Japanese Numbers Overview
If you’re reading this article, chances are I know what you’re thinking: Counting in Japanese is hard. Don’t feel bad, we’ve all thought it. With multiple number systems and the addition of confusing counters, mastering Japanese numbers can feel almost impossible.
I recently decided to take on Japanese as my newest language learning challenge, so I know exactly how you feel. After encountering a few of my own challenges, I decided that I should share what I've learned about Japanese numbers so that you can avoid some of my mistakes and get a solid jump start on this challenging and interesting subject.
It is time to set your fears aside and take the leap into this awesome number system. If you’re learning Japanese and have found yourself hung up on the number, I want you to know that you’re not alone and that you can master this. It’s just going to take patience, a little extra time, and, of course, some effort. And possibly a few well-placed number charts. That should be all you need, but I'll let you know later on if I discover any other requirements.
Before we dive into the actual number systems, let’s take a quick look at the history of the Japanese language. I know you came here to read about numbers, but understanding the history of the language will help you to better understand their multifaceted number system. This may also help you to better understand the writing system, so it's a bonus!
The Japanese Language: Quick Note
Modern Japanese is a somewhat newer language comparatively. Although the full origins are not completely clear, it’s suspected that Old Japanese sprang from a mixture of Yayoi and Jomon, languages spoken by tribes native to North-East Asia and the islands of Japan.
Some linguists also suspect that Japanese has some connection to the Altaic languages such as Korean and Mongolian. Unfortunately, there isn’t any solid proof for either of these theories.
The reason there is such a lack of knowledge concerning the language’s origins is that Japanese wasn’t a written language until the 6th century and even then, it was written in Chinese.
Yes, you read that right, the earliest written documentation of Japanese was actually written using Chinese characters. It was written by early Buddist monks who devised an extremely complex way of using Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Japanese words.
This was somewhat like romaji, where we use the Latin alphabet to write Japanese words phonetically, except that it was much more complicated. Many of the Chinese symbols represented syllables or even full words making it very challenging to match the symbols to the sounds of the Japanese words. They would often have to combine a large number of symbols to represent just a single word.
Many ancient Buddhist texts from the 8th century were written this way and they were extensive, to say the least. This writing process was so long and cumbersome that the monks began creating their own writing system, the early form of Kana.
They continued using Chinese symbols, or Kanji, for complex words and ideas but supplemented their new writing system for expressing distinctly Japanese words and grammatical markings. This form of writing eventually morphed into two forms of writing: Katakana and Hiragana.
Katakana was used mostly for official documents while Hiragana was used more as a form of cursive derived by women of the court who were permitted to read and write, but were not allowed to learn Chinese symbols because these symbols were also used in official documents.
Over the years as Japanese evolved, the three writing forms became combined, which explains the unique look of the modern written form of this complex language.
So what does this have to do with numbers, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. The huge influx of Chinese influence that came about in the 6th century didn’t only influence the written language, but the spoken language as well. In fact, some linguists suggest that almost 60% of modern Japanese were influenced by ancient Chinese.
And yes, you guessed it, that includes their number systems. I’ll talk about each system in greater detail in the next section, but this explains why there are two Japanese number systems, instead of a singular system like most languages.
One system is based on ancient Japanese while the other has a strong Chinese influence. The native version is only used for counting objects and only goes up to 10. The Sino-Japanese numbers are used for everything else.
Where To Start?
So now that you know why there are two different systems, let’s take a closer look at each. Thankfully, the numbers themselves are simple to memorize because both systems use a 10-base system, just like the Hindu-Arabic numbers that you’re used to.
As an interesting sidenote, before we learn the names of each number, you should probably know that there are multiple ways to talk about numbers in Japanese. To express a number that is a quantity, you would say, 数 (kazu). The act of counting or to count is 数える (kazoeru). For figures or cardinal numbers, you would say 数字 (suuji).
Okay, let’s do some counting!
Native Japanese Numbers
As I already mentioned, this number system only goes up to ten and can be used to count any object. This is important to remember because these numbers cannot be used to count people, time, or money.
The great thing about this system is that it doesn’t require a counter, so you can use it for any of the small everyday things you would need numbers for, like ordering one bowl of ramen or two cups of coffee.
Hitotsu ( ひとつ )
Mittsu ( みっつ )
Yottsu (よっつ )
Itsutsu ( いつつ )
Muttsu ( むっつ )
Nanatsu ( ななつ )
Yattsu ( やっつ )
Kokonotsu ( ここのつ )
Take a look at this table and see if you can spot the similarities between each number. The main thing is that each number ends with the “tsu” sound or つ, except for tou, which ends with う. That makes these numbers easy to spot, both when they are said and when you’re trying to read Kanji.
The lack of a counter combined with simple sounds makes this a great place to start when you’re learning Japanese numbers. Just remember, do not use these for people, time, or money.
Okay, let’s move on to the bigger number system. Don’t be intimidated, it’s actually quite simple once you memorize 1 through 10.
Rei ( れい) Zero ( ゼロ ) Maru ( マル)
Ichi ( いち )
Ni ( に )
San ( さん )
Shi ( し ) or Yon ( よん )
Go ( ご )
Roku ( ろく )
Shichi (しち) or Nana ( なな )
Hachi ( はち )
Ku (く ) or Kyuu ( きゅう )
Juu ( じゅう )
You’ll notice that the base kanji for each number is the same in both number systems, that’s why it’s important to look for that つ because it will tell you which system you’re looking at.
There are a few interesting nuances about this number system that are worth pointing out. You probably noticed there are a few numbers that have multiple names, such as zero.
The official Japanese word for 0 is れい (rei), but it is quite common for native speakers to use the more English sounding ゼロ (zero). マル (maru), which literally means “circle”, is more of a casual way of saying 0, much like how we substitute “Oh” for zero now and then.
The other numbers that have multiple names are 4, 7, and 9. This is another interesting detail that harks back to the Chinese influence over this number system.
The word し (shi), which represents 4, sounds just like 死 (shi) which means death. This led the Japanese to substitute the word よん (yon) instead. The word く (ku) which represents 9, sounds just like 苦 (ku) which means agony, so this is sometimes represented by きゅう (kyuu). Because of this, 4 and 9 are considered to be very unlucky numbers in Japanese culture.
The number 7 is considered a lucky number, but it’s official name, しち (shichi), also sounds like the word for death, so it is often replaced with the word なな (nana), which is closer to the native Japanese word for 7. You may also want to note that if you use しち, it is pronounced more like “shhchi”, without the vowel sound in the middle, it’s just commonly written as shichi.
I know it’s confusing, but both names are commonly used for each number, so it’s important to know both. More superstitious people will avoid using し and く as much as possible, but other native speakers aren’t bothered by it.
Counting From 1- 99 In Japanese
Okay, now that you know all those fun details, let’s get to the actual counting. As I said, once you memorize 0 to 10, moving on to the bigger numbers is very simple.
Oddly enough, it’s almost like how you would try to tell someone a number if you only knew 1 through 10! Here’s what I mean:
If you wanted to say 11, but you didn’t know the word for it, what would you say? You would probably say, “Ten and one.” or “Ten, one.” Well, you’re in luck because that’s exactly what you’re supposed to say!
As you can see, this is a pretty easy pattern to follow. Keep imagining that you’re trying to communicate higher numbers while still only knowing 1 through 10. How would you say 20? That’s right, two tens. So can you guess how to count from 20 to 29?
All you have to do is say how many 10s, followed by the single digit, and you have your number. Now you know how to count all the way to 99 in Japanese! Well, almost. There are a few more details that you should know.
When saying 40, you should always say yonjuu, not shijuu. You would probably still be understood if you say shijuu, but yonjuu is much more common. The same can be said for 70, which is nearly always going to be nanajuu, and 90, which is always kyuujuu, never kujuu.
You should also note that there are multiple words for 20, but only in special circumstances. The first is はたち (hatachi) which is only used for the age 20, the age at which one is considered an adult in Japan. The second oddly specific 20 is はつか (hatsuka) which refers to the 20th day of the month.
Most of the days of the month are different from the typical numbers you would expect, but we'll go over that later.
Here’s a quick reference list to help remember how to count up to 99:
Counting To 100 And Beyond In Japanese
Hopefully, you’re feeling much more confident about your Japanese counting skills and will have no trouble learning the bigger numbers. They follow a similar pattern, you simply have to memorize the base words to proceed.
The main thing that most English speakers struggle with when getting into really big numbers is that the numbers are broken down into units of four instead of three. For example, when we write large numbers, we place a comma every three spaces from the end and the name changes every time we add a comma.
For example, we have different words for 100, 1,000, 1,000,000, and 1,000,000,000. But in Japanese, there is a different word for 100, 1,000, and 10,000, but then the base word does not change again until 100,000,000. Basically, they count in 10,000s until they reach one thousand 10,000s.
Here’s another chart that will hopefully make this a little clearer.
Rei ( れい) Zero ( ゼロ ) Maru ( マル)
Ichi ( いち )
Ni ( に )
San ( さん )
Shi ( し ) or Yon ( よん )
Go ( ご )
Roku ( ろく )
Shichi (しち) or Nana ( なな )
Hachi ( はち )
As you can see, writing these numbers out using kana or kanji can get a little cumbersome, especially if the number is long and very specific, like 二千三百九十三 or にせんさんびゃくきゅうじゅうさん *. Because of this, it’s not unusual to see these numbers written out in Hindu-Arabic numbers, just to save time and space.
If you’re like most people, you probably won’t use these super big numbers too often, but it’s good to at least have a general knowledge of them.
*That’s 2,393, if you were curious. I know I would be, if I were you.
And there you have it, Japanese numbers from 1 to 1,000,000,000,000!
What Are Counters?
Now we can move on to the best part about counting in Japanese: Counters! Okay, I know that most people would not consider counters the best part, but I’m trying to lighten the mood.
So what is a counter anyway? Basically, it’s just a word that is added to a number to clarify exactly what that number represents. Nearly every language has some form of counter. In English, we use words like bottles, pieces, heads, and piles to specify quantities for different types of objects. These would be considered counters.
For example, if you said you ate ‘two cake’, people might misunderstand and think you have a massive sweet tooth. If you add the counter ‘pieces’, the sentence changes completely. Now your friends will understand that you only ate two pieces of cake, which is much more reasonable.
What if I said I bought ‘five lettuce’? This could mean five different types of lettuce or five leaves of lettuce. If I add the word ‘heads’, then you can clearly understand that I bought five heads of lettuce. All confusion is removed.
The main difference in Japanese is that they have counters for everything and the counter is actually added to the number. And to make things even more interesting, the conjugation changes depending on the number, but not always. This means that you have to learn the different conjugations for each counter, making it no surprise that many language learners are frustrated by counters.
Tips For Learning Counters
Counters are complicated, but they don’t have to bog you down. Many native Japanese speakers don’t even know all the counters by heart and for good reason, there are over 500! Thankfully, there is a short list of counters that you can start with to ease yourself into it.
Here are a few quick tips before we get started:
Remember, you can still use the Native Japanese number system for everyday objects, so be sure to memorize those numbers! It is so common to use these numbers for general counting that つ (tsu) is often referred to as the “general counter” because these numbers can be used for all general objects.
Another important thing to remember is that the numbers 1, 3, 6, and 8 are the ones you should really watch out for when it comes to special conjugations.
The number 1 changes about half the time and it is often the name of the number that is altered. For example, when using the counter 本 (hon), you would say いっぽん (which sounds more like Ep-pohn) not いちほん (ichi-hon).
The numbers 3, 6, and 8 will sometimes change the first letter of the counter rather than the sound of the number changing. 10 will sometimes change as well, but usually it is only to shorten juu to ju. It all depends on the counter, so be sure to learn the proper conjugation before you start using a counter.
Last, but not least, let’s go back to the numbers with two names, 4, 7, and 9. Most of the time you will use the common substitutes, よん (yon), なな (nana), and きゅう (kyuu) when using counters, but you will still occasionally see the original numbers pop up, so watch out.
A Few Counters You Should Know
Of course, there’s no way I can squeeze in all the counters you may find helpful, but here are a few common ones that you will probably need early on in your Japanese journey.
Just like in English, there are different counters for each unit of time in Japanese.
Time And Date In Japanese
Days of the month are a bit different. Some of them follow the normal number stacking pattern followed by 日 (nichi). For example, 二十三日 (nijusan nichi) would be the 23rd of the month. Unfortunately, quite a few of them don’t really follow any of the normal number patterns. The best way to learn dates is to memorize them separately from the number systems.
Here are the days of the month that don’t follow the stacking system:
Counting People In Japanese
The counter 人 (nin) is used exclusively for counting people, but there is an important difference between this counter and most others. When you are counting a single person you would use the word ひとり (hitori) and for two people you would say ふたり (futari). After that, you can simply combine the number with the counter such as はち人 (hachinin) for 8 people.
Counting Objects In Japanese
There are lots of different counters for different types of objects, but a few you may want to consider learning include:
The counters that you will use the most will depend on what you talk about the most, but these ones are general enough that they should be helpful to just about anyone trying to learn Japanese number systems. If you’re interested in learning more counters, a quick Google search will reveal a vast number of free lists and reference guides to help you on your way to mastering counters.
Where To Place The Number
When you’re writing a sentence that contains a number, the number will almost always come after the object being counted. For example, instead of saying, “I am buying seven coconuts.” it would be more like saying, “Coconuts seven I am buying.” or ココナッツを七個買います.
You can put the number first, as in “Seven coconuts I am buying.”, but you have to remember to connect the number to the object using の (no). This sentence structure puts emphasis on the number and is usually only used in response to a question. So if anyone asks you how many coconuts you’re buying, you can answer, 七個のココナッツ買います.
Japanese Numbers: Final Thoughts
As you can see, learning Japanese numbers can be difficult at first, but once you get the basic idea, it’s a very logical system. By memorizing 1-10 in both the Native Japanese and the Sino-Japanese number systems you can easily communicate all the numbers that you will need as a beginner.
Once you have progressed past beginner, you can begin learning counters. Do not let the vast number of counters intimidate you. Simply start with the basics and move up, just like you would with any other aspect of language learning.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to learning counters is to memorize the conjugation along with each counter. I have said this a number of times because I cannot stress enough how important it is. It will not benefit you to memorize a long list of counters only to realize that you're using them incorrectly. It is much better to take your time and learn them correctly the first time.
Just keep in mind that the best way to master it is to keep practicing! If you’re struggling with where to start, I highly recommend going on to YouTube and looking up videos about Japanese number systems. There are thousands of videos that will help to jump-start your learning and boost your confidence.
Learning Japanese is a huge accomplishment and you should be proud of everything you’ve learned so far. I hope this article has helped to relieve some of your fears about taking the leap into Japanese numbers. Don’t worry, you can do it.