch Man).

 

Systematic Reading Changes of Japanese Counters

To complicate things further, these base numeric prefixes will often change pronunciation through linguistic phenomena called rendaku and sokuon. In essence, this refers to altering pronunciation or dropping sounds to make words easier to say. You can read more about this in the “Tricky Pronunciation Rules” section of our basic counting article.

Systematic Reading Changes of Kango Word Counters

Let’s take a look at how Kango numbers will commonly drop a syllable or change the pronunciation of the first syllable of the Japanese counter that follows them. Keep in mind that the following rules have a handful of exceptions, but are generally a safe guideline to follow.

一 (いち) becomes いっ when followed by kana from the k, s, t, h, or p column. When followed by kana from the h column, the h column kana changes from an h to a p sound. 

Examples include: 一個 (いっこ) – one thing, 一足 (いっそく) – one pair (e.g. of shoes), 一頭 (いっとう) – one large animal (e.g. cow), 一分 (いっぷん) – one minute.

二 (に) will become your new best friend because it does not change depending on the kana that follow it. The only times it changes are when the counter requires a Wago pronunciation (e.g. as we saw before, 人 (にん) requires ふた pronunciation for 二, and the pronunciation of the counter itself even changes from にん to り).

三 (さん) changes the pronunciation of kana following it when they are from the h column. If followed by は、ひ、へ、or ほ, the pronunciation will change from an h sound to a b sound. If followed by ふ, the pronunciation will change from an f sound to a p sound. Finally, if followed by the kana わ, it can be pronounced the same or change the わ to a ば sound.

Examples include: 三本 (さんぼん) – three long cylindrical objects (e.g. bottles), 三分 (さんぷん) – three minutes, and 三羽 (さんわ・さんば) – three birds or rabbits.

四 (よん) can change the pronunciation of kana following it when they are from the h column to a p sound, but it is also acceptable to leave it as is. Same goes for when 四 is followed by わ; it’s acceptable to change the わ to ば or keep the わ as is. Sometimes, the ん is dropped, as in 四時 (よじ) – four o’clock.

Examples include: 四分 (よんふん・よんぷん) – four minutes, 四羽 (よんわ・よんば・よわ) – four birds or rabbits.

五 (ご) is even more user-friendly than 二 because it will not change the pronunciation of any kana following it. 

六 (ろく) becomes ろっ when followed by kana from the k, h, or p column. When followed by kana from the h column, the h column kana changes from an h to a p sound. When followed by the わ kana, the ろく pronunciation can stay the same or contract to ろっ and turn the わ into a ぱ sound. 

Examples include: 六個 (ろっこ) – six things, 六本 (ろっぽん) – six long cylindrical objects (e.g. bottles), 六分 (ろっぷん) – six minutes, 六羽 (ろくわ・ろっぱ) – six birds or rabbits.

七 (なな・しち) does not change the pronunciation of the kana that follow it. なな can technically be swapped for しち in any given context and still be correct. However, it simply sounds more natural in daily conversation to use one over the other(for example, 七時 (seven o’clock) is much more commonly pronounced しちじ than ななじ). なな is often used to avoid misunderstandings because しち sounds quite a bit like いち, especially over the phone. 

八 (はち) is a bit tricky because it can shorten to はっ when followed by kana from the k, s, t, or p column, but doesn’t always have to. When followed by わ, it can stay はち or become はっ and convert the わ into ぱ.

Examples include: 八個 (はちこ・はっこ) – eight things, 八足 (はちそく・はっそく) – eight pairs (e.g. of shoes), 八頭 (はちとう・はっとう) – eight large animals (e.g. cows), 八分 (はちふん・はっぷん), 八ページ (はちぺーじ・はっぺーじ) – eight pages, 八羽 (はちわ・はっぱ).

九 (きゅう・く) will not change the pronunciation of any kana following it. Occasionally, the きゅう pronunciation becomes く. For example, 九時 (くじ) – nine o’clock.

十 (じゅう) can either change to じゅっ or じっ when followed by a kana in the k, s, t, h, or p column. When followed by わ, it can either shorten to じゅっ or じっ and turn the わ into a ぱ, or remain as is.

Examples include: 十個 (じゅっこ・じっこ) – ten things, 十足 (じゅっそく・じっそく) – ten pairs (e.g. of shoes), 十頭 (じゅっとう・じっとう) – ten large animals (e.g. cows), 十分 (じゅっぷん・じっぷ・) – ten minutes, 十羽 (じゅっぱ・じっぱ・じゅうわ) – ten birds or rabbits.

百 (ひゃく) becomes ひゃっ when followed by a kana from the k, h, or p column. When followed by kana from the h column, it converts the h sound to a p sound. When followed by わ, it can shorten to ひゃっ and change the わ to ぱ, or remain as is.

Examples include: 百個 (ひゃっこ) – one hundred things, 百分 (ひゃっぷん) – one hundred minutes, 百羽 (ひゃくわ・ひゃっぱ) – one hundred birds or rabbits.

千 (せん) does not change in pronunciation when followed by a counter. However, when followed by は, ひ, へ, or ほ, it will change the h sound to a b sound. When followed by ふ, it will change the f sound to a p sound. When followed by わ, it can change the わ to ば or leave it as is.

Examples include: 千本 (せんぼん) – one thousand long and cylindrical objects (e.g. bottles), 千分 (せんぷん) – one thousand minutes, 千羽 (せんわ・せんば) – one thousand birds or rabbits.

万 (まん) does not change in pronunciation but is preceded by an 一 (いち). However, when followed by は, ひ, へ, or ほ, it will change the h sound to a b sound. When followed by ふ, it will change the f sound to a p sound. When followed by わ, it can change the わ to ば or leave it as is.

Examples include: 一万本 (いちまんぼん) – ten thousand long and cylindrical objects (e.g. bottles), 一万分 (いちまんぷん) – ten thousand minutes, 一万羽 (いちまんわ・いちまんば) – one thousand birds or rabbits.

何 (なん) does not change in pronunciation. However, when followed by は, ひ, へ, or ほ, it will change the h sound to a b sound. When followed by ふ, it will change the f sound to a p sound.

Examples include: 何本 (なんぼん) – how many long and cylindrical objects (e.g. bottles), 何分 (なんぷん) – how many minutes.

 

Systematic Reading Changes of the Japanese Counter 個 (こ)

Using our newfound knowledge of systematic reading changes, let’s take a look at the Kango counter for things – 個 (こ).

  • 一個 (いっこ) – one thing
  • 二個 (にこ) – two things
  • 三個 (さんこ) – three things
  • 四個 (よんこ) – four things
  • 五個 (ごこ) – five things
  • 八個 (ろっこ) – six things
  • 七個 (ななこ・しちこ) – seven things
  • 八個 (はちこ・はっこ) – eight things
  • 九個 (きゅうこ) – nine things
  • 十個 (じゅっこ・じっこ) – ten things
  • 百個 (ひゃっこ) – one hundred things
  • 千個 (せんこ) – one thousand things
  • 一万個 (いちまんこ) – ten thousand things
  • 何個 (なんこ) – how many things?

Systematic Reading Changes of the Japanese Counter 匹 (ひき)

Now let’s try 匹 (ひき), the Japanese counter for small animals! If you’ll recall, there are a lot of pronunciation changes here.

  • 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・しちひき) – seven small animals
  • 八匹 (はちひき・はっぴき) – eight small animals
  • 九匹 (きゅうひき) – nine small animals
  • 十匹 (じゅっぴき・じっぴき) – ten small animals
  • 百匹 (ひゃっぴき) – one hundred small animals
  • 千匹 (せんびき) – one thousand small animals
  • 一万匹 (いちまんびき) – ten thousand small animals
  • 何匹 (なんびき) – how many small animals?

How to Know What Japanese Counter to Use: Databases That You Can Use

It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? So many counters, so little time… luckily, with enough practice, you’ll have the most common ones down pat in no time. For more uncommon instances, you can search the Japanese concept or object using the following databases:

Minna no Chishiki: Chotto Benricho

 ものの数え方〔助数詞〕 database

Japanese Counters
Screenshot of MInna No Chishiki, you can input the word you look for in the blank space before “検索” or use the kana chart

Kazoekata Tani Jiten

 数え方単位辞典

Japanese Counters
Screenshot of Kazoekata Tani Jiten, you can input the word you look for in the blank space before “検索”

These databases require some knowledge of Japanese to navigate, as they are written entirely in Japanese. However, they provide very detailed information on the appropriate circumstances for the counter! For example, when you search ぶどう (grapes) in Kazoekata Tani Jiten, it explains that the 房 (ふさ) counter is used for bunches of grapes, 山 (やま), 箱 (はこ) or 袋 (ふくろ) are used for retail packages of grapes, and grapevines are counted with the 本 (ほん) or 株 (かぶ) counters. That’s a lot of info!

Here you will find an excellent list of fifteen kinds of more advanced but still very useful counters.

 

How to Use Japanese Counters in Sentences

Now that you have gotten a taste of a few common counters, let’s see how they’re used in a sentence!

Counters Counting Nouns 1: number + counter + の + noun

When a counter isn’t specific (e.g. number of people, time, etc.) then the number and counter need to be followed by the specific noun that the counters are counting.

  • 二匹の犬がいる。
  • There are two dogs.
  • 三つのリンゴを買いました。
  • I bought three apples.

Counters Counting Nouns 2: noun + number + counter

When a counter is specific (e.g. number of people, time, etc.), then the number and counter can act as a subject/object on their own in the sentence.

  • 二人は一緒に昼ご飯を食べた。
  • The two ate lunch together.
  • あと十分で食べるよ。
  • We’ll be eating in another ten minutes.

Counters as Adverbs: number + counter + verb

 

  • ビールを二本飲んだ。
  • beer + direct object marker + two bottles + drank
  • (I) drank two bottles of beer.
  • 猫を三匹飼っている。
  • cat + three small animals + owning
  • (I) own three cats.

List of Common Japanese Counters

The following are lists of some common Japanese counters to get you started on your numerical journey!

CounterPronunciation 1-10
~つ Wago counter for thingsひとつ、ふたつ、みっつ、よっつ、いつつ、むっつ、ななつ、やっつ、ここのつ、とお
~個 (こ)  Kango counter for thingsいっこ、にこ、さんこ、よんこ、ごこ、ろっこ、ななこ・しちこ、はちこ・はっこ、きゅうこ、じゅっこ・じっこ

Japanese Counters for Objects

~枚  flat objects (e.g. CDs, papers, cookies, paintings)いちまい、にまい、さんまい、よんまい、ごまい、ろくまい、ななまい・しちまい、はちまい、きゅうまい、じゅうまい
~本     long, cylindrical objects (e.g. bottles, umbrellas, pencils)いっぽん、にほん、さんぼん、よんほん、ごほん、ろっぽん、ななほん・しちほん、はちほん・はっぽん、きゅうほん、じゅっぽん・じっぽん
~冊     booksいっさつ、にさつ、さんさつ、よんさつ、ごさつ、ろくさつ、ななさつ・しちさつ、はちさつ・はっさつ、きゅうさつ、じゅっさつ・じっさつ
~軒     houses and buildingsいっけん、にけん、さんげん、よんけん、ごけん、ろっけん、ななけん・しちけん、はっけん、きゅうけん、じゅっけん
~足    pairs (e.g. shoes)いっそく、にそく、さんそき、よんそく、ごそく、ろくそく、ななそく、はっそく、きゅうそく、じゅっそく・じっそく

Japanese Counters for Living Beings

~人  peopleひとり、ふたり、さんにん、よにん、ごにん、ろくにん、ななにん・しちにん、はちにん、きゅうにん・くにん、じゅうにん
~匹  small to medium animals (e.g. insects, cats, frogs)いっぴき、にひき、さんびき、よんひき、ごひき、ろっぴき、ななひき・しちひき、はちひき・はっぴき、きゅうひき、じゅっぴき・じっぴき
~頭  large animals (e.g. cows, horses, large fish)いっとう、にとう、さんとう、よんとう、ごとう、ろくとう、ななとう・しちとう、はちとう・はっとう、きゅうとう、じゅっとう・じっとう
~羽   rabbits, bats, birdsいちわ、にわ、さんわ・さんば、よんわ・よんば・よわ、ごわ、ろくわ・ろっぱ、ななわ・しちわ、はちわ・はっぱ、きゅうわ、じゅうわ・じゅっぱ・じっぱ
~尾   certain small fish and shrimpいちび、にび、さんび、よんび、ごび、ろくび、ななび・しちび、はちび、きゅうび、じゅうび

Japanese Counters for Transportation

~台     large machines and appliances, cars, trucks, bikesいちだい、にだい、さんだい、よんだい、ごだい、ろくだい、ななだい・しちだい、はちだい、きゅうだい、じゅうだい
~機    airplanesいっき、にき、さんき、よんき、ごき、ろっき、ななき・しちき、はっき、きゅうき、じゅっき
~両     train carsいちりょう、にりょう、さんりょう、よんりょう、ごりょう、ろくりょう、ななりょう・しちりょう、はちりょう、きゅうりょう、じゅうりょう
~隻  boatsいっせき、にせき、さんせき、よんせき、ごせき、ごせき、ろくせき、ななせき、はっせき、きゅうせき、じゅっせき

Japanese Counters for Time

~秒   secondsいちびょう、にびょう、さんびょう、よんびょう、ごびょう、ろくびょう、ななびょう・しちびょう、はちびょう、きゅうびょう、じゅうびょう
~分   minutesいっぷん、にふん、さんぶん、よんぷん・よんふん、ごふん、ろっぷん、ななふん・しちふん、はっぷん・はちふん、きゅうふん、じゅっぷん・じっぷん
~時    o’clockいちじ、にじ、さんじ、よじ、ごじ、ろくじ、しちじ・ななじ、はちじ、くじ、じゅうじ
~時間   hoursいちじかん、にじかん、さんじかん、ごじかん、ろくじかん、しちじかん・ななじかん、はちじかん、くじかん、じゅうじかん
~ヶ月いっかげつ、にかげつ、さんかげつ、よんかげつ、ごかげつ、ろっかげつ、ななかげつ、はちかげつ・はっかげつ、きゅうかげつ、じゅっかげつ・じっかげつ

Abstract Japanese Counters

~回  number of times an action is doneいっかい、にかい、さんかい、よんかい、ごかい、ろっかい、ななかい・しちかい、はちかい・はっかい、きゅうかい、じゅっかい・じっかい
~番 numbers in a seriesいちばん、にばん、さんばん、よんばん、ごばん、ろくばん、ななばん・しちばん、はちばん、きゅうばん、じゅうばん
~歳   years oldいっさい、にさい、さんさい、よんさい、ごさい、ろくさい、ななさい・しちさい、はっさい、きゅうさい、じゅっさい
~曲    songsいっきょく、にきょく、さんきょく、よんきょく、ごきょく、ろっきょく、ななきょく、はっきょく、きゅうきょく、じゅっきょく
~件    incidents, eventsいっけん、にけん、さんけん、よんけん、ごけん、ろっけん、ななけん、はっけん、きゅうけん、じゅっけん
~画    strokes in a kanji characterいっかく、にかく、さんかく、よんかく、ごかく、ろっかく、ななかく、はっかく、きゅうかく、じゅっかく

Tips on Learning Japanese Counters

The secret to learning Japanese counters is pattern recognition and practice, practice, practice! Flashcards are very handy for beginning to memorize the many pronunciation changes that occur when counters are added to numbers. It’s good to devote plenty of time to the numbers and counters that are more often subject to change. For harder numbers and counters like the unique days of the month, using songs as mnemonic devices can help to get the words initially stuck in your head.

Finally, there are lots of useful apps like LingoDeer that will teach you Japanese counters clearly and precisely and make sure they’re ingrained in your memory through the use of spaced repetition quizzes! The most important thing is not to be afraid of Japanese counters. Counter words are one of the most unique and fascinating aspects of the Japanese language that make it such a joy to practice and master!

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