Counting System

Japanese Counters

Japanese Counters

Last time, you learned the Japanese counting system in terms of pronunciation. As you know now, there are two ways to count, some of which have irregular pronunciations. In this lesson, you will learn the usage depending on contexts.

Explanation for How Japanese Counters Work

When you count a car in English, you can just say “one car.” However, you cannot say “一車” in Japanese. You have to use various counters depending on what you will count. As for cars, you have to use だい like “一台いちだい: one car.” This is one of the trickiest things with learning Japanese. There are counters for different types of objects.

Common Counters

個 (こ)
Articles (General Goods)
枚 (まい)
Flat Objects
本 (ほん)
Long Cylindrical Objects
Counters for articles Counter for flat objects Counters for long  cylindrical things
台 (だい)
Machines and Vehicles
匹 (ひき)
Small Animals
冊 (さつ)
Books
Counter for machines and vehicles Counter for small animals Counter for books
人 (にん)
People
階(かい)
Floors
歳 (さい)
Ages
 Counter for people Counter for floors Counter for ages
 
いっ

さん
よん

ろっ
なな
はっ
きゅう
じゅっ
いち
まい

まい
さん
まい
よん
まい

まい
ろく
まい
なな
まい
はち
まい
きゅう
まい
じゅう
まい
いっ
ぽん

ほん
さん
ぼん
よん
ほん

ほん
ろっ
ぽん
なな
ほん
はっ
ぽん
きゅう
ほん
じゅっ
ぽん
いち
だい

だい
さん
だい
よん
だい

だい
ろく
だい
なな
だい
はち
だい
きゅう
だい
じゅう
だい
いっ
ぴき

ひき
さん
びき
よん
ひき

ひき
ろっ
ぴき
なな
ひき
はっ
ぴき
きゅう
ひき
じゅっ
ぴき
いっ
さつ

さつ
さん
さつ
よん
さつ

さつ
ろく
さつ
なな
さつ
はっ
さつ
きゅう
さつ
じゅっ
さつ
ひとり ふたり さん
にん

にん

にん
ろく
にん
なな
にん
はち
にん
きゅう
にん
じゅう
にん
いっ
かい

かい
さん
がい
よん
かい

かい
ろっ
かい
なな
かい
はっ
かい
きゅう
かい
じゅっ
かい
いっ
さい

さい
さん
さい
よん
さい

さい
ろく
さい
なな
さい
はっ
さい
きゅう
さい
じゅっ
さい
  • 一, 三, 六, 八, and 十 often have irregular pronunciations.
  • The exception of 十 is officially pronounced as “じっ” like “じっこ,” “じっぽん,” and “じっぴき.” However, that’s used by mainly TV reporters and announcers.
  • With age, it is more common to pronounce 二十歳 as はたち rather than にじゅっさい

As the table shows, you need to select a proper counter depending on the object, and with this the pronunciation will vary. For example, when you count air-conditioners in Japanese, you say “一台いちだい.” When you count a box of tissues, you say “いっ.” When you count a pizza, you say “一枚いちまい.” This is how Japanese counters work.

Practical Usages in Reality

Do native speakers correctly use counters every time? The answer is no. We often make mistakes or intentionally use wrong ones for the sake of simplicity.

Counter: 膳

For example, when you count chopsticks, the counter: ぜん is right. However, a lot of people count chopsticks with ほん. Although it’s not right, ほん is applicable because of the form of chopsticks. What we wanted to say here is that you don’t need be a perfectionist. Of course, it’s better that you can use every counter correctly, but actually, it is a fact that most native speakers can’t do it themselves.

Generic Counter: つ

From one to ten, there is an alternative way to count called the つ-method. This is very useful and can be used for generic objects. For instance, take the counters だい and , both of these can be used when counting a mobile phone, because a mobile phone is both a machine and an article (general good); however, you can still use the つ method for it.

A: How many mobile phones do you have?
B: ふたつです。

The above response is very natural. Note: つ-method cannot be used for animated objects such as people and animals. If you use this for people, you will look very rude.

Example

Counter: 本

The picture shows four bottles of water. How do you think native speakers would count them? Possible answers are ほん: Long Cylindrical Objects, つ: Generic Objects, and : Articles (General Goods). We guess that the majority of answers are ほん because of the form of the bottles, but a certain number of people count them with つ or . That’s one of the reasons why you don’t have to pursue perfection. It’s not necessarily that there is only one answer.

Counter: 階

The picture shows the second floor in a building. How do you express it in Japanese? In this case, we’re sure that every Japanese person will use かい like かい. If specific counters are available, you should use it. With objects in which you need to judge based on the form or the attribute, e.g. when you may need to use , ほん, まい, and だい, the つ-method is usually applicable.

Time Related Expressions

Time related expressions are one of the most frequently used words in everyday life and thus we will specifically pick it up here.

Year: ねん

Year 1 一年 (いちねん)
Year 2 二年 (にねん)
Year 3 三年 (さんねん)
Year 4 四年 (よねん
*しねん and よんねん are wrong!
Year 5 五年(ごねん)
Year 6 六年 (ろくねん)
Year 7 七年 (しち・なな ねん)
Year 8 八年 (はちねん)
Year 9 九年 (きゅう・く ねん)
Year 10 十年(じゅうねん)

When you express years, we assume that you will often use a much higher number like 2016. You can do this in the same way that you use the counter ねん. For example, when you say 1999 in Japanese, it will be “1999年(せんきゅうひゃくきゅうじゅうきゅうねん).

しょう era 1926 ~ 1989
平成へいせい era 1989 ~ Present

One tricky thing is that there are two calendars in Japan. The format: 2016年(にせんじゅうろくねん) is based on western calendar while we sometimes express years in Japanese calendar like this “平成二十八年(へいせい にじゅうはちねん), which is equivalent to 2016. In everyday life, there will be no problem if you can express years in the western calendar. However, the Japanese government may require you to fill out some forms with years in the Japanese calendar. You may need to know when your birthday is in the Japanese calendar. Take it easy. There is a conversion table. *In the western calendars, numerals are common.

Month: がつ

January 一月 (いちがつ)
February 二月 (にがつ)
March 三月 (さんがつ)
April 四月 (しがつ
*よんがつ is wrong!
May 五月 (ごがつ)
June 六月 (ろくがつ)
July 七月 (しちがつ
*なながつ is unnatural!
August 八月 (はちがつ)
September 九月 (くがつ
*きゅうがつ is wrong!
October 十月 (じゅうがつ)
November 十一月 (じゅういちがつ)
December 十二月 (じゅうにがつ)

It’s simpler than other languages to express months in Japanese. You can just count numbers with the counter: がつ. You don’t have to memorize specific words like “January” in English.

Day: にち

1st 一日 (ついたち
2nd 二日 (ふつか
3rd 三日 (みっか
4th 四日 (よっか
5th 五日 (いつか
6th 六日 (むいか
7th 七日 (なのか
8th 八日 (ようか
9th 九日 (ここのか
10th 十日 (とおか
11th 十一日 (じゅういちにち)
12th 十二日 (じゅうににち)
13th 十三日 (じゅうさんにち)
14th 十四日 (じゅうよっか
15th 十五日 (じゅうごにち)
16th 十六日 (じゅうろくにち)
17th 十七日 (じゅう しち・なな にち)
18th 十八日 (じゅうはちにち)
19th 十九日 (じゅうくにち
*じゅうきゅうにち is unnatural!
20th 二十日 (はつか
21st 二十一日 (にじゅういちにち)
22nd 二十二日 (にじゅうににち)
23rd 二十三日 (にじゅうさんにち)
24th 二十四日 (にじゅうよっか
25th 二十五日 (にじゅうごにち)
26th 二十六日 (にじゅうろくにち)
27th 二十七日 (にじゅう しち・なな にち)
28th 二十八日 (にじゅうはちにち)
29th 二十九日 (にじゅうくにち
*にじゅうきゅうにち is unnatural!
30th 三十日 (さんじゅうにち)
31st 三十一日 (さんじゅういちにち)

This is a little complicated in comparison with others. The counter for days of the month is にち and you can express days by saying numbers with that like 十一日(じゅういちにち) apart from the exceptions marked in red. In writing, there is no difference, but pronunciation works very uniquely.

Now, you know how to express the date in Japanese. Let’s say the date of your birthday in Japanese. The order of dates should be YYYY年 / MM月 / DD日. In my case, 1987年2月6日(せんきゅうひゃくはちじゅうななねん / にがつ / むいか) is my birthday.

Hour:

しん
Late Night  
1:00 AM 一時 (いちじ)
2:00 AM  二時 (にじ)
3:00 AM 三時 (さんじ)
そうちょう
Early Morning
4:00 AM 四時 (よじ
*し・よん じ are wrong!
5:00 AM 五時 (ごじ)
あさ
Morning
6:00 AM 六時 (ろくじ)
7:00 AM 七時 (しちじ
*ななじ is unnatural!
8:00 AM 八時 (はちじ) 
9:00 AM 九時 (くじ
*きゅうじ is wrong!
10:00 AM 十時 (じゅうじ) 
ひる
Daytime
11:00 AM 十一時 (じゅういちじ) 
12:00 PM 十二時 (じゅうにじ)
1:00 PM 一時 (いちじ) 
2:00 PM 二時 (にじ) 
3:00 PM 三時 (さんじ) 
夕方ゆうがた
Evening
4:00 PM 四時 (よじ) 
5:00 PM 五時 (ごじ) 
6:00 PM 六時 (ろくじ) 
よる
Night
7:00 PM 七時 (しちじ) 
8:00 PM 八時 (はちじ) 
9:00 PM 九時 (くじ) 
10:00 PM 十時 (じゅうじ) 
11:00 PM 十一時 (じゅういちじ) 
12:00 AM 十二時 (じゅうにじ)

When it comes to expressing hours in Japanese, we guess that one question comes to your mind; how do you identify whether it’s AM or PM? In Japanese, we have the words, “ぜん: AM” and “午後ごご: PM”, and you can say like this “ぜん九時くじ: 9:00AM.” However, we more commonly express time like this: あさ九時くじ or あさ九時くじ. The definition of time will vary depending on people, locations and seasons. For example, from what time until when will it be morning? You can still consider the above as the basis. For reference, in business situations, especially for emails, military time (24-hour clock) is preferred. In that case, you can just write time with the counter like this “21にじゅういち,” which is equal to 午後ごご九時くじ, よる九時くじ, and よる九時くじ.

Minute: ふん

1 minute 一分(いっぷん
いちふん is wrong!
2 minutes 二分(にふん)
3 minutes 三分(さんぷん*
4 minutes 四分(よんぷん*
5 minutes 五分(ごふん)
6 minutes 六分(ろっぷん
ろくふん is wrong!
7 minutes 七分(しち・なな ふん)
8 minutes 八分(はっぷん*
9 minutes 九分(きゅうふん
*くふん is wrong!
10 minutes 十分(じゅっぷん
じゅうふん is wrong!

When you express minutes in Japanese, be careful because you have several irregular pronunciations. The counter is ふん, but you often need to pronounce it as ぷん. Regarding 三分さんぷん, 四分よんぷん, and 八分はっぷん, some people pronounce them as さんふん, よんふん and はちふん respectively, which may be a dialect or be dependent on the generation. Thus, they are not wrong. When you express higher numbers, as you learned so far, you say a tens place number and a digit like this “二十九分 (にじゅうきゅうふん)”

Second: びょう

1 second 一秒 (いちびょう)
2 seconds 二秒 (にびょう)
3 seconds 三秒 (さんびょう)
4 seconds 四秒 (よんびょう
*しびょう is wrong
5 seconds 五秒 (ごびょう)
6 seconds 六秒 (ろくびょう)
7 seconds 七秒 (しち・なな びょう)
8 seconds 八秒 (はちびょう)
9 seconds 九秒 (きゅうびょう
*くびょう is wrong!
10 seconds 十秒 (じゅうびょう)

The good news here is that the counter びょう is much simpler than ふん. Just pay attention to よんびょう and きゅうびょう. As always, you can express higher number like this: “三十八秒(さんじゅうはちびょう).”

Now, you know how to express specific times in Japanese. Let’s say what time it is now. In my case, it’s 夕方ゆうがたの四時四十七分三十五秒(よじ よんじゅうななふん さんじゅうごびょう).

Duration: かん

You can express duration by combining other time expressions with the counter かん, though some of them don’t require you to do so. Let’s check the following table.

ねん: Year Not Necessary
がつ: Month Irregular
しゅう: Week Need
にち: Day Not Necessary
: Hour Need
ふん: Minute Not Necessary
びょう: Second Not Necessary
 
ヶ月 いっ
かげつ

かげつ
さん
かげつ
よん
かげつ

かげつ
ろっ
かげつ
なな
かげつ
はっ
かげつ
きゅう
かげつ
じゅっ
かげつ
週間 いっ
しゅうかん

しゅうかん
さん
しゅうかん
よん
しゅうかん

しゅうかん
ろく
しゅうかん
なな
しゅうかん
はっ
しゅうかん
きゅう
しゅうかん
じゅっ
しゅうかん
いち
にち
ふつ
みっ
よっ
いつ
むい
なの
よう
ここの
とお
時間 いち
じかん

じかん
さん
じかん

じかん

じかん
ろく
じかん
なな
じかん
はち
じかん

じかん
じゅう
じかん

Regarding ねん, ふん, and びょう, the pronunciations are the same as the time expressions and so we have omitted them from the table above. You can express a moment or a duration by using the same form, e.g. 2000にせんねん can mean “year 2000” or “2000 years.” If you would like to clearly express duration, you can attach to かん. 2000にせん年間ねんかん only means “2000 years.” As for にち, the concept is the same, but the pronunciation of 一日 needs to be changed. ついたち is never used to express duration. When it comes to and しゅう, you cannot omit かん. Thus, please consider しゅうかん and かん as the counters.

Example

ねんかん): 5 years
じゅうしゅうかん: 12 weeks
じゅう四時よじかん:  24 hours
じゅっぷんかん): 50 minutes
さんじゅうはちびょうかん): 38 seconds

Note: When you express duration using two units like “10 hours and 30 minutes,” the counter: かん is always omitted except for しゅうかん and かん

Correct: じゅうかんさんじゅっぷん
Wrong: 十時間三十分

You can also express the above by using the particle と: じゅうかんさんじゅっぷん. When you use big and small units together like 1 year and 1 week, this expression is more common.

Unnatural: 一年一週間
Natural: 一年いちねんいっしゅうかん

What is ヶ?

Let’s dig into the irregular one: がつ. When you express duration by using がつ, you have to attach ヶ, which is small Katakana of ケ, but pronounced as か, and you also need to pronounce 月 as げつ. The reason is still controversial. Thus, please just memorize that you need to pronounce “numbers + かげつ” to express duration in months. More annoyingly, there are some cases that small Katakana カ, or Hiragana か is used instead of ヶ. All of them are just pronounced as “か.”

五ヶごかげつかん):  5 months
ろっげつかん): 6 months
ななげつかん): 7 months

Summary

  1. You need to choose a proper counter depending on what you will count.
  2. Pronunciations of numerals will vary depending on counters.
  3. つ-method is applicable for objects in which you need to judge based on the form or the attribute.

Have you found learning Japanese to be difficult? Don’t worry. This is one of the trickiest things. In practice, native speakers will definitely understand your speech even if you make a mistake in counters or pronunciation. As the saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.” Try to start expressing numbers in Japanese in everyday life. Next, you will learn how to use numerals in a sentence.

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