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Japanese Counters

Let’s say you order some hamburgers and would like to order three; in English one would simply say that they would like “three”, in Japanese the number three is 三 (さん [san]) so would one say they would like “san” hamburgers if ordering in Japanese?

Well unfortunately it’s not so straight forward. If one is to ask for three hamburgers, “three” would be 三つ (みっつ [mittsu]).

So if the item is books, “three” should be “mittsu”. Yet again this would be incorrect, one would say 三冊 (さんさつ [sansatsu]).

There are a few counters for the English language such as multipliers e.g. single, double, triple, quadruple etc., date e.g. May 2nd, June 30th, etc., time e.g. 12 o’clock, quarter after 9, etc., ranking e.g. first, second, third, etc., sets of twelve e.g. one dozen, 3 dozen, etc.

Seems like quite a lot, but for Japanese there is a greater amount of counters, in fact there are 500 of them!  There are also counters that have vague explanations to what qualifies for said counter sometimes making it tricky to remember which counter to use. We hope this post help with some of these counter troubles.

The following is the most common counter, this would be the default counter. For example when ordering food you would use this counter.

Numeral Romaji Kanji/ hiragana
1 hitotsu 一つ (ひとつ)
2 futatsu 二つ (ふたつ)
3 mittsu 三つ (みっつ)
4 yottsu 四つ (よっつ)
5 itsutsu 五つ (いつつ)
6 muttsu 六つ (むっつ)
7 nanatsu 七つ (ななつ)
8 yattsu 八つ (やっつ)
9 kokonotsu 九つ (ここのつ)
10 tou 十 (とお)

Here are a few other Japanese counters that are relatively common, kindly provided from Hiragana Times. All of these are to be added to the standard numerical count (i.e. ichi, ni, san, etc.):

Objects Counter suffix (Romaji) Kanji/ hiragana
Small and compact objects
(e.g. small boxes)
ko 個 (こ)
Vehicles, machines etc. dai 台 (だい)
Long, cylindrical objects
(e.g. trees, pens, etc.)
hon/ bon/ pon 本 (ほん・ぼん・ぽん)
Bound objects
(e.g. books, magazines, etc.)
satsu 冊 (さつ)
Thin objects
(e.g. paper, stamps, dishes, shirts, etc.)
mai 枚 (まい)
The floors of a building
(e.g. 5th floor, etc.)
kai 階 (かい)
Houses, buildings ken/ gen/ ko/ tou 軒 (けん・げん) /
戸 (こ) / 棟 (とう)
Pairs of footwear
(e.g. socks, shoes, etc.)
soku/ zoku 足 (そく・ぞく)
Liquid in cups, glasses, bowls
(e.g. tea, beer, soup, etc)
hai/ bai/ pai 杯 (はい・ばい・ぱい)
Letters tsuu 通 (つう)
Duration Counter suffix (Romaji) Kanji/ hiragana
Years
(e.g. two years)
nenkan 年間 (ねんかん)
Months
(e.g. three months)
kagetsu カ月 (かげつ)
Weeks
(e.g. four weeks)
shuukan 週間 (しゅうかん)
Hours
(e.g. five hours)
jikan 時間 (じかん)
Minutes
(e.g. six minutes)
fun/ pun 分 (ふん・ぷん)
Seconds
(e.g. two seconds)
byou 秒 (びょう
Ordinals Counter suffix (Romaji) Kanji/ hiragana
Ordinal numbers
(e.g. first place [ichi-ban])
ban 番 (ばん)
Class, grade
(e.g. second place [ni-tou])
tou 等 (とう)
Frequency Counter suffix (Romaji) Kanji/ hiragana
Frequency/ number of times
(e.g. twice [ni-kai])
kai/ do 回 (かい) / 度 (ど)
People Counter suffix (Romaji) Kanji/ hiragana
Number of people nin 人 (にん)
 * There are two exceptions: for one person it is “hitori”, for two people it is “futari”
Number of people

(more formal than “nin”)

mei 名 (めい)
Age Counter suffix (Romaji) Kanji/ hiragana
Age(typically for people but not limited to. Could be for animals too.) sai 歳 (さい) / 才 (さい)
Animals Counter suffix (Romaji) Kanji/ hiragana
Large animals
(e.g. horses, cows, etc.)
tou 頭 (とう)
Insects, fish, and small animals
(e.g. cats, dogs, etc.)
hiki / biki / piki 匹 (ひき・びき・ぴき)
Birds wa / ba / pa 羽 (わ・ば・ぱ)

 

Ref.: Hiragana Times, Issue No. 362: p.27-30

2020.02.05

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