Back to blog
Did you know that Japanese speakers change the way they count based on what they’re counting? You may already know how to count in Japanese, but there’s more to it than “ichi, ni, san”. This is the cardinal number system. For certain things, you will need to count with ordinal numbers.
For instance, if you see one person then you see 一人 (hitori). If they smell like they haven’t had a bath in three days, you say 三日 (mikka). If you pronounced these like “ichi hito” and “san nichi” you would be saying “one person” and “three days”. Unfortunately, you’d still be incorrect. So how many different ways to count are there?
Some counting systems you will find in Japan are for people「人」, long objects「本」, occurrences/floors「回/階」, small objects「個」, large machines「台」, and flat objects「枚」. There are more (upwards of 300) that get more specific.
There are even specific counters for groups, books, sounds, and clusters of mushrooms. Interestingly, the mushroom counter 株 (kabu) is also used for company stocks. Fortunately you can get by pretty well without knowing most of these specific ones.
Here’s out quick reference list for some of the more common counters in Japan.
As you can see, many of the counters are straight forward. Most involve just putting a different suffix behind the numbers you already know. Some like “-nin” have unique counters for a couple but then begins simply attaching the suffix. Others like “-hon” alternate between “-hon“, “-bon“, and “-pon“, and will take some practice.
Until you get down all the counters, there is a generic counter you can use for just about everything and be understood. This counter is つ (-tsu). Just pair the subject or noun of what you are counting with these, and people will know what you mean.
These certainly help when you’re in a bind, but you should use the proper counters whenever possible. Not only does it help you sound more fluent, but people will use them often. Knowing what is being said to you is also important.