Let's learn how to count in Japanese. Every language has a different way of counting objects; the Japanese use counters. They are similar to English expressions such as "a cup of ~", "a sheet of ~" and so on. There are a variety of counters, often based on the shape of the object. Counters are attached directly to a number (e.g. ni-hai, san-mai). Following the next couple of paragraphs, we have included counters for the following categories: objects, duration, animals, frequency, order, people and others.
Things which are not clearly categorized or shapeless are counted by using native Japanese numbers (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu etc.).
When using a counter, pay attention to the word order. It is different from English order. A typical order is "noun + particle + quantity-verbs." Here are examples.
- Hon o ni-satsu kaimashita.
I bought two books.
- Koohii o ni-hai kudasai.
Please give me two cups of coffee.Another thing we want to mention is that when the Japanese group objects they divide them into groups of five and ten, unlike the typical groupings of six and twelve in the West. For example, sets of Japanese dishes or bowls are sold in units of five. Traditionally, there was no word for a dozen, though it has been used because of Western influence.
ObjectsWhen combining a number with a counter, the pronunciation of the number or the counter might change.
hon 本 --- Long, cylindrical objects: trees, pens, etc.
mai 枚 --- Flat, thin objects: paper, stamps, dishes, etc.
ko 個 --- Broad category of small and compact objects
hai 杯 --- Liquid in cups, glasses, bowls, etc.
satsu 冊 --- Bound objects: books, magazines, etc.
dai 台 --- Vehicles, machines etc.
kai 階 --- The floor of a building
ken 件 --- Houses, buildings
soku 足 --- Pairs of footwear: sock, shoes, etc.
tsuu 通 --- Letters
Durationjikan 時間 --- Hour, as in "ni-jikan (two hours)"
fun 分 --- Minute, as in "go-fun (five minutes)"
byou 秒 --- Second, as in "sanjuu-byoo (thirty seconds)"
shuukan 週間 --- Week, as in "san-shuukan (three weeks)"
kagetsu か月 --- Month, as in "ni-kagetsu (two months)"
nenkan 年間 --- Year, as in "juu-nenkan (ten years)"
Animalshiki 匹 --- Insects, fish, small animals: cats, dogs, etc.
tou 頭 --- Large animals: horses, bears, etc.
wa 羽 --- Birds
Frequencykai 回 --- Times, as in "ni-kai (twice)"
do 度 --- Times, as in "ichi-do (once)"
Orderban 番 --- Ordinal numbers, as in "ichi-ban (first place, number one)"
tou 等 --- Class, grade, as in "san-too (third place)"
Peoplenin 人 --- "Hitori (one person)" and "futari (two people)" are exceptions.
mei 名 --- More formal than "nin."
Otherssai 歳/才 --- Age, as in "go-sai (five years old)"
"Ippon demo Ninjin" is a fun children song for learning about counters. Pay attention to the different counters used for each item.