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This article is in the series Teach Yourself Japanese
5.3. Counters

5.3.1. Basic counters

To count things in Japanese, you cannot put nouns immediately after a number. Counters, which are added after numbers, are necessary. Do you think it is strange? English also has some counters for nouns representing things that cannot be counted as discrete objects. For instance, you would say two cups of coffee, ten pieces of paper, and fifty head of cattle. Japanese nouns resemble English abstract nouns.

There are three basic counters in Japanese.

CategoryCounterDescription
humanにん
ni n
human being
animateひき
hi ki
life that can move, such as animals and protists, excluding human beings
inanimate
ko
life that cannot move, such as plants, fungi, and eggs, and non-life including abstract concepts

Before counting things with counters, I'd like to introduce the genitive marker の "no", which is similar to the English suffixes and the English word of. The word の is a postposition, which is a suffix to add a grammatical function to a noun. Postpositions are similar to prepositions, but the order of words are opposite as the name implies. The order of words for の is the same as that for 's, so A's B is the same as AB, and A of B is the same as BA.

It is important to know that phrases that add information to the main phrase are always placed before the main phrase in Japanese. This is a consistent rule with no exception. Linguists call it head-last. English is a head-first language, where the main phrase is placed before additional phrases, but it is not so consistent as Japanese. That-clauses and preposition phrases are good examples of the head-first rule of English; both a dog that is white and a dog with white hair are dogs. But adjectives break the rule because they are placed before the main phrase. A white dog is a kind of dog, not a kind of whiteness.

Let's get back to の. Here is an example:

Kana:ねこのみみ
Romanization:ne ko no mi mi
Structure:noun genitive noun
(cat) marker (ear)
Meaning:a cat's ears

Japanese doesn't care much about the singular, plural, definite, or indefinite so that the example can mean any combination of either a cat, the cat, cats, or the cats and either an ear, the ear, ears, or the ears. Anyway, the phrase means a kind of ear, because of the head-last rule.

Now that you know の, you can count things with counters.
Put の after counters like this:

Kana:さんばきのねこ
Romanization:sa n bi ki no ne ko
Structure:noun noun genitive noun
(three) (counter) marker (cat)
Meaning:three cats

Since cats are animals, the counter for cats is ひき "hiki". The Japanese word for three is さん "san". The euphonic change rules of small numbers are applied to counters, so the "san" changes "h" in the "hiki" into "b". The result is さんばき "sanbiki".

The counter にん "nin" is not used for counting a person or two. There are other words for one person and two people.

Kana:ひとり
Romanization:hi to ri
Meaning:one person

Kana:ふたり
Romanization:hu ta ri
Meaning:two people

Kana:さんにん
Romanization:sa n ni n
Meaning:three people (three + counter)

Example:

Kana:ふたりのむすめ
Romanization:hu ta ri no mu su me
Structure:noun genitive noun
(two people) marker (daughter)
Meaning:two daughters

Note: If a language has counters for general nouns, it doesn't have genders and vice versa. Both counters and genders are ways of categorising nouns, and they don't coexist. East Asian languages and Native American languages often have counters, and other languages often have genders. English is a rare language that has neither of them.

Further readings:

5.3.2. Traditional numbers

Japanese has another set of number names from the ones I explained in the small numbers chapter. They are the original number names of Japanese but were replaced by the new ones, most of which were imported from Chinese more than a thousand years ago. Now they are used only for counting inanimates, and treated as combinations of a digit and the inanimate counter こ "ko". The traditional numbers are often used to count abstract things.

NumberTraditional Japanese
1ひとつ
hi to tu
2ふたつ
hu ta tu
3みっつ
mi t tu
4よっつ
yo t tu
5いつつ
i tu tu
6むっつ
mu t tu
7たたつ
na na tu
8やっつ
ya t tu
9ここのつ
ko ko no tu
10とう

The ancient Japanese numbers larger than ten were almost lost. Notice that the special human counter for one person ひとり "hitori" and that for two people ふたり "hutari" are similar to the traditional number for one ひとつ "hitotu" and that for two ふたつ "hutatu". In fact, り "ri" was a human counter in ancient Japanese. The last つ "tu" in the traditional number names was an inanimate counter, but modern native Japanese speakers don't feel a boundary between a digit name and つ because they are too old.

You may notice that two number names are similar when one is twice the other such as 1 and 2 (ひとつ "hitotu" and ふたつ "hutatu"), 3 and 6 (むっつ "mittu" and むっつ "muttu"), and 4 and 8 (よっつ "yottu" and やっつ "yattu"). If you find a language that has this kind of number name pairs, it will suggest a relationship to ancient Japanese. Linguists are still looking for the origin of Japanese; some say it came from Korea, some say from west Pacific islands, and some say even from south India.

A few ancient words for larger numbers survive in modern Japanese as shown below, but they are used only for a person's age and Japanese people rarely know they were numbers.

NumberTraditional JapaneseMeaning in modern Japanese
20はたち
ha ta ti
twenty years old (= being an adult in Japan)
30みそじ
mi so zi
thirty years old

5.3.3. Additional counters

The three basic counters you have just learned are not all counters Japanese has. Here is a list of important additional counters.

Animate

SubcategoryCounterDescription
large animalsとう
animals larger than human beings.
This word literally means head, so it is the same as head in fifty head of cattle.
birds
wa
birds

Inanimate

SubcategoryCounterDescription
long thingsほん
ho n
things that have length - pens, ropes, trees, movies, programs, etc.
thin thingsまい
ma i
pieces of paper, leaves, plates, tickets, etc.
booksさつ
sa tu
books, magazines, etc.
cups of liquidはい
ha i
same as the English counter cup and glass
(cups of coffee, glasses of water, etc.)
lifelikeたい
ta i
dead bodies, mannequins, human-shaped robots, etc.
machinesだい
da i
cars, televisions, etc.
shipsせき
se ki
ships

Don't be afraid of many counters, because counters are not so strict as genders. Using the additional counters is better for the subcategories listed above, but using the three basic counters is always understandable.

The subcategories for the additional counters are not strict. Are sheep large animals? In fact, both とう "" and ひき "hiki" work fine in this case. Penguins are counted with わ "wa" because they are birds, but some people use ひき "hiki" for them because they don't fly.

Examples:

Kana:ごほんのさくら
Romanization:go ho n no sa ku ra
Structure:noun noun genitive noun
(five) (counter) (genitive marker) (cherry tree)
Meaning:five cherry trees

Kana:にはいのおちゃ
Romanization:ni ha i no o tya
Structure:noun noun genitive noun
(two) (counter, cup) (genitive marker) (green tea)
Meaning:two cups of green tea

5.3.4. Continuum counters

A continuum, which cannot be measured by an integer only, always needs appropriate units in Japanese just as in English. Length is a good example of continuum because it cannot be measured without using a unit, and it can have a decimal value. Japan uses the metric system for scientific values. Most metric units are written with katakana because they are imported words.

Length:

CounterDescription
メートル
mê to ru
meter
キロ
ki ro
1 kilometer = 1000 meters
Abbreviation of キロメートル "kirotoru".
ミリ
mi ri
1 millimeter = 1/1000 meter
Abbreviation of ミリメートル "miritoru".
センチ
se n ti
1 centimeter = 1/100 meter
Abbreviation of センチメートル "sentitoru".

Mass:

CounterDescription
キロ
ki ro
1 kilogram = 1000 grams
Abbreviation of キログラム "kiroguramu".
グラム
gu ra mu
gram
トン
to n
1 metric ton = 1000 kilograms

Volume:

CounterDescription
リットル
ri t to ru
1 liter = 1000 cubic centimeters

Temperature:

CounterDescription

do
degree Celsius

Currencies:

CounterDescription
えん
e n
Japanese yen (not "yen" but "en" !)
ドル
do ru
American dollar
ユーロ
ro
EU euro
ポンド
po n do
British pound

Example:

Kana:よんトンのてつ
Romanization:yo n to n no te tu
Structure:noun (four) noun (counter, ton) (genitive marker) noun (iron)
Meaning: four metric tons of iron

5.3.5. Euphonic change

I have explained the euphonic change rules of small numbers, and they are also used for counters. Even though counting things without using the rules is understandable, memorising the following charts will help you speak natural Japanese.

NumberPeopleAnimatesInanimates
1ひとり
hi to ri
いっぴき
i p pi ki
いっこ
i k ko
2ふたり
hu ta ri
にひき
ni hi ki
にこ
ni ko
3さんにん
sa n ni n
さんびき
sa n bi ki
さんこ
sa n ko
4よにん
yo ni n
よんひき
yo n hi ki
よんこ
yo n ko
5ごにん
go ni n
ごひき
go hi ki
ごこ
go ko
6ろくにん
ro ku ni n
ろっぴき
ro p pi ki
ろっこ
ro k ko
7ななにん
na na ni n
ななひき
na na hi ki
ななこ
na na ko
8はちにん
ha ti ni n
はっぴき
ha p pi ki
はっこ
ha k ko
9きゅうにん
kyû ni n
きゅうひき
kyû hi ki
きゅうこ
kyû ko
10じゅうにん
zyû ni n
じゅっぴき
zyu p pi ki
じゅっこ
zyu k ko
100ひゃくにん
hya ku ni n
ひゃっぴき
hya p pi ki
ひゃっこ
hya k ko
1000せんにん
se n ni n
せんびき
se n bi ki
せんこ
se n ko

NumberLarge animalsBirdsLong things
1いっとう
i t tô
いちわ
i ti wa
いっぽん
i p po n
2にとう
ni
にわ
ni wa
にほん
ni ho n
3さんとう
sa n tô
さんわ
sa n wa
さんぼん
sa n bo n
4よんとう
yo n tô
よんわ
yo n wa
よんほん
yo n ho n
5ごとう
go
ごわ
go wa
ごほん
go ho n
6ろくとう
ro ku
ろくわ
ro ku wa
ろっぽん
ro p po n
7ななとう
na na
ななわ
na na wa
ななほん
na na ho n
8はっとう
ha t tô
はちわ
ha ti wa
はっぽん
ha p po n
9きゅうとう
kyû
きゅうわ
kyû wa
きゅうほん
kyû ho n
10じゅっとう
zyu t tô
じゅうわ
zyû wa
じゅっぽん
zyu p po n
100ひゃくとう
hya ku
ひゃくわ
hya ku wa
ひゃっぽん
hya p po n
1000せんとう
se n tô
せんわ
se n wa
せんぼん
se n bo n

NumberThin thingsBooksCups of liquid
1いちまい
i ti ma i
いっさつ
i s sa tu
いっぱい
i p pa i
2にまい
ni ma i
にさつ
ni sa tu
にはい
ni ha i
3さんまい
sa n ma i
さんさつ
sa n sa tu
さんばい
sa n ba i
4よんまい
yo n ma i
よんさつ
yo n sa tu
よんはい
yo n ha i
5ごまい
go ma i
ごさつ
go sa tu
ごはい
go ha i
6ろくまい
ro ku ma i
ろくさつ
ro ku sa tu
ろっぱい
ro p pa i
7ななまい
na na ma i
ななさつ
na na sa tu
ななはい
na na ha i
8はちまい
ha ti ma i
はっさつ
ha s sa tu
はっぱい
ha p pa i
9きゅうまい
kyû ma i
きゅうさつ
kyû sa tu
きゅうはい
kyû ha i
10じゅうまい
zyû ma i
じゅっさつ
zyu sa tu
じゅっぱい
zyu p pa i
100ひゃくまい
hya ku ma i
ひゃくさつ
hya ku sa tu
ひゃっぱい
hya p pa i
1000せんまい
se n ma i
せんさつ
se n sa tu
せんばい
se n ba i

Further readings:

← Previous page (Large numbers) | Next page (Decimals and fractions) →
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Takasugi
My name is TAKASUGI Shinji. TAKASUGI is my family name, and Shinji is my given name; a family name is placed before a given name in Japan, as in other Asian nations. My family name is capitalized to avoid misunderstanding.

I have been living in Yokohama since I was born. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, which is just 30 kilometers away from the biggest city Tôkyô. It takes 30 minutes to go by train from home to Shibuya, which is the hottest town now in Tôkyô.

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One of my hobbies is creating things with computers; creating programs, computer graphics and web pages is the thing I spent a lot of time doing. I am also interested in a wide range of sciences, and linguistics is my favorite. I like English and I like using it, but my focus is mainly on Japanese, which is my native language. I'm proud of knowing the language, and the difference between English and Japanese has been fascinating me. I have been thinking whether I can introduce it to people outside of Japan. My attempt of introducing Japanese with some Java applets has had more than 1 million visitors.

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