Counters and counting

Counting in Japanese is everything but apparent or easy if you're used to western counting. To count in Japanese, two things are required: a number, and a categorical marker that indicates what is actually being counted. This makes counting in Japanese not just a matter of knowing which words stand for which numbers, but also which counters stand for which countable categories.

The categorical marker for items is usually not the item noun itself, but a different word acting as categorical counter particle instead. For instance, bottles, pencils and legs are all counted using the categorical counter for "long round object", and birds are counted using the categorical counter for "things with wings". However, clock hours are counted using the specific counter for hours, and the number of times something happens is counted using the specific counter for occurrences.

The challenge is then to learn three things in order to successfully count in Japanese:

  1. which numbers exist and how to construct numbers yourself,
  2. which specific and categorical counters exist, and
  3. which to use when you don't actually know which you should use.

Just like for regular particles, there exist dictionaries that contain lists and lists of which word can be used as a counter for which category of items, and if you wish to become a counting machine, it is recommended that you buy one and go over the lists in it as you will not find a truly exhaustive list here. Instead, the following list will only contain those counters that are considered reasonably essential to know in order to do basic counting (and that's already quite a few).


Before we look at the counter particles, let's briefly look at counting itself. In the outline on Japanese, I mentioned three different ways to count from one to ten, and this comes from the fact that Japan, while it borrowed the Chinese kanji and readings, also had its own language prior to knowing anything about China. Not surprisingly then, counting was done with completely different words in pre-China Japan. However, unlike this pre-China native Japanese counting system, the Chinese derived series for one through ten is reasonably simple:

numberwritten and pronounced
1いち, 壱 in formal writing.
2, 弐 in formal writing.
3さん, 参 in formal writing.
4 — More commonly pronounced よん, a native Japanese reading.
7しち — More commonly pronounced なな, also a native Japanese reading.
10じゅう, 拾 in formal writing.

The reason why 1, 2, 3 and 10 have special formal kanji stems from the use in legal documents, where changing an 一 into a 十 or 二 into 三 was rather easy, while turning an 壱 into a 拾 or a 弐 into a 参 was a lot harder. There are similar counterparts for 4 through 9, but these are rarely used: 肆, 伍, 陸, 漆, 捌 and 玖 respectively. Larger numbers in the Chinese system are written either using Arabic numerals (like 1,890,298,345), or — when they're decently clean or small enough to write out in full — written in kanji.

Using kanji forms to create large numbers relies on a fairly simple rule of composition, as you should be able to tell from the following examples:

20 = 2 × 10 = 二十

90 = 9 × 10 = 九十

100 = ひゃく, formally written as 佰

120 = 100 + 2 × 10 = 百二十

780 = 7 × 100 + 8 × 10 = 七百八十

1000 = せん, formally written as 阡

1300 = 1000 + 3 × 100 = 千三百

4826 = 4 × 1000 + 8 × 100 + 2 × 10 + 6 = 四千八百二十六

10000 = まん, formally written as 萬.

The rules for composition are actually reasonably close to the western system of writing large numbers, except that instead of replacing the order (the "1" in 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.) with the factor ("2" in 20, "8" in 800, etc.), the factor is simply added in front of the order, effectively indicating a multiplier.

However, one significant difference is found in orders of magnitude: in western systems we raise by a power of 1000 for large numbers (i.e. a million is 1000 × 1000, a billion is 1000 × 1000 × 1000, etc.), but in the Chinese counting system large numbers are powers of 万, 10,000:

9,999 is 九千九百九十九, 10,000 is 万. The biggest number that still uses 万 as highest order is 99,999,999: 九千九百九十九万九千九百九十九. The number that follows this is a number equal to 万 × 万, called おく, with a value of 100,000,000. The next order number is 万 × 億, which is ちょう. The next order number is 万 × 兆, which is けい.

There are in fact quite a few of these higher order counters, although of course the higher you go, the less likely people are to know the counter used, and the less meaningful the number becomes (because we cannot visualise such large numbers).

Aside from the numbers one through ten, there is also the 'number' zero, which is typically written in katakana as ゼロ when used on its own, or using the noun れい when meaning "nought" or "null". An example of using 零 is in things such as "0.0001", which can also be written as れいてんれいれいれいいち零零零一, with 点 meaning "dot".

The native numbers Japanese way of counting is a bit more complex:

5い (いっ)

While this doesn't look very complex, this series is also one you will likely never use as they aren't used for actual counting. It may be used when someone's trying to enumerate something from memory using their fingers, muttering "ひ, ふ, み, よ, い..." while touching fingers in succession, but that's about it. Instead, slightly different pronunciations are used when paired with counters for actual counting statements. The native Japanese readings are used with only a handful of counters, but these are quite important counters: those used for general counting of items, and for counting days.

numbercounting things: つcounting days: か (日) (pronounced か)
1ひと一日 — special readings: ついたち and いちにち

If we ignore the reading for 一日 (for which ついたち means "the first day of the month" and いちにち means "one day (in duration/length)") we see that these two series don't use the same readings for the numbers, and that neither are quite the same as the previous table for native readings. The readings that you see for the counter つ can be considered the 'dominant' readings, used with a few other native Japanese (くんよ訓読み) counters, with the readings for 日 being fairly unique and not used by other counters.

Before we move on to the counters list, we need to finish looking at what numbers do when paired with counters, and this involves looking at how their readings may change when they are paired with certain counters: they may contract, and the counter may become voiced. There are a few general rules that apply, although of course — as always — there are a few exceptions to these general rules (when a counter has such an exception, this will be highlighted in its section).

When followed by a counter starting with a syllable from the か—, さ— or た—column, いち becomes いっ:

いち + こ becomes いっこ

いち + さい becomes いっさい

いち + とう becomes いっとう

When followed by a counter starting with a は—column syllable, いち becomes いっ and the counter voices to a 'p' sound:

いち + はい becomes いっぱい

When followed by a counter starting with a は—column syllable, that syllable voices to a 'b' sound:

さん + ほん becomes さんぼん

When followed by a counter starting with a か—column syllable, ろく becomes ろっ:

ろく + かい becomes ろっかい

When followed by a counter starting with a は—column syllable, ろく becomes ろっ and the counter voices to a 'p' sound:

ろく + ひゃく becomes ろっぴゃく

When followed by a counter starting with a か—, さ— or た—column syllable, はち becomes はっ:

はち + こう becomes はっこう

はち + せん becomes はっせん

はち + たい becomes はったい

When followed by a counter starting with a は—column syllable, はち becomes はっ and the counter voices to a 'p' sound:

はち + ひき becomes はっぴき

When followed by a counter starting with a か—, さ— or た—column syllable, じゅう may become じっ or じゅっ:

じゅう + こ can become either じっこ or じゅっこ

じゅう + さい can become either じっさい or じゅっさい

じゅう + たい can become either じったい or じゅったい

When followed by a counter starting with a は—column syllable, じゅう can become either じっ or じゅっ and the counter voices to a 'p' sound:

じゅう + ほん can become either じっぽん or じゅっぽん

The choice between which of the two possible pronunciations to use is mostly one of style. The "proper" pronunciation is じっ[...], but is also becoming more and more dated Japanese, with many people using the pronunciation じゅっ these days. Depending on whose company you are in, you'll have to pick the pronunciation that will raise fewest eyebrows.

How many?

In addition to counting statements such as "three oranges" or "seven samurai", it also helps if we know how to ask "how many oranges?" or "how many samurai?". This is done using two question words: 何—, pronounced なん—, and 幾—, pronounced いく—. These are used in the same way that numerals are used, being paired with a counter to turn it into a questioning statement. Different counters use different question words, with the rule generally being that if native Japanese readings are used with the counter, the question word will be 幾—, whereas if Chinese readings are used with the counter, the question word will be 何. Thus, we can ask for "how many oranges?" by using 幾つ:


"How many oranges are (there)?"

And we can ask how many samurai there are by using:


"How many samurai are (there)?"

(note the difference in verb; ある for oranges, いる for samurai)

When followed by a counter starting with a は—column syllable, the counter voices to a 'b' sound:

なん + はい becomes なんばい

The rules in summary

In summary, there are four different numeral readings:

numeralGeneral readingnative readingwith つwith か
し or よんよっつよっか
しち or ななななつなのか

And the summary when numerals are paired with counters:

し, よん
しち, なな

Ranges and estimations

Number ranges are really easy in Japanese, involving nothing more than using ~ between two numbers, so that 1~7 indicates the range 1 through 7. Typically ranges like these will use actual numbers, rather than kanji forms, purely for aesthetics. While ranges in English have their own pronunciation ("X through Y" or "X to Y"), in Japanese there is no special word between the start and the end of a range:


Please read chapters 11 through 20 for next class.

The construction 第十一~二十課 is simply pronounced だいじゅういちにじゅうか, and when the resulting written form is unambiguous, the ~ symbol may even be left off, in this case forming 第十一二十課 (of course, still pronounced だいじゅういちにじゅうか).

The start and end of ranges can, if needed, be explicitly marked as such by using から and まで, but doing so carries the same difference in nuance as explicitly marking a start and end in English carries:


Please read from chapter 11 up to chapter 20.

Rough ranges, or estimations, are even easier. These simply consist of all the numbers in the estimation, in succession (similar to rough ranges in English):


"I walked 1 (or) 2 minutes."

This can be a bit confusing when someone says something like 十一二分歩いた, which could either mean "I walked 11 (or) 2 minutes" or "I walked 11 (or) 12 minutes". Disambiguation is typically left to context, so that in this case it would be odd that someone walked either 11 or 2 minutes, when the alternative is 11 or 12. However, there may be instances where more than one interpretation seems reasonable, and you'll have to apply some analytical thinking to determine which is the correct interpretation.


When actually counting, or just enumerating things, we need to combine numbers with counters. This can be done in two different ways, depending on whether the focus is on the thing that's being counted, or on the count itself:

Focus on item: [X] の [Y] を/が + verb

Focus on count: [Y] を/が [X] + verb

For instance, in the statement ふたつのオレンジをください, translating to "please give me two oranges", the focus is on oranges (because it comes later in the sentence). If we rearrange this to form the sentence オレンジをふたつください the focus is on the count: "oranges, give me two, please".

As mentioned, counters can be split into specific and general counter categories. Specific counters cover things like units of time or distance, and general counters cover categories like 'bound objects' or 'pieces of [something]'. Rather than just using these two categories, a list of common numerical orders, which act as counters too, is presented first. This list is followed by the other counters, split up into four categories: general article counters, counters for living things, counters for occurrences, and time related unit counters.

In addition to counters, a list of adverbs used for quantification is included in this chapter. While strictly speaking these are not counters, they are used when you need to quantify actions without being able to rely on a counter, such as when you "read books often".

Numerical counters

百 — 100 (A hundred)

As mentioned in the section on counting, the numerical orders in Japanese are technically counters too, with their own set of pronunciations:


Note that 一百 isn't used unless it needs to be stressed that it's one hundred, rather than some other factor of a hundred. Also note that quite obviously "ten hundred" doesn't exist. Instead this is 千, 1000.

千 — 1000 (A thousand)

The counter for a thousand has an irregular pronunciation for 3, and the question counter:


Again, unless the factor 1 needs to be stressed, 千 rather than 一千 is used. And again, there is no "ten thousand", there is the counter 万 instead.

万 — 10000 (Ten thousand)

The highest "low order" order counter, 万 stands for ten thousand. Because it is the highest "low order" order counter, it is used in combination with 10, 100 and 1000 to indicate a hundred thousand, a million and ten million respectively. 100 million is a new counter, おく.


億 — 100000000 (A hundred million)

The biggest "useful" number, 億 is still a realistically large number in, for instance, prices for houses, luxury yachts or fancy sports cars. The pronunciation is wholly unremarkable:



While slightly ridiculous, there are counters for 10 to the power minus 21, which is the truly insignificant number 0.0000000000000000000001, up to the incredibly huge number 10 to the power 68, or 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Now, while for normal purposes these are of course ridiculous numbers, they're quite useful for science. The list of all available counters, plus their western abbreviated counterparts, is as follows:

countervalueequivalent term
せいじょう清浄10 to the power -21zepto, z
こくう虚空10 to the power -20
りっとく六徳10 to the power -19
せつな刹那10 to the power -18ato, a
だんし弾指10 to the power -17
しゅんそく瞬息10 to the power -16
しゅゆ須臾10 to the power -15femto, f
しゅんじゅん逡巡10 to the power -14
もこ糢糊10 to the power -13
ばく10 to the power -12pico, p
びょう10 to the power -11
あい10 to the power -10
じん10 to the power -9nano, n, 1/1,000,000,000
しゃ10 to the power -8
せん10 to the power -7
10 to the power -6micro, μ, 1/1,000,000
こつ10 to the power -5
10 to the power -4
もう10 to the power -3milli, m, 1/1,000, 0.001
りん10 to the power -2centi, c, 1/100, 0.01
10 to the power -1deci, d, 1/10, 0.1
countervalueequivalent term
じゅう10 to the power 1deca, da, 10
ひゃく10 to the power 2hecto, h, 100
せん10 to the power 3kilo, k, 1000
まん10 to the power 4
おく10 to the power 8
ちょう10 to the power 12tera, T
けい10 to the power 16
がい10 to the power 20
じょ・し10 to the power 24yotta, Y
じょう10 to the power 28
こう10 to the power 32
かん10 to the power 36
せい10 to the power 40
さい10 to the power 44
ごく10 to the power 48

The measures for mega (M), giga (G), peta (P) and exa (E) are missing from this set because these correspond to 10 to the powers 6, 9, 15 and 18 respectively, none of which are divisible by 4.

For orders higher than 48, there is a curious problem where in the rigid counting system the order keeps going up by 4, so that the five terms refer to 10 to the power 52, 56, 60, 64 and 68 respectively, but can also stand for older Japanese numbers, in which case they refer to 10 to the power 56, 64, 72, 80 and 88 respectively. While it is unlikely you will ever hear about these numbers ever again, these numbers have a very high trivia factor:

ごうがしゃ恒河沙 10 to the power 52, as well as 56
あそうぎ阿僧祇10 to the power 56, as well as 64
なゆた那由他10 to the power 60, as well as 72
ふかしぎ不可思議10 to the power 64, as well as 80
むりょうだいすう無量大数10 to the power 68, as well as 88

General counters for articles

第 — Ordinal prefix

The first counter in this list isn't actually a counter, but an ordinal prefix. It's quite frequently used, so it's important you've learned it, and it's relatively easy to wrap your head around: if some counter statement says "... somethings", then prefixing 第 to it will create the statement "the something" or "something (number) ...":


"This book has 17 chapters."

第1~10課はやすくて, 第11~17課はむずしいです。

"Chapters 1 through 10 are easy, chapters 11 through 17 are hard."

本 — Long cylindrical items

When you want to count cylindrical objects like pencils, bottles, or arms, 本 is used. As a noun this word means "book" or "origin", but as a counter it obviously means something completely different. The pronunciations for this counter are:


An example of its use is counting bottles of cola on the table:


"How many bottles are there?"


"There are 3 bottles of cola on the table."

Interestingly, phone calls can also be counted using this counter, the "logic" behind this being that telephone horns used to also be cylindrical (think of the classical phone with a rotary number dial).

冊 — Bound volumes

This counter is used for counting bound objects like books, magazines, notebooks and the like. The pronunciations are:


And an example of use would be:


"There are 5 books on the bookshelf."

(In this sentence, 本 is used as a normal noun, not a counter.)

巻 — Volumes

This counter is used to count volumes in a series of bound volumes. For instance, a twenty volume encyclopedia comprises 20巻 worth of books. The difference between 巻 and 冊 is that 冊 only means bound volume. A stack of reading material consisting of a magazine, a newspaper, a novel and a text book on Japanese consists of 四冊, but since these are each completely different works, the stack does not consist of 四巻.

課 — Sections

This counter is used to count sections in a (text) book, or lessons in a lesson programme. On its own, 課 technically means "division", but is understood within the context of something educational, so mostly translates to chapter, lesson, section, or even (educational) department.

枚 — Sheets

This counter is used to count sheet-like things, such as sheets of paper, plates, planks, or even things like folded up T-shirts. The pronunciations are:


And an example of use would be:


"How many pages (literally: sheets) is this big book?"

杯 — Cups

This counter is used to count cups of drink, such as glasses of wine, cups of tea, glasses of beer and the like. The pronunciations are:


An example of use would be:


"2 glasses of red wine and 1 glass of beer please."

Note that 一杯 can mean two things: as a counter statement it means "one cup [of something]". However, it can also be used as a quantifier, in which case it means "plenty" or "full", depending on the context. When used to mean "one cup", the pronunciation drops in pitch on "っぱい", whereas when it is used to mean "full", the pronunciation has a rising pitch on "っぱい".

台 — Machinery

This counter is used to count mechanical or electrical machinery of all sizes. This would include things like cars, televisions, pianos, cameras, sewing machines, and the like.


An example of use would be:


"(My) friend Hiroshi said he had three computers."

階 — Floors in a building

This counter is used to count floors or levels of a building, and has a special pronunciation for 3:


An example of use would be:


"The bedrooms are on the second floor."

For floors underground, the prefix ちか地下 (literally meaning "underground") is added to this counter:


In addition, there are also two useful words to know when it comes to floors, being さいじょうかい最上階, meaning "top floor" and ちゅうにかい中二階 meaning "mezzanine" (a 'floor' between first and second floor).

個 — Instances, number of

This is a general purpose counter used to count "numbers of [something]", such as the number of eggs needed for a specific recipe, or the number of bricks in a wall. The pronunciations are:


And example of use would be:


"How many eggs should (I) add?"

This counter is a typical fall-back counter when you do not know the proper counter for something, although with the note that it only makes sense for things that can be measured in units, or instances. So eggs and bricks are fine, people or thoughts are not.

つ — Items

This is a special general counter for counting items. Because this counter creates statements such as "I will have four [items]", it's typically omitted in translation because it doesn't indicate what kind of items are counted at all, merely that they are being counted. The pronunciations for this counter, as mentioned in the counting section, are what make this particle special, since it uses the native Japanese pronunciations for 1-9, and has a special question word:


Important to note is that 十 doesn't actually have つ as counter at all. Also, the question word for this counter can be used not just to ask "how many items", but also "how many years [of age]" someone is, although this only applies to the age of young children, as the counter only really goes up to 10. For children that are older, as well as adolescents and adults, the regular question word なんさい (何才 / 何歳), which is the question word for the counter for years of age, is used instead.

An example of use would be:


"There were 2 oranges left."

円 — The Japanese currency

This counter is used for ¥, the Japanese currency. This counter has special pronunciations for 4 and 9, and also has a special question word:


An example sentence would be:


"This pen was 50 yen."

Note the different readings よえん instead of "よんえん" and くえん instead of "きゅうえん". Also note that the question word for "how many yen" is actually the question word meaning "how much", and is remarkably similar to くらい in that it can be used to refer to either quantity, duration or frequency. Thus, the question いくらみますか, "how much do you read?", can mean three different things, reflected in the possible answers to it:


"(I) read 1 book every 2 weeks."


"(I) read 2 hours a day."


"Oh, (I) don't really read that much."

Of course, in the context of currency いくら is always understood as meaning "how much (money)".

Other major currency counters are ドル, the (US) dollar, ユーロ, the euro (€), and ポンド, the (British) pound.

畳 — Floor surface

Traditional Japanese houses, or traditional rooms in apartment buildings or flats in Japan (called わふうしつ和風室, literally 'Japanese style room'), are never counted in terms of square feet or meters, but in terms of how many tatami mats, たたみ, it will fit. This unit of measure is one of the 'common knowledge' units of surface measure, so it's generally a good idea to know it. The size of tatami mats depends on the region, ranging from 0.955 meter by 1.91 meter in the Kyoto area to only 0.88 meter by 1.76 meter in the Tokyo area. Thus, a 六畳 room may be bigger or smaller, depending on where in Japan you find it.

The counting table is fairly simple, with a different reading for 9:


Typically, however, there are only three counts for 畳, namely the common room dimensions for Japanese style rooms: 四畳()はん (four and a half), 六畳 and 八畳. When indicating actual counts of individual tatami mats, such as when purchasing replacement mats or for outfitting several rooms, the counter 枚 is used instead. The reason for this is that rather than indicating surface measure, you are now counting flat, sheet-like objects, which must of course be counted using the counter for flat, sheet-like objects.

Counters for living things

匹 — Small animals and fish

This counter is used to count small animals. "Small" should not be taken too literally, as this counter applies to cats, squirrels, mice, or fish just as it does to great Danes (a particularly huge kind of dog) or even moderately sized alligators.

The pronunciations are:


An example sentence would be:


"Not even a single mouse should be able to get in (here)."

羽 — Birds and rabbits

This kanji means "wings" when pronounced はね, and as a counter is used to count birds. As a peculiarity, this counter can also be used to count rabbits (although 匹 is more common these days), because of an interesting bit of Japanese history: from the 6th century until the mid-19th century, Japanese people were — by decree — forbidden to eat several kinds of meat between April and October. However, birds and adult fish could still be eaten, so in order to be able to eat meat anyway, people started calling certain animals by different names, referring to them as birds of fish. Boars, for instance, became "land whales" (whales still being considered fish at the time, rather than the mammals we now know them to be), and rabbits became "birds" on account of their floppy ears, so these animals were counted using the counters that applied to these animals instead. This practice lasted until 1872, when the Meiji restoration embraced a number of Western views and customs, and eating meat was allowed all year round again after a more than 1300 year period of decreed abstinence. That said, rabbits can of course also be counted using 匹.

The pronunciations for this counter are wholly unremarkable:


A fun example sentence for this counter is a classic:


"There are 2 chickens in the garden."

The pronunciation for this sentence is "にわにわにわのにわとりがいる", which is always a good reason to use this sentence whenever appropriately possible.

頭 — Large animals

This kanji on its own means "head", and for reasons about as inexplicable as why 本 is used for cylindrical objects, 頭 is used to count large animals such as sheep, cows, horses, elephants, giraffes, salt water crocodiles (which are astoundingly huge), etc. The pronunciations are:


An example sentence would be:


"(I) can see 1 horse."

人 — People

It should be noted that there are special pronunciations for 1 person and 2 people, using the reading り, but that 3 and up are all counted using the pronunciation にん:


An example sentence would be:


"Are those two (people) over there a (married) couple?"

The polite counter for people, as used by, for instance, waiters or receptionists, is めい, which has a very polite counterpart: めいさま名様. However, don't use these counters unless you find yourself serving patrons in a restaurant or something similar. For normal counting of people, stick with 人.

Occurrences and ranking

度 — Number of times, degrees

As a counter for occurrences, this counter is principally used only for counting once, twice and thrice. For something that occurs more than three times, かい is used instead.

Aside from being used for occurrence, 度 is also used to count degrees Celsius, and geometric degrees (such as a 90 degree angle, or GPS degrees). The pronunciations are:


Example sentences would be:


"Could you please say that one more time?"


"It's hot today, don't you think? I wonder what temperature (literally: how many degrees) it is."

This particle is also a noun on itself, pronounced たび, which is used as a nominaliser for turning clauses into occurrences, which will be explained in the next chapter, in the nominalisers section.

While strictly speaking not genuinely related to counters, a special note for this counter involving the indicator 今, meaning "now" and read as こん, should be added: こんど今度 can either mean "now", or "next time":


"Oh, now what?"


"(See you) next time!"

回 — Number of times

Where 度 is used for once, twice and thrice, 回 can be used for any number of occurrences. The pronunciations are:


An example sentence would be:


"(I) already tried (and failed) three times..."

The same oddity for 度 exists, when pairing 回 with こん:


"Oh, now what?"


"Let's do (that) next time."

番 — Rank

This counter is used to indicate a number in a ranking. This counter has a different pronunciation for 9, so the pronunciations are:


An example sentence would be:


"I'm (up) third."

The first count in this series, 一番, is the same 一番 that is used in the adjectival superlative in Japanese, since it literally means "first" and thus also means "most".

号 — Issue number

This counter is used to count issues, such as magazine or newspaper issues, or number in a series, such as room numbers on a floor, or the number of a limited series prototype car. Like 番, it has a different pronunciation for 9, so the pronunciations are:


An example sentence would be:


"My parents live at number seventeen."

The combination of 番 and 号, ばんごう番号, is used to indicate a ranked "number", such as a phone number, registration number or product serial number, where the number doesn't particularly indicate a rank on its own, but does sit at a particular position in the greater list of all numbers of its category.

It can also be used to change the number from an absolute value, such as "17 Thornhill Street" to a position in an ordered list, such as "the 17th house after you turn left":


"My parents live at number seventeen."


"My parents are the seventeenth door."

In the second sentence, "seventeenth" is understood to be from some kind of (contextually obvious) reference point, like the start of the block, or from the floor's staircase.

~目 — Ordinality

This is technically not a counter, but can be added to rank counters to indicate ordinality — that is, it indicates an item's position in some ordered set. Being very specific: adding 目 to a counter changes the count from a cardinal number to ordinal number.

For instance, it can be used in combination with 日 to create the counter 日目, changing the meaning from "... days" or "day ... of the month" to "the day (relative to some arbitrary time)":


"We stayed at the hotel for three days."


"We stayed at a hotel on the third day."

It's also frequently combined with 番 to create the counter ばんめ番目, which changes the meaning from a number in a ranking, to number of appearance. For instance, a runner with the back number "214" could be the first person to start in a relay, in which case the runner himself would be indicated using 214番のランナー (or 214号のランナー) but would also be the 一番目のランナー, because he's the first runner.

Another example of this difference can be shown in the context of waiting for a bus:


"Please take the no. 5 bus at this bus stop."


"Please take the fifth bus at this bus stop."

Counting time related units

秒 — Seconds

Counting seconds in Japanese uses 秒, for which the pronunciations are:


An example sentence would be:


"How long will it take? 20 seconds, half a minute?"

分 - Minutes

Moving from seconds to minutes, the counter for minutes has different pronunciations for 3, 4, and the question word:


An example sentence would be:


"It's now 5 minutes to 3."

Also, the measure "half minute" (as used in the example sentence for seconds) is はんぷん半分, using the same pronunciation as for 三 and 何.

時 — Clock hours

Don't confuse clock hours with durational hours. Clock hours are things like "three o' clock" and "seven in the evening". Durational hours are "it took 3 hours" or "I went home after waiting an hour". This counter is for the first category and indicates the hours of the day:


Note the pronunciations for 4 and 9, both being the short pronunciations. An example sentence would be:


"What time is it?"

The indicators for a.m. and p.m. are ごぜん午前 and ごご午後 in Japanese, indicating whether a time is before or after the "hour of the horse", which corresponds to the period from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. according to the classical Chinese system. These are prefixed to the time:


"It is 3 p.m."


"Let us convene at 9 a.m."

To make the "useful words" list complete, midday is しょうご正午, and midnight is れいじ零時.

時間 — Durational hours

By adding the durational particle かん — literally "interval" — to the counter 時, we get the durational counter for hours. The difference between clock time and duration is striking:


"What time is it?"


"How long is it?"

This difference is also very important for actual counting statements. Quite often, people starting with Japanese will mix up 時 and 時間, creating sentences such as the following:


"It's three hours long."

When they really mean to say 三時です, "it's 3 o' clock". Similarly, they might say:


"(I) studied at 2 o' clock."

while meaning to say 二時間に勉強しました, "I studied for two hours".

日/日 — Days

Moving up from hours to days, we reach a rather interesting counter. As explained before, this counter is special in several ways. Firstly, counting 1 to 10 days uses the counter 日 in its pronunciation か, paired with native Japanese readings for the numbers. 14 and 24, too, use 日 pronounced as か, but use a mixed Chinese/Japanese reading for the number, and "20 days" has its own special word. The rest of the days are counted using 日 in its pronunciation にち, with Chinese read numbers:


The reading for 一日 differs depending on what it's used to mean: ついたち refers to the first day of the month, but the reading いちにち is also possible, in which case it refers to a single day in duration (including 'my day' in, for instance, "my day consists of doing ..."). Also, for every other number under 32, 日 refers to both day of the month and length of duration in days. Any number above 31 automatically only means "days of duration", since months only go up to the 31st at best. Because of this, 34, 44, etc. have the pronunciation ~よ(ん)にち instead of ~よっか.

An example sentence would be:


"(We) stayed 2 days and one night."

In this sentence a counter that won't be treated separately, はく, is used which means "nights of stay".

There are two question words regarding dates; we can be either use いつ, which means "when", or we can use the counter question word なんにち何日. We can also ask about the length of duration in days, for which we can use two question words too: どのぐらい, for approximate duration, and 何日, for exact duration.

Aside from being able to count days, it's also good to be able to name the immediate past and future days:

さきおととい一昨昨日three days ago (2 days before yesterday)
おととい一昨日day before yesterday
あさって明後日day after tomorrow
明々しあさって後日in three days (2 days after tomorrow)

You may sometimes head the word ほんじつ本日 being used to mean "today" (or, less frequently, "yesterday" or "tomorrow"). However, this word is only used when there is some contextual day that is tied to a specific date. The word 本日 literally means "the day in question", and can be taken to mean "today" (or "yesterday" or "tomorrow") only when the event's "day in question" coincides with "today" (or "yesterday" or "tomorrow").

週 — Weeks

Increasing the scale further, we reach weeks, indicated with 週. Like 時, 週 on its own just refers to the yearly week, with 週間 referring to length of duration as measured in weeks. The pronunciations are:


An example sentence would be:


"This year's festival is in week 18."

The words for the immediate past and future weeks are:

せんせんしゅう先先週the week before last
せんしゅう先週last week
こんしゅう今週this week
らいしゅう来週next week
さらいしゅう再来週the week after next

週間 — Weeks of duration

Like 時, 週 has to be followed by 間 to turn it into a durational counter:


"The exams are in about two weeks."

がつ (月) — Calendar months

Like 時 and 週, 月 alone refers to month of the year. While western languages typically have named months, the Japanese — not too long ago in fact — gave up on named months in favour of the Chinese system of numbered months, resulting in:


The names of the months have been added here to stress that these are not so much numbered months, but calendar months. Remember them as such! Also note that there are specific readings for April, July and September. You can't use another reading for the number for these words — these "counts" are very much fixed in the Japanese language as nouns. The question word for month of the year is なんがつ何月.

The words for the immediate past and future months are:

せんせんげつ先先月the month before last
せんげつ先月last month
こんげつ今月this month
らいげつ来月next month
さらいげつ再来月the month after next

And finally, in the interest of satisfying human curiosity, the old names for the months are:


月 — Months of duration

When read as つき, and paired with the native Japanese readings for numbers, this counter expresses duration in terms of lunar months, and is typically only used for indicating 1 to 3 months of duration. This is a slightly poetic counter, but is also used in formal writing to indicate the 1-3 month durational range:


ヶ月 — Months of duration

While — like 時 and 週 — 月 on its own means "month of the year", the suffix 間 cannot be used to turn 月 into a durational counter. Instead, the prefix ヶ is used, but be careful: this is not the katakana ケ, but actually a simplified kanji form of 箇. You can tell this difference by looking at the size of the kanji: ヶ月 (かげつ) vs. ケ月 — the katakana ケ is much bigger than the simplified version of 箇. Why exactly this kanji got simplified to this deceptive form is not entirely clear, but it has, which means you'll need to be able to recognise it as a counter. The standard contractions occur in the pronunciations:


An example sentence would be:


"I will be abroad for three months."

年 — Years

Once more, there is the distinction between years in an era, 年, and years of duration, 年間. The pronunciations for 年 are:


An example sentence would be:


"This book is from 1877."

(The 明治 era ran from 1868 to 1912, so with 1868 being the first year, the 10th year of the Meiji era is 1877 — more on this later, in the section on time and dates)

The words for the immediate past and future years are:

さきおととし一昨昨年three years ago (2 years before last)
おととし一昨年the year before last
きょねん去年last year
ことし今年this year
らいねん来年next year
さらいねん再来年the year after next
年生 — Scholar year

Listed as a separate counter only because this counter will be relevant to you as a student of Japanese, 年生 indicates "year of study", so that an 一年生 is a first year student, and a 四年生 is a fourth year student:


"(I) am Himura, 2nd year student at Tokyo University."

Undergraduate students are referred to as がくぶせい学部生, and graduate students as いんせい院生.

年間 — Years of duration

Once more, adding 間 turns the counter into a durational counter:


"(He) kept with his title (literally: 'seat') as champion for three years."

歳/才 — Years of age

The one thing 年 cannot be used for is to indicate years of age. For this, two special counters are used: 歳 and its simpler counterpart 才. While simpler, it's generally not a good idea to use it in every instance where writing age is required; because it is simpler, using it is a sign that you're not quite good enough at kanji yet to write the "real" kanji form. The pronunciations are the same as for any other さ-counter:


The reading くさい for 九歳, while technically possible, should be avoided, since it sounds identical to くさい, meaning "smelly/stinky". Also note that there is a special word for twenty years of age, はたち, just like there is a special word for twenty days, はつか.

An example sentence would be:


"My father will turn 61 tomorrow."

There is a special counter that is used for the ages 20 through 90, being , and using native Japanese numbers (with 十 pronounced そ), although typically only 30 through 60 are actively used:


In addition to these counts, there are numerous terms and titles associated with virtually each age, but listing all of these goes well beyond the scope of this book.

Additional words for quantification

There are also several adverbs that are used to quantify without relying on numbers. Some of these quantifiers can only be used with verbs or verbal adjectives in positive or negative form, and whenever this is the case, this will be explicitly mentioned.

いつも — Always/never

As mentioned in the particle section on も, this word doesn't mean two different things in Japanese, but merely gets translated with two different words depending on whether it's followed by a positive or negative verb.


literally: "(You)'re always saying only those kind of things."

meaning: "(You)'re always saying the same thing."


"Why is it (you) know (how to do it) when (you) never do it (in the first place)?"

大抵 — Usually, mostly

When indicating something happens 'most of the time', or 'usually', たいてい is used. There's not much else to say about it other than that it's usually used in combination with a positive verb form:


"(I) usually get up at 7."

よく — Often

We've already covered this adverb by virtue of it being the adverbial form of よい. In a quantifying role, it signifies a frequent occurrence of whatever verb it's being used with:


"(I) often swim."

余り, あんまり — Not often / not much

This adverb actually comes from the the 五段 verb 余る, meaning "to be left over", and is the counterpart to よく. It is typically only be used when followed by a negative verb or verbal adjective:


"(I) don't like (red) tea very much."

There is no real difference between あまり and あんまり, but the latter sounds slightly more emphatic.

とても — Very

This quantifier only works when followed by a positive verbal adjective:


"This is very cheap isn't it?"

This quantifier can be emphatically intensified by sticking a っ in, to form とっても:


"That was really, really fun."

時々(ときどき) — Sometimes

The kanji form should already give it away, but when activities are performed from time to time, 時々 is used:


"We all go to the cinema together from time to time."

The construction 時々 may frequently be found written as ときどき instead. The choice on whether to use a kanji or kana form depends mostly on intended style. In literary material the kanji form is preferred, while in informal writing the kana form is used more.

全然 — Not at all

Like あまり, this quantifier is usually followed by a negative verb or verbal adjective:


"(I) don't mind at all."

However, it derives its negative meaning only from these verbals — there is no rule that says this word cannot be used with affirmative verbals instead, in which case it translates to "completely". Like the こそあど+(で)も words, the meaning of 全然 itself is merely this "complete"-ness, connoting "not at all" only because it is paired with a verbal negative.

可なり — Considerably, rather

Like とても, this quantifier only works when followed by positive verbals:


"This is rather expensive, isn't it?"

さっぱり — Not at all

Like あまり and ぜんぜん, this quantifier is typically followed by a negative verb:


"(I) don't understand this at all."

However, on its own さっぱり just means "clean" or "neatly", again highlighting the fact that most quantifiers associated with a negative quantity only do so thanks to the negative verb form.

少し — A little bit

Literally, this quantifier means "in small part", and is usually followed by a positive verb:


literally: "Waiting for a little while is okay, isn't it?"

meaning: "Could (we) wait for just a bit?"


"I understand Japanese a little (bit)."

ちょっと — A little

This quantifier can be followed by either a positive verb or verbal adjective in normal statements, or by negative verbs and verbal adjectives when used in the form of a question. When used in a negative question, the full sentence actually connotes a positive, as can be seen in the following examples:


"Isn't it a little cold?"


"Shall (we) take a little walk?"

Used with a positive, there is nothing remarkable to note:


"This is a bit expensive, don't you agree?"

一杯 — A lot, "to the brim"

Mentioned in the counter section for 杯, this quantifier can only be used with positive verbs:


"(I)'m sorry, but today is fully booked."

Remember that this is only a quantifier if pronounced with the っぱい part in raised pitch. If pronounced with the っぱい part in a lower pitch, it means "one cup (of something)".

もっと — Even more

Used as the comparative for adjectives, as well as comparative for verb actions, this quantifier can only be used with positive verbs and verbal adjectives:


"It looks like it's still not enough. (Please) add in (even) more (of the) ingredients."

ずっと — Very much

This quantifier is only used with positive verbal adjectives:


"She's much prettier than any model."

This word actually translates to a wide spectrum of words, because of what it's composed of: the mimesis ず paired with と. This mimesis represents a straight, through and through somethingness, so that it can be translated as "very much", "completely", and even "forever", depending on the context.

全部 — All, wholly

This quantifier means "all" or "wholly" by virtue of its literal meaning "all parts":


"(I)'ve spent almost all my money."

Beginning students will often mistakenly use this quantifier when meaning すべて, which means "every(thing)" rather than "all", or vice versa, so make sure you picked the right one.

全て — Every, everything

This quantifier is usually paired with positive verbs (and should not be confused with ぜんぶ全部):


"(I)'ve (sadly) read every book on (my) shelves."

Using numbers

In addition to knowing what to call numbers and which particles to use for counting statements, there are two important "number" subjects that deserve special mention: telling time, and arithmetic. In this section we shall look at these two subjects in depth.

Telling time and date

Times and dates are closely related subjects, so we'll treat them in one go. We've already looked at time for a bit in the counter section, where we discovered that time counters and duration counters are two different things, leading us to guess at how to properly tell time, but let's review these particles in a more specific setting of actually telling time. The Japanese time format can be represented either in a 'before noon'/'after noon' system or using the 24 hour clock (but unlike the regular concept of '24 hours', the Japanese clock can go beyond the number 24. For instance, a TV show that's on at 1:20 in the early morning, may air at 25:20 in Japan).

The Japanese way of formatting times is similar to the western system, namely: first the hour, then minutes, then seconds. As an example:



As mentioned in the counters section, the a.m. and p.m. indications in Japanese are ごぜん午前 and ごご午後, which precede the actual time:


"(I) will come at 2:30 p.m."

There are two things to note here. One is that の is optional. It can be left out, in which case the statement is slightly less formal. In fact, the whole 午前/午後 indication is optional, since typically it will be obvious whether you mean in the morning or in the afternoon. The other thing to note is the use of the suffix はん which indicates "half". In Japanese, adding this indicates an additional half hour (unlike in some western languages, where the indicator 'half' means removing half an hour from the time):



This is of course the same as saying 七時三十分, but using 半 is shorter.

Unlike some western languages, Japanese doesn't have indicators for the quarters before and past the hour. Instead, it has a "before" and "after" marker if the time is anywhere from 10-ish minutes before the hour to 10-ish minutes past the hour, まえ and ぎ respectively. Literally, 前 means "before" or "in front of", and 過ぎ is the noun derived from the verb 過ぎる, "to be past (some conceptual point)". Two examples of their use are:


"It's already 10 past 4, are we still going to wait?"


"That programme will start 5 (minutes) to 1."

But telling time alone isn't everything. If you don't want to use 午前 or 午後, you can also say whether you mean in the morning, afternoon, evening or night, by using the nouns あさ, ひる, ばん and よる respectively:


"(I) leave the house every morning at 7."

The prefix 毎, as you may remember from the outline, is a prefix used to indicate "every [...]" and is used here to indicate frequent behaviour rather than just a single event. When you want to specifically refer to "this" morning, afternoon, evening or night instead, the words to use are けさ今朝, [nothing], こんばん今晩 and こんや今夜 respectively. There's no real reason why there is no word for "this afternoon", but there just isn't any. Instead, きょう今日 meaning "today" is typically used. Also notice the readings for 'this morning' and 'this night', which might be different from what you would expect.

If we want to be more specific, we might add a date to the time we're stating. The Japanese format for this is "biggest counter first", so the format is:

era → year → month → day → (day by name)* → hour → minutes → seconds

The era bit is important here, as the Japanese calendar doesn't actually correspond to the western calendar. While the Japanese will use the Gregorian calendar when necessary, the "proper" Japanese way to count years is to name the era to which you are referring, and then count the number of years since its epoch. Since these are reasonably important to know, the list of most recent eras — ordered most recent to oldest — is as follows:

  • The へいせい平成 Heisei (平成) is the current era, which started in 1989 and will last as long as emperor Akihito remains emperor.
  • The しょうわ昭和 Shouwa (昭和) was the era before the current era, running from 1926 till 1989.
  • The たいしょう大正 Taishou (大正) is the last most recent era still covering the 1900's, running from 1912 till 1926.
  • The めいじ明治 Meiji (明治) is the first of the "recent" eras, starting at the Meiji restoration in 1868 running till 1912.

The numbering for eras is reasonably intuitive: the first year of an era is the year the era started. Thus, " 大正 1" corresponds to 1912, and " 昭和 30" corresponds to 1955. If we write out the full date for when this section was first written, we get:


Heisei 17 (= 2005), May 24th (Tuesday), 2:19′55″

While using kanji for the numerals is a perfectly valid way to write full dates, it's easier to read if numerals are used instead:


It might also be a good idea to list the days while we're at it. The Japanese week is as follows:

にちようび日曜日"sun day of the week"Sunday
げつようび月曜日"moon day of the week"Monday
かようび火曜日"fire day of the week"Tuesday
すいようび水曜日"water day of the week"Wednesday
もくようび木曜日"wood day of the week"Thursday
きんようび金曜日"metal day of the week"Friday
どようび土曜日"earth day of the week"Saturday

While many of the western days of the week derive their name from Norse mythology (more specifically, the names of the Norse gods), the Japanese — as well as several other Asian countries — use the elements for their day naming, with the sun and the moon to complete the set of seven. These two "come first", so the Japanese week conceptually starts on a Sunday, even if the first day of the work week is Monday.

When indicating day-series such as "mon-wed-fri" in English, the Japanese use two syllable pronunciations for the days in question. However, days with only a single syllable before the ようび曜日 part will have their vowel doubled:


Note that contractions occur when pairing 月 with 水, because of the つ in the pronunciation for 月.

Basic arithmetic

One of the most useful things you can do with numbers is turn them into other numbers, by applying such wonderful operations as addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. These four operations sum up the basic mathematical operations one can perform on numbers, and covers what most people consider enough when it comes to doing maths. While, of course, explaining all mathematical operations is well beyond the scope of this book, we will also look at powers and roots, in addition to the four basic arithmetic operations.


Addition is the root of all things maths related. The idea of addition is a childishly simple one: you have something, you get more, you have more. The mathematical part of this concept is to determine how much more you have, and for this we need three things: numbers, something that states addition, and something that marks an outcome. Luckily (though not unexpectedly) Japanese has all three of these. Numbers we have already seen plenty of, the outcome marker is simply です, and the verb that we use for addition is す.


"One plus four is five."

In this use, 足す acts remarkably western in that even though 足す is used in 連体形, and should thus be attributive, 一足す四 does not say "a one-added four", but merely says "one plus four" (this is also the case for the verb used for subtraction).

We can also use 足す on its own, for such obvious things as:


"If (you) add 20 yen, that'll make it (a) round (number)."

Where ちょうど is a nice little word meaning 'exact' or 'precise'. In this sentence, it is interpreted as "round number", because in the context of numbers, a precise number corresponds to a 'clean' number, which can either be a round number, or a number without a decimal fraction.


For subtraction, く instead of 足す is used:


"300 minus 53 is 247."


Division in Japanese is done in the same way as in western maths, but the phrasing is somewhat confusing if you don't pay attention: in western maths, the number that results from 3 × ⅕ is pronounced "three fifths". In Japanese, this 'factor, then denominator' order is the reverse, so instead of saying "three fifths", in Japanese you say "five's three":


literally: "three five-parts"


This uses the genitive の to link 三, 3, as genitivally belonging to 五分, ⅕.

One thing to note here is that in this use, 分 is pronounced ぶん, and this is the reason why the counter series for minutes has an oddity for three, where ふん becomes ぷん instead of ぶん:

三分さんぷんThree minutes
三分さんぶんA third


A final simple operation is multiplication, which uses the noun ばい. This is actually a rather interesting word, because on its own it means "two fold", such as in for instance:


"(Our) problems doubled."

Interestingly, this noun can also be used in combination with other numbers (except of course the number 1) to indicate any random multiplication:


"7 times 5 is 35."

Here, the literal statement is "the five-fold of seven is 35".

This is basic multiplication, but there's also another word that's used for the x-fold for one through ten involving the counter 重, which is pronounced in various different ways this role:


You may have noticed that this is perhaps the most bizarre counter series the language has; the counter has three different possible readings, has a mix of possible native Japanese and Chinese readings for the numbers, and the native reading used for 10 is very rare one, not to mention the question word uses 幾 instead of 何.

Needless to say, this counter series is "special". In fact, it's so special that it's a mainly literary counter for "-fold", where it depends on the context which reading is used. In eloquent language, え is more likely, and in technical literature, じゅう will be used more.

More advanced mathematics

While there are many topics that we could treat here, this isn't a book on mathematics in Japanese. Treating all mathematical topics would take up too many pages, and would for the most part be rather boring. Instead, we'll look at two more "simple", but less basic, mathematical constructions before moving on to "real" language patterns.

Squaring and cubing

There are two special words for squaring (x²) and cubing (x³), へいほう平方 and りっぽう立方, used to indicate squared and cubed units respectively. For instance, when indicating something is 500 square kilometres, one would say:


"(It) is 500 square kilometres."

Or, if one wanted to say a particular vehicle has a 12 cubic meter interior, one could say:


"The interior fits 12 cubic meters."

Raising to a power and taking roots

Going beyond squares or cubes, and raising numbers to an arbitrary power in Japanese uses the counter じょう, and is used in the following way:


"7 to the power 3 is 343."

The inverse of this operation is taking the root of some power, which is done with the "counter" じょうこん乗根, which is just the counter for raising power paired with the noun for 'root':


"The square root of 49 is seven."

And that's it, that's all the mathematics you will probably care to know how to work with, so let's leave the numbers as what they are and move on to the next chapter, which deals with more general language patterns.