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Basics of Japanese: Counters

Last lesson we covered counting with native numbers. However, counting rules don’t just stop there. Japanese uses an interesting and very detailed system of “counters” to denote what they are counting. This might sound a little strange but sometimes English does it too! Take a look:

  1. “I’d like two slices of bread.”
  2. “I’d like two loaves of bread.”

In the first example, I don’t need a lot of bread. In the second example, I need a ton of bread! Counters help show quickly and easily how much I’m talking about. In English, counters are used for only specific things and otherwise we’ll just use a regular number. However, in Japanese, everything has a counter! Fortunately, if you’re confused on what counter to use for an item you can almost always fall back on the traditional numbers. (Although you shouldn’t ever use them for people!)

 

Two Types of Counters

There are two types of counters. The first one uses the native numbers and the second uses numbers that originated from Chinese. (There’s also a few counters that mix the two up a little. But, by and large, most follow one pattern or the other.) For this article, we’re going to only focus on the latter kind because they’re the most prevalent. Check out Lesson 15: Native Numbers for the other kind!

 

Chinese Numbers

These are the numbers you probably new before you ever started studying Japanese. But, just as a reminder:

Ichi, ni, san, shi (or yon), go, roku, shichi (or nana), hachi, kyuu, jyuu.

All of the counters we go over in this article will be adding on to the above numbers.

 

Tricky Counters

These counters are some of the most common–and can also be the trickiest to remember to use because their pronunciation changes based on the number you’re counting.

Counter Examples Suffix 1-5 6-10
People Everyone

-ri

-nin

1. Hitori
2. Futari
3. Sannin
4. Yonin
5. Gonin
6. Rokunin
7. Shichinin
8. Hachinin
9. Kyuunin
10. Jyuunin
Small animals Cats, dogs, mice, etc.

-hiki

-biki

-piki

1. Ippiki
2. Nihiki
3. Sanbiki
4. Yonhiki
5. Gohiki
6. Roppiki
7. Nanahiki
8. Happiki
9. Kyuuhiki
10. Jyuppiki
Cups Glasses, cups, mugs, etc.

-hai

-bai

-pai

1. Ippai
2. Nihai
3. Sanbai
4. Yonhai
5. Gohai
6. Roppai
7. Nanahai
8. Happai
9. Kyuuhai
10. Jyuppai
Long, cylindrical items Pencils, bottles, roads, fingers, etc.

-hon

-bon

-pon

1. Ippon
2. Nihon
3. Sanbon
4. Yonhon
5. Gohon
6. Roppon
7. Nanahon
8. Happon
9. Kyuuhon
10. Jyuppon

As you probably notice, generally 3, 6 8 and 10 will change for counters that include a HA/HI/FU/HE/HO sound.

But what about 1 person and 2 people? Those pronunciations actually stem from the traditional numbers: hitotsu and futatsu!

 

Other Common Counters

Fortunately, it’s not the norm to change your pronunciation of a counter. Normally, they’re very simple to use and just require you to add the counter to the end of the number. All of the counters listed below follow such a pattern, and they’re all extremely common to hear, see and use in everyday life!

Note: Even for these numbers, the number 1 still often changes slightly!

Counter Examples Suffix 1-3
Books Anything bound, including magazines -satsu 1. Issatsu
2. Nisatsu
3. Sansatsu
Floors In any multistory building -kai 1. Ikkai
2. Nikai
3. Sankai
Machines Computers, cars, appliances, etc. -dai 1. Ichidai
2. Nidai
3. Sandai
Small, round items Eggs, hamburgers, etc. -ko 1. Ikko
2. Niko
3. Sanko
Thin, flat items Paper, plates, etc. -mai 1. Ichimai
2. Nimai
3. Sanmai
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Katrina

About the author

Katrina has worked as a Japanese language teacher and freelance translator for several years. She loves traveling and has been all over Japan. Click here --> Free Japanese Lessons Practical Japanese Lessons

View all articles by Katrina
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