Counters in Japanese

By | November 21, 2014

One thing that can be a bit challenging about learning Japanese is its system for counting items. In this post I’ll go over that and give some related resources.

The basic formula for using counters is pretty simple. If you have something you want to count you use a combination of the numeral (いち、に、さん, etc.) plus the type-specific counter. This rule itself is pretty simple but in order to fluently use counters you must master two things: the exceptions in pronunciation and the large number of counters for different objects.

First, let’s take a simple example: counting times (occurrences of an event).

The counter for this is 回 (pronounced ‘kai’) and if you think of going around and around repeating something the Kanji is easy to remember as well. Let’s count from ‘1 time’ to ’10 times’:

1回 (ikkai)

2回 (nikai)

3回 (sankai)

4回 (yonkai)

5回 (gokai)

6回 (rokkai)

7回 (nanakai)

8回 (hakkai)

9回 (kyuukai)

10回 (jukkai)

You may have noticed the items in bold (1,6,8,10) are pronounced a bit differently that you might expect. For example 1回 is not “ichi” + “kai” => “ichikai” but instead “ikkai”. A similar pattern occurs for may other counters (1個=いっこ, 1本=いっぽん, etc.). Noticed that I am writing these using the easy-to-read 1,2,3,… numerals but they can also be written with Kanji numbers, like 一回、二回、三回.

There are other exceptions when using other counters such as 匹, which is normally read as ‘hiki’ but when used as a counter turns into ‘ippiki’, ‘nihiki’, ‘sanbiki’, etc.

Since there are many of these counters you need to spend some time to learn them along with their corresponding objects they describe.  In any good Japanese textbook you should find a table of these which his a good place to start. Here are a few to whet your appetite.

  • 回 (kai) = times/occurrence
  • 階 (kai) = floors
  • 枚 (mai) = flat things
  • 本 (hon) = long things (includes movies)
  • 冊 (satsu) = books, novels, etc.
  • 頭 (tou) = big animals like horses
  • 軒(ken) = houses, buildings
  • 匹 (hiki) = small animals, like frogs or rabbits
  • 羽 (wa) = birds
  • 個 (ko) = somewhat generic counter

The list of counters goes on and on, easily over a hundred.

The wikipedia page on Japanese counters has both a good basic list and an extended one:

However if you want to be really hardcore, you can try looking through a counter dictionary in Japanese. Here is one such that has many which I’ve never heard of:

As you might have guessed from the last link, counting is Japanese is kazoeru (written as 数える), and ‘kazoekata’ is “the way to count” or how something is counted.

Remember that when you use counters like this, you often put the counter after the object you are describing, and after the particle if present. For example:

  • うさぎが2匹います。
  • There are two rabbits

Sometimes you will see the counter before, that is when you want to give the impression that the items are a group:

  • 2匹のうさぎがいます。
  • There is a group of two rabbits.

Fortunately, learning just a handful of common counters goes a long way. And if you are not sure what type-specific counter to use, you can always default to counting with 一つ (hitotsu)、二つ (futatsu)、三つ (mittsu)、四つ (yottsu), etc.


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