Although learning Japanese are surprised to learn that the way you identify the numbers or amounts of things in Japanese is determined by the nature or shape of what you are counting.
The list of numbers everyone learns first is fine when counting for counting’s sake, however different endings are used when counting other things. Categories also have a very cultural slant to them, for example flat things use a certain counter ending “-mai”, while books use another, “-satsu”. This can even be confusing for native speakers of Japanese at times, and even more so for Japanese learners.
How to Say the Numbers in Japanese
The numbers themselves may go by many names in Japan, at least as many names as there are readings for the kanji used.
1. One is usually “ichi”, but the “chi” part can be cut out in some combinations.
2. Two is usually “ni” or “futa” when used with some endings.
3. Three is usually “san” or “mi”.
4. Four is usually “shi” or “yon” or “yo” when counting, and is usually “yon” or “yo” in combinations.
5. Five is “go” or can also be “itsu” which can make it hard to tell from one sometimes.
6. Six is “roku” but can also often be “mu” in combinations.
7. Seven is “shichi” or “nana” when counting, but can be “nana” or other pronunciations when combined with a counter ending.
8. Eight is “hachi” when counting, but can also be read as “ya” among other pronunciations.
9. Nine is usually “kyu” but also has some alternate readings such as “kokona” in rare cases.
10. Ten is “ju” but can also be “to” sometimes.
One very interesting fact about Japan is how 4 and 7 are said by native Japanese speakers when counting forward or backward. When counting forward, the 4 is called “shi” and the 7 is called “shichi”. When counting backward, they usually refer to 4 as “yon” and 7 as “nana”. If you meet someone who is a native speaker, please ask them to do the counting and see if they fit the pattern. They may not even realize it themselves.
Learning How to Use Counter Endings in Japanese
There are many ways of learning the counters that are used as endings on numbers in Japanese. Most Japanese textbooks tend to group them by the type of object that is being counted. Separating the counters of types of things, those that have to do with people, and more abstract things including those that have to do with time is one valid way to do it.
Another trick to remembering them is to separate the regulars from the irregulars. The regulars are those counters that work perfectly well with the numbers as you learn them.
Counters that Take Regular Japanese Numbers
One example of a regular kind of counter is “-mai” which is used to count flat things such as paper, DVDs, and shirts. “Mai” can just be tagged onto the end of the Japanese numbers – “ichimai”, “nimai”, “sanmai”, “yonmai”… and so on.
Ordinal numbers, showing the order of something work the same way, adding “-ban”. There are even some people who never learned Japanese who are familiar with the word “ichiban” which means “first” or “number 1”. The rest of the ordinal numbers in Japanese follow suit. “Ichiban”, “niban”, “sanban”, “yonban”, “goban”, for as long as necessary.
The formal way to count people also follows this style. The ending “-mei” is used in a formal way to count people instead of the informal “-nin”. If you go into a Japanese restaurant, one of the first things you will be asked is “Nanmei-sama deshoka?” Which is restaurant language for “How many people in your party?” The “nan” part with before the “-mei” ending here means “how many”.
When answering, people will refer to themselves using the “-nin” ending. The “-nin” ending is also easy to remember because it follows the regular numbers for the most part. The only exception comes when referring to one person “hitori” or two people “futari”. After that, the numbers follow the easy, original pattern.
Several other endings fit this pattern and can be conveniently remembered because of their ease. Other examples are “-wa” the counter used for birds, “-dai” for counting machines and vehicles, and “-gatsu” as a way of naming the months of the year.
Still others are similar to “-nin” in that they follow the pattern after the first two numbers. “-kai”, used to count the floors of a building, and “-satsu” for counting books and magazines, and “-sai” for counting ages (as in “Watashi wa go-sai desu,” or “I am 5 years old.”) are just a few of these. The majority of counters seem to fit this pattern.
Japanese Numbers that Use Alternative Pronunciations with Counters
Other Japanese numbers use more irregular patterns, and for the most part need to be remembered individually. One counter that gives even native speakers trouble sometimes is “-hiki”. This is used to count animals that crawl or walk, but not usually livestock which is counted with “-to”. If you have three cats, there are “sam-biki”. The “hi” part will change in pronunciation based on the number before it.
The most important of the irregulars is the one used most often and can be used to count anything including ideas, or things for which you don’t know the counter. It can be helpful to remember this one as it is and use it whenever in doubt about the counter. It is as follows:
10. To (with a long vowel)
For amounts above 10, the number itself can be used. This list is a good one to remember for counting and using it well will look very good.
Although counting in Japanese will come naturally with a little practice, it’s certainly nothing to stress over as you will often see native Japanese speaking friends spend time considering what counter to use for something. When in doubt the final list of native Japanese numbers can be useful. Another counter commonly used for objects with no other specific counter is “-ko” which uses “ikko” to refer to one thing, but follows the original number pattern after that.