HOW TO COUNT IN JAPANESE
What is a counter?
Counting things in Japanese is not so easy. In the Japanese language, things are classified based on some of their attributes (the category of long and thin objects, the category of small animals, etc.) These “categories” are called counters. For example, counters let you say “I want 2 donuts,” “there are 3 cars,” etc.
Japanese has the particularity of having two systems to do that. Aside from counters, there is the “一つ (hitotsu), 二つ (futatsu), 三つ (mittsu)” system. Let’s start with the latter, and then we will examine the Japanese counters.
The Hitotsu, Futatsu, Mittsu system
One, two, three, four, five, six is translated as 一 (ichi), 二 (ni), 三 (san), 四 (yon), 五 (go), 六 (roku). So, your natural reflex would be to say 二パン, ni pan (two loaves of bread), 三車, san kuruma (three cars). But the Japanese don’t count like that at all.
For each number, the “一つ (hitotsu), 二つ (futatsu), 三つ (mittsu)” system uses another word that you need to learn. The system can be used to count only from 1 to 10 to indicate a quantity:
Now, let’s use them in sentences:
|Pan o mittsu kudasai.|
|Three loaves of bread, please.|
|Mikan ga futatsu arimasu.|
|There are two tangerines.|
The 一つ (hitotsu), 二つ (futatsu), 三つ (mittsu) system is mainly used for small objects when there is no other specific counter existing. Notice that the object is first expressed, then the quantity. The particle used depends on the verbal structure. For example, you can say : “Mikan ga arimasu” (there are tangerines) and “pan o kudasai” : “Some bread please”. The use of futatsu or mittsu doesn’t change the sentence structure, those words only serve to provide a more detailed piece of information on the quantity.
But how to say if we want to buy 15 tangerines if the 一つ (hitotsu), 二つ (futatsu), 三つ (mittsu) system can’t go beyond 10? In that case, the counter 個 (ko) must be used. To some extent, we could consider 個 as a generic counter for small objects. Moreover, in most situations 一つ (hitotsu) can be replaced by 一個 (ikko)! Example:
- 卵を 二つ/二個 下さい tamago o futatsu / niko kudasai (2 eggs, please)
- 卵を ２０個 下さい tamago o nijukko kudasai (20 eggs, please).
The other system to count objects in Japanese is the counters. For example, for thin and long objects such as pens or bottles, the counter 本 (hon) is used. For thin and flat objects (leaf, record, photography), 枚 (mai) is used.
When using counters, you can count beyond 10. Moreover, you can use 一 (ichi), 二 (ni), 三 (san), 四 (yon), 五 (go), 六 (roku) again in most cases.
Here is how to count hours for instance:
|何時, なんじ||what time ?|
|一時, いちじ||1 hour|
|二時, にじ||2 hours|
|三時, さんじ||3 hours|
|四時, よじ||4 hours|
|五時, ごじ||5 hours|
|六時, ろくじ||6 hours|
|七時, しちじ||7 hours|
|八時, はちじ||8 hours|
|九時, くじ||9 hours|
|十時, じゅうじ||10 hours|
|十一時, じゅういちじ||11 hours|
|十二時, じゅうにじ||12 hours|
|十三時, じゅうさんじ||13 hours|
|十四時, じゅうよじ||14 hours|
When a counter is attached to a number, the pronunciation of the word might slightly change. For example, notice that we don’t say “yoN ji,” but “yo ji.” There are no grammatical rules, it’s a phonetic phenomenon. You’lll naturally master them with practice. But the Japanese will understand you anyway, so don’t worry. All the more as even some Japanese people have doubts sometimes...
Let’s finish with an example sentence with 枚 (mai) (thin and flat objects).
|Hagaki o sanmai kudasai.|
|Give me 3 postcards, please.|