Let's Count to Ten in Japanese
Itchy knee sun she go rock...
For many people, counting to ten is the first thing that they learn when approaching a new language. Japanese has more than one way of counting. Let’s start.
There are two numerical system in the Japanese language:
- the ichi system (Chinese);
- the hitotsu system (Japanese).
Ichi, ni, san: abstract counting
If you are playing 鬼ごっこ onigokko (hide-and-seek), or you are about to launch a missile, then this is how you count to ten. This also constitutes the basis of the Chinese counting system.
- 一 ichi
- 二 ni
- 三 san
- 四 shi
- 五 go
- 六 roku
- 七 shichi
- 八 hachi
- 九 kyū / ku
- 十 jū
These are the words that you use when considering numbers in the abstract sense, for example in mathematics.
San tasu san wa roku desu.
Three plus three equals six.
When writing these numbers, you can either use kanji or Arabic numerals.
Notice that number ‘nine’ can be pronounced kyū or ku. Kyū is more common.
Number ‘four’ and ‘seven’ have an alternative reading of Japanese origin (instead of Chinese).
- 四 yon
- 七 nana
This means that you have two ways of counting up to ten.
Ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyū, jū.
Ichi, ni, san, yon, go, roku, nana, hachi, kyū, jū.
Stick with the first method and you’ll be safe.
Allow me to close this section with a silly mnemonic! There are many variants of it, this is my version of it.
- she chi
- hut chi
Death and suffering?
In Japanese, ‘four’ and ‘nine’ don’t fare very well. Here’s why:
四 SHI, ‘four’
死 SHI, ‘death’
九 KU, ‘nine’
苦 KU, ‘suffering’
This is why in most hotels there is no room 4. Some people take this very seriously, so you may want to be careful with these two numbers, especially ‘four’.
What’s the lucky number in Japan, then? It’s 八 hachi, eight!
Hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu: concrete generic counting
This is the native Japanese counting system, and it’s how you count real things. We’ll see some examples in a minute, but first let’s count.
- 一つ hitotsu
- 二つ futatsu
- 三つ mittsu
- 四つ yottsu
- 五つ itsutsu
- 六つ muttsu
- 七つ nanatsu
- 八つ yattsu
- 九つ kokonotsu
- 十 tō (pron. /toh/)
The following example should help you understand when and how these numbers are used.
Hitotsu dake oshiete chōdai.
Tell me just one thing… (colloquial)
Kawaii nuigurumi o mittsu katta.
I bought three cute stuffed animals. (colloquial)
Jitsu wa hitotsu meian ga arundesu.
In fact, I have one good idea. (formal)
You can pretty much use the Japanese counting system with any object or concept, but never with people, animals, time and money.
The Japanese system can also be used for a simple count, just like the Chinese system.
Hii, fuu, mii: counting fast
When you need to count rapidly, for example when you are shopping for a 10-people party and want to make sure that you put enough frozen pizzas in the cart, you can use a variation of the standard Japanese system.
- ひー hii
- ふー fuu
- みー mii
- よー yoo
- いー ii
- むー muu
- なー naa
- やー yaa
- こー koo
- とー too
There is also a slower version. I highlighted the differences.
Hii, fuu, mii, yoo, ii, muu, naa, yaa, koo, too.
Hii, fuu, mii, yoo, itsu, muu, nana, yaa, kokono, too.
Counting like this is a very “Japanese thing” to do. Next time you go out with your Japanese friends, find a pretext to count “hii, fuu, mii…"; do it nonchalantly, and enjoy the expression of surprise on their faces!
Hitori, futari, sannin: counting people
Counting people requires special words. You will notice that this is a hybrid between the Japanese and the Chinese system.
- 一人 hitori
- 二人 futari
- 三人 sannin
- 四人 yonin
- 五人 gonin
- 六人 rokunin
- 七人 shichinin
- 八人 hachinin
- 九人 kyūnin / kunin
- 十人 jūnin
Hitori and futari follow the Japanese system (hitotsu and futatsu), while the rest follows the Chinese system.
Let’s see a couple of sentences.
Kurosawa Akira no “Shichinin no samurai” wa kessaku da.
“Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa is a masterpiece. (colloquial)
Futari ka sannin shika inakatta.
There were only two or three people. (colloquial)
一人 hitori could be written 独り hitori. The meaning of the second hitori is ‘alone’, ‘solitary’.
Watashi ga iru kara hitori ja nai yo!
I am here so you are not alone!
Ippiki, nihiki, sanbiki: counting animals
With the suffix/classifier 匹 -hiki we can count small and medium sized animals, such as mice, cats, dogs, pigs, monkeys, squirrels, etc.
- 一匹 ippiki
- 二匹 nihiki
- 三匹 sanbiki
- 四匹 yonhiki
- 五匹 gohiki
- 六匹 roppiki
- 七匹 nanahiki
- 八匹 happiki
- 九匹 kyūhiki
- 十匹 juppiki / jippiki
“Sanbiki no kobuta” tte donna sutōrī dakke?
What was the story of “the three little pigs”? (colloquial)
In order to count larger animals like tigers, horses, giraffes, etc., we require the classifier 頭 -tō. So we count:
- 一頭 ittō
- 二頭 nitō
- 三頭 santō
- 四頭 yontō
- 五頭 gotō
- 六頭 rokutō
- 七頭 nanatō / shichitō
- 八頭 hattō
- 九頭 kyūtō
- 十頭 juttō / jittō
There is also a special classifier for birds and… rabbits! This classifier is 羽 -wa.
- 一羽 ichiwa
- 二羽 niwa
- 三羽 sanwa
- 四羽 yonwa
- 五羽 gowa
- 六羽 rokuwa
- 七羽 shichiwa / nanawa
- 八羽 hachiwa
- 九羽 kyūwa
- 十羽 jūwa
Ikko, niko, sanko: counting small objects
This is how you count small, usually round, compact objects. The classifier is 個 -ko.
- 一個 ikko
- 二個 niko
- 三個 sanko
- 四個 yonko
- 五個 goko
- 六個 rokko
- 七個 nanako
- 八個 hakko / hachiko
- 九個 kyūko
- 十個 jukko / jikko
So what shall we count? How about apples.
Ringo sanko mo tabechatta!
I just eat three apples! (colloquial)
With time you will naturally learn what makes sense to count “ikko, niko…”, and what doesn’t. Just a few off the top of my head: oranges, watermelons, muffins, beans, eggs…
This way of counting is very often interchangeable with “hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu…”
Ippon, nihon, sanbon: counting long cylindrical objects
We can’t say “ikko, niko…” for the following objects: pencils, bottles, fingers, trees, spaghetti strings, etc.
There is a specific way of counting long, cylindrical objects, by using the classifier 本 -hon.
- 一本 ippon
- 二本 nihon
- 三本 sanbon
- 四本 yonhon
- 五本 gohon
- 六本 roppon / rokuhon
- 七本 nanahon
- 八本 happon / hachihon
- 九本 kyūhon
- 十本 juppon / jippon
Roppon and happon are your go-to forms. Nevertheless, if you want to provide accurate information (for example over the phone), it is better to say rokuhon and hachihon.
八本 happon can be easily misheard as 百本 hyappon. Surely you don’t want to accidentally order one-hundred bottles of beer instead of eight!
「指、何本か分かる？」 − 「八本でしょ？」
“Yubi, nanbon ka wakaru?” - “Happon desho?"
“How many fingers (do you see)?” - “Eight, right?” (colloquial)
Trivia: Roppongi is famous district of Tokyo. 六本木 roppongi literally means ‘six trees’.
Ippai, nihai, sanbai: counting cupfuls
Now that we learned how to count bottles of beer, let’s learn to count glassfuls of beer. We use the classifier 杯 -hai.
- 一杯 ippai
- 二杯 nihai
- 三杯 sanbai
- 四杯 yonhai
- 五杯 gohai
- 六敗 roppai / rokuhai
- 七杯 nanahai
- 八杯 happai / hachihai
- 九杯 kyūhai
- 十杯 juppai / jippai
「それ何杯目？」 − 「もう五杯飲んだ」
“Sore nanhai me?” - “Mou gohai nonda."
“How many did you have?” - “I already had five.” (colloquial)
Omizu mō ippai chōdai.
Give me another glass of water, please. (colloquial)
Ikkai, nikai, sangai: counting floors
To count floors in a building we use the classifier 階 -kai.
- 一階 ikkai
- 二階 nikai
- 三階 sangai
- 四階 yonkai
- 五階 gokai
- 六階 rokkai
- 七階 nanakai
- 八階 hachikai / hakkai
- 九階 kyūkai
- 十階 jukkai / jikkai
In Japan we don’t say “ground floor”, so ikkai is the ground floor. Also careful with the third floor, it’s sangai, not sankai.
Hachikai de gozaimasu.
You’ve reached the eight floor. (formal)
Ichimai, nimai, sanmai: counting thin, flat objects
The classifier 枚 -mai is for thin, flat objects like sheets of paper, bed sheets, t-shirts (but not trousers), CDs, dishes, playing cards, etc.
- 一枚 ichimai
- 二枚 nimai
- 三枚 sanmai
- 四枚 yonmai
- 五枚 gomai
- 六枚 rokumai
- 七枚 nanamai
- 八枚 hachimai
- 九枚 kyūmai
- 十枚 jūmai
If you count to ten “ichimai, nimai, sanmai… slowly, with a ghostly voice, you are re-enacting a very popular Japanese ghost story: 番町皿屋敷 Banchō Sarayashiki, “The Dish Mansion of Banchō”. From Wikipedia:
Once there was a beautiful servant named Okiku. She worked for the samurai Aoyama Tessan. Okiku often refused his amorous advances, so he tricked her into believing that she had carelessly lost one of the family’s ten precious delft plates.
Such a crime would normally result in her death. In a frenzy, she counted and recounted the nine plates many times. However, she could not find the tenth and went to Aoyama in guilty tears. The samurai offered to overlook the matter if she finally became his lover, but again she refused. Enraged, Aoyama threw her down a well to her death.
It is said that Okiku became a vengeful spirit, 怨霊 onryō, who tormented her murderer by counting to nine and then making a terrible shriek to represent the missing tenth plate.
Wan, tsū, surī: counting in Japanese… in English
In Japan it’s an actual thing to count in Engrish at times. Sometimes this is done to count the beats of a song.
- ワン wan
- ツー tsū
- スリー surī
- フォー fō
- ファイブ faibu
- シックス shikkusu
- セブン sebun
- エイト eito
- ナイン nain
- テン ten
There are many more classifiers in the Japanese language, but that will be the topic for another post.