6 Useful Ways to Count Japanese Numbers!

6 Useful Ways to Count Japanese Numbers!

You’ve been counting for a long time. It’s one of the first things we learned as a child. For most adults numbers and counting are just second nature. That’s why many Japanese learners lose heart when they start learning to count. How can something so basic be so difficult, they wonder. It’s true, counting using Japanese numbers can seem very complicated to begin with. There are so many different rules and counters to remember that it just seems like an impossible task, but don’t worry! This article explains eight useful ways to count in Japanese and hopefully clear up some of the mysteries surrounding Japanese numbers along the way.



 

6 Useful Ways to Count Japanese Numbers!

 

1. Basic Counting

0-10
Let’s start with the basics first! Counting to 10 in Japanese is fairly easy (although there are a couple of things to be careful of.) Let’s take a look:

1- ichi
2 – ni
3 – san
4 – yon/shi
5 – go
6 – roku
7 – nana/shichi
8 – hachi
9 – kyuu
10 – jyuu

Simple, right? You probably noticed that 4 and 7 have two readings. While both are acceptable the generally preferred readings are 4 as ‘yon’ and 7 as ‘nana’ so let’s stick with those readings for now. Also, 0 is a special case. Just as in English people might say ‘zero’ or ‘oh’ there are a few different ways to say 0 in Japanese. The three ways you might encounter are: ‘zero’ (pronounced ze-ro not zee-ro), rei or maru. The Japanese word maru means ‘circle’ and is the equivalent of saying ‘oh’ in English.

11-99
Counting up to 99 is easy too! You can simply combine the numbers to 10 to make any number up to 99. The method works like this. 2 (ni) tens (jyuu) = twenty (nijyuu). Let’s take a look at all of the multiples of 10 up to 90:

10 – jyuu (ten)
20 – nijyuu (two tens)
30 – sanjyuu (three tens)
40 – yonjyuu (four tens)
50 – gojyuu (five tens)
60 – rokujyuu (six tens)
70 – nanajyuu (seven tens)
80 – hachijyuu (eight tens)
90 – kyuujyuu (nine tens)

You can add a number below 10 to make any number you like up to 99. For example:

83 – hachijyuu san (eight tens + three)
27 – nijyuu nana (two tens + seven)

100 – 999:
The rules about how to build up a number remain the same but there is a bit of a catch here. See if you can spot it!

100 – hyaku
200 – nihyaku
300 – sanbyaku
400 – yonhayaku
500 – gohyaku
600 – roppyaku
700 – nanahyaku
800 – happyaku
900 – kyuuhyaku

Did you find the catch? 300, 600 and 800 have readings that you might not expect. The reason is quite simple. If they followed the expected pattern they would be quite difficult to say. Try saying ‘hachihyaku’ quickly and you’ll be able to see why it is easier to say happyaku.

Once you’ve learned these three tricky examples you can build up the rest of the number very easily. Just follow the same pattern as before. Here’s some examples:

158 – hyaku gojyuu hachi (hundred + five tens + eight)
711 – nanahyaku jyuu ichi (seven hundreds + ten + one)
696 – roppyaku kyuujyuu roku (six hundreds + nine tens + six)

1000 – 9999:
The Japanese word for one thousand is sen. Just like our earlier examples we can use this to build up larger numbers. However, there are two more numbers with unexpected pronunciation here. Please pay attention to 3000 and 8000. Let’s look at the multiples of 1000:

1000 – sen
2000 – nisen
3000 – sanzen
4000 – yonsen
5000 – gosen
6000 – rokusen
7000 – nanasen
8000 – hassen
9000 – kyuusen

Once again 3000 and 8000 have different pronunciation. As before this is because following the pattern makes the words very difficult to say quickly. Compare saying ‘sansen’ with the correct ‘sanzen’ and you should be able to see what I mean!

You make more complicated numbers using the same method as before. Here’s some examples:

3282 – sanzen nihyaku hachijyuu ni (three thousands + two hundreds + eight tens + two)
8635 – hassen roppyaku sanjyuu go (eight thousands + six hundreds + three tens + five)

10000 and over:
You might expect 10000 to be jyuusen, but Japanese numbers are structured a bit differently. 10,000 is read as ichi man, which means ‘one tenthousand’. The multiples of 10,000 look like this:

10,000 – ichiman
20,000 – niman
30, 000 – sanman
40,000 – yonman
50,000 – goman
60,000 – rokuman
70,000 – nanaman
80,000 – hachiman
90,000 – kyuuman

You can use this system to count all the way to 100,000,000 (ichioku) which is as far as we will explore in this article. Let’s take a look at some examples:

2,456,637 – nihyaku yonjyuu goman rokusen roppyaku sanjyuu nana
99,999,999 – kyuusen kyuuhyaku kyuuman kyuusen kyuuhyaku kyuujyuu kyuu

All clear so far? Good! Let’s move on to something a little more complicated…

 

2. Telling the time in Japanese

Hours
You can say the hour in Japanese quite easily. Just say the number followed by ji. Watch out for 4 o’clock, 7 o’clock and 9 o’clock as they are a bit different. The hours look like this:

1 o’clock – ichiji
2 o’clock – niji
3 o’clock – sanji
4 o’clock – yoji
5 o’clock – goji
6 o’clock – rokuji
7 o’clock – shichiji
8 o’clock – hachiji
9 o’clock – kuji
10 o’clock – jyuuji
11 o’clock – jyuuichiji
12 o’clock – jyuuniji

Minutes
To say the minutes past the hour we give the number followed by fun. However there are a few difference to pay attention to for minutes which end with a 1, 3, 4, 6, 8 or 10.

1 minute – ippun
2 minutes – nifun
3 minutes – sanpun
4 minutes – yonpun
5 minutes – gofun
6 minutes – roppun
7 minutes – nanafun
8 minutes – happun
9 minutes – kyuufun
10 minutes – jyuppun

If you want to say a.m. put the word gozen (morning) before the time. For p.m. simply use the word gogo (afternoon).

We can use this to build up a time. Here’s some examples:

2:31 a.m. – gozen niji sanjyuu ippun
5:42 p.m. – gogo goji yonjyuu nifun
7:50 a.m. – gozen nanaji gojyuppun

 

3. Years, Months and Days

In Japan dates are written in the YYYY/MM/DD format. We think about how to write the year first as it’s very simple. To write the year in Japanese simply say the number followed by nen. It’s really that simple! There is another calendar which is commonly used in Japan but we’ll look at that later in this article. For now, let’s stick to adding nen after the year. Here’s a few examples:

1986 – sen happyaku hachijyuu roku nen
2015 – nisen jyuu go nen
2020 – nisen nijyuu nen

Very easy right? The months are fairly simple too. We take the number of the month and follow it with the word gatsu (month). The only ones to watch out for are April, July and September. I’m sure you’ve noticed the same numbers cause problems time and time again and it’s no exception with the months, as the 4th, 7th and 9th are the ones which break the pattern. Let’s look at how to count the months of the year:

January – ichigatsu (1st month)
February – nigatsu (2nd month)
March – sangatsu (3rd month)
April – shigatsu (4th month)
May – gogatsu (5th month)
June – rokugatsu (6th month)
July – shichigatsu (7th month)
August – hachigatsu (8th month)
September – kugatsu (9th month)
October – jyuugatsu (10th month)
November – jyuuichigatsu (11th month)
December – jyuunigatsu (12th month)

All very simple so far. Unfortunately, when it comes to counting dates it gets rather more complicated. Many dates use a traditional Japanese way of counting. We will see these numbers more often when we start counting different objects so let’s take a look at them now.

1 – hito
2 – futa
3 – mi
4 – yon/yo
5 – itsu
6 – mu
7 – nana
8 – ya
9 – kokono
10 – tou
20 – hatachi

It’s useful to look at these now because most of the first 10 dates in each month use this counting system as does the 14th, 20th and 24th of each month. The 17th and 27th can also cause problems, as the use the less common shichi reading for seven. Let’s check the difficult dates:

1st – tsuitachi
2nd – futsuka
3rd – mikka
4th – yokka
5th – itsuka
6th – muika
7th – nanoka
8th – youka
9th – kokonoka
10th – touka
14th – jyuuyokka
17th – jyuushichi nichi
20th – hatsuka
27th – nijyuushichi nichi
24th – nijyuuyokka

Once we have learned these then the rest of the dates are easy to say. Simply say the number followed by the word nichi (day). Here are a few examples:

11th – jyuuichi nichi
18th – jyuuhachi nichi
22nd – nijyuuni nichi
30th – sanjyuu nichi

Days of the week
It’s not strictly counting but, as we are looking at dates we might as well check the days of the week now.

They look like this:
Monday – getsuyoubi (moon day)
Tuesday – kayoubi (fire day)
Wednesday – suiyoubi (water day)
Thursday – mokuyoubi (wood day)
Friday – kinyoubi (metal day)
Saturday – doyoubi (earth day)
Sunday – nichiyoubi (sun day)

 

4. Counting Objects

In English counting objects is generally very easy you put a number before the name of the object and usually make the noun plural by adding s (three cars, two boys, five cats etc.) However, there are a few words that don’t work that way; you don’t say ‘four papers’ you say ‘four sheets of paper.’ In Japanese it’s even more complicated I’m afraid as each class of objects has a special counter which follows the number when you are counting those objects. Many people learning Japanese find counters very confusing to begin with but if you keep practicing it does get easier, I promise!

General counter – tsu
If you don’t know the counter for something or it has a very rare or obscure counter then you can use the general counter tsu. It’s often not the correct one to use and your Japanese will sound a lot more natural if you learn some of the others but if you are really stuck it can be very useful! Be careful though, you will see a lot of the traditional Japanese numbers we talked about earlier.

1 – hitotsu
2 – futatsu
3 – mittsu
4 – yottsu
5 – itsutsu
6 – muttsu
7 – nanatsu
8 – yattsu
9 – kokonotsu
10 – tou

Next let’s look at the more common counters used in Japanese. We’ll start with the counter for people – nin.

Counting people
To count people we put the counter nin after the number. There counter for one person and two people is a little different so take care with those ones. Let’s take a look at how to count up to 10 people.

1 person – hitori
2 people – futari
3 people – sannin
4 people – yonin
5 people – gonin
6 people – rokunin
7 people – shichinin
8 people – hachinin
9 people – kyuunin
10 people – jyuunin

So to say 3 people we use the phrase ‘hito sannin’ or ‘sannin no hito.’ In this phrase hito means ‘person’ and no is a possessive marker that acts like the word ‘of’ in this case. Let’s check some examples.

hito hachinin – eight people
hitori no otoko – one man
gonin no onna – five women

Please note that it doesn’t matter if you say ‘gonin no onna’ or ‘onna gonin’ as both have the same meaning.

Counting animals
the counter for small, domestic animals like dogs and cats is hiki. It’s used in exactly the same way as nin is used for people. Let’s count up to ten small animals. Look closely for those examples which don’t follow the pattern.

1 animal – ippiki
2 animals – nihiki
3 animals – sanbiki
4 animals – yonhiki
5 animals – gohiki
6 animals – roppiki
7 animals – nanahiki
8 animals – happiki
9 animals – kyuuhiki
10 animals – jyuupiki

Let’s look at some examples of counting cats (neko)

6 cats – roppiki no neko
1 cat – neko ippiki
7 cats – nanahiki no neko

Now, you could write a whole book about counters and how to use them (and people have.) For now let’s have a look at some of the counters you will hear most often in Japanese.

hon – long thin objects (pencils, bottles, chopsticks etc.)
mai – thin flat objects (tickets, pieces of paper, T-shirts etc.)
ko – small round objects (apples, nuts, rice bowls, rocks etc.)
dai – machines and vehicles (cars, washing machines, microwaves, bicycles etc.)

…and many more! Keep practicing and don’t get disheartened. Many Japanese people have made mistakes with counters too. You might like to practice some more uncommon counters and surprise your Japanese friends when you know the counter for tatami mats is jyou or the counter for mirrors is men for example.

 

5. Telephone Numbers

OK! Now we’ve dealt with the complicated matter of counters let’s take a look at something easier. Giving your telephone number in Japan is really simple. There are just a couple of things that it’s useful to be aware of. Telephone numbers in Japan are made up of three parts. An area code, and exchange code and a subscriber number so a number might look something like this: 03 – 1234 – 5678. The dashes separate the different parts of the number and are read as no. This number would be read as:

zero san no ichi ni san yon no go roku nana hachi

Telephone numbers for the emergency services are made up of three digits. It’s worth remembering some of these useful phone numbers when you are travelling in Japan. Let’s take a look at some of the more important ones:

110 – Police
118 – Coastguard
119 – Ambulance service / Fire service
171 – Earthquake assistance

Numbers smaller than zero:
Sometimes you might need to use numbers smaller than zero. Fortunately it’s very easy to make these. The decimal point is read as ten and any digits following it are read individually. Here’s a couple of examples:

341.56 – sanbyaku yonjyuu ichi ten go roku
8259.817 – hassen nihyaku gojyuu kyuu ten hachi ichi nana

If you want to show that a number is negative then simply add mainasu (the katakana reading of ‘minus’) before the number. For example:

-258 – mainasu nihyaku gojyuu hachi
-7751 – mainasu nanasen nanahyaku go jyuu ichi

Lucky and unlucky numbers:
In Western countries the number 13 is often considered to be an unlucky number and many hotels, apartment blocks and streets don’t have a room or house numbered 13. In Japan certain numbers are considered to be unlucky too. Traditionally 13 had no special significance in Japan but both 4 and 9 are regarded as unlucky numbers. One of the readings for the number 4 (shi) sounds exactly the same as the Japanese word for ‘death.’ Similarly, the ku reading of 9 sounds the same as our word for ‘suffering.’ As I’m sure you can imaging people aren’t so happy about staying in a room which sounds like ‘death’ or ‘suffering’ so most hotels (and hospitals!) either skip these numbers entirely or replace them with a 3A and 8A. For the same reason Japanese airline companies tend not to have seats labelled 4 or 9 either.

This dislike of the numbers 4 and 9 can also be seen when Japanese people are giving presents. When we give someone a set of objects as a gift (like cakes, mugs or bottles of beer for example) they are usually given in sets of 3 or 5 but never as a set of 4.

Just like in Western countries the number 7 is considered lucky in Japan. However we also think of 8 as being a lucky number. In Japanese kanji the number eight is written with a narrow top and it becomes wider near the bottom. This calls to mind gradual development and continuously increasing wealth and prosperity. Both very lucky concepts, I’m sure you’ll agree!

 

6. Special Characters

Counting in Japanese can be completely straightforward or maddeningly complicated depending on the situation. However it’s not only counting that can be confusing about Japanese numbers. For instance, did you know that there is a special way to write Japanese numbers which is most commonly seen on legal documents? If you take a look at the way we write 1, 2, 3 and 5 and 10 you might be able to guess why.

一、二、三、五、十

Now, imagine that you are a far less scrupulous person than you are. That IOU you have for 10000 yen (一万円) can easily become, with just a single stroke of a pen, an IOU for 100000 yen (十万円). For this reason there are special characters for numbers which have been used for a very long time to try and minimize the risk of people altering financial documents to make themselves richer or swindle others out of money. The only ones in common usage are the characters for 1, 2, 3 and 10. Let’s take a look at them:

1 – Normal character: 一 Special character: 壱
2 – Normal character: 二 Special character: 弐
3 – Normal character: 三 Special character: 参
10 – Normal character: 十 Special character: 拾

By using these more complicated characters people tried to cut down on fraud arising from people altering simple characters for numbers. However, many numbers in Japan are written using the Arabic numbers familiar in the west and these special characters are now normally only seen on official legal documents and on Japanese banknotes.

 

Conclusion

Wherever you are in the world, counting is one of the first things we learn as a small child. It’s something that we do so unconsciously that we don’t really notice how useful it is. Being able to count effectively in Japanese can seem like a real challenge at times. Many people lose heart when they start learning about counters for the first time but don’t give up! Being able to count in Japanese makes your travels here so much easier. Check the examples I’ve given in this article and practice, practice, practice! Practice reading your phone number in Japanese or, next time you’re at a restaurant, try converting your bill. Watch some anime or read some manga and try and find times when Japanese numbers or counters are used. There’s so many ways to practice and improve that, before too long, you’ll be counting like a native!

 

6 Useful Ways to Count Japanese Numbers!

1. Basic Counting
2. Telling the time in Japanese
3. Years, Months and Days
4. Counting Objects
5. Telephone Numbers
6. Special Characters