Counting in Japanese

The title says it all. In this lesson you’ll learn how to count to 1000 in Japanese.

Counting to 10

Japanese numbers are strictly based on the decimal system, so simply counting in Japanese is very easy. There are a few oddities in pronunciation though.

Kanji Hiragana Romaji
1 いち ichi
2 ni
3 さん san
4 し・よん shi/yon
5 go
6 ろく roku
7 しち・なな shichi/nana
8 はち hachi
9 きゅう・く kyuu/ku
10 じゅう juu

Note: an upcoming Kanji lesson will cover the numbers 1 to 9,9999, as well as compound words created with numbers.

As you’ll notice, 4, 7, and 9 each have two pronunciations. In each case, the first pronunciation given is the on-yomi, or Chinese-derived pronunciation of the number. For 4 and 7, the pronunciations yon and nana both come from Old Japanese, rather than Chinese. Both kyuu and ku, however, are Chinese-derived readings.

But why have multiple pronunciations at all? Part of the reason is superstition – shi also means “death” and ku means “suffering”. Japanese people avoid 4 and 9 much the same way westerners are paranoid of the number 13, perhaps more so. The problem with shichi is less clear. I’ve heard it to be a reading of a Kanji meaning “hostage”, and also found one instance of it meaning “the proper place to die”.

Anyway, when simply counting, you really can use either pronunciation. But when counting something, like hours or people, either pronunciation for 4/7/9 might be the right one, and it’s difficult, though not impossible, to predict which.

Here are the two most common patterns:

  On-yomi
Most Objects Less Common
1 ichi ichi
2 ni ni
3 san san
4 shi *yon *yo
5 go go
6 roku roku
7 shichi *nana
8 hachi hachi
9 kyuu kyuu *ku
10 juu juu

*Marks an “irregular” pronunciation compared to the normal on-yomi

Japanese people seem to use yon and nana most of the time, and kyuu is far more common than ku. You’ll also occasionally encounter yo for 4, really just a contraction for yon.

Note, however, that you cannot enumerate objects with Japanese numbers as is – you must add the appropriate counter. Here are a few very general ones.

Counter Example
~ばん __ban number __ いちばん ichi-ban the number one
~ばんめ __banme the __th one いちばんめ ichi-banme the first one
~ばんめの [X] __banme no [X] the __th [X] いちばんめの [X] ichi-banme no [X] the first [X]

Note: the Kanji are 番, 番目, and 番目の respectively, but these aren’t necessary for you to learn immediately. Learn the basic numbers first.

Ban simply marks a number, and is often used as a modifier (Japan’s #1 whatever). Banme makes a proper ordinal number (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.), andadding no makes banmeno, a modifier (the first something). You’ll learn many more counters for specific types of things, like people, animals, long objects, flat objects, etc.

The reason I’ve chosen these ones is because they follow the “general” counting scheme I indicated above.

1ばん ichi-ban
2ばん ni-ban
3ばん san-ban
4ばん yon-ban
5ばん go-ban
6ばん roku-ban
7ばん nana-ban/shichi-ban
8ばん hachi-ban
9ばん kyuu-ban
10ばん juu-ban

It’s worth noting that shichi and nana are more interchangeable than the other pairs.

Just remember: your job right now is just to learn what the numbers are. The time to worry about which variants go with which counters will come soon enough.

Learning the Japanese Numbers

You should plan to learn your numbers forwards and backwards in every possible way:

Japanese Pronunciation <-> Number/English <-> Kanji <-> Japanese Pronunciation

As for how to practice, do whatever works for you: flashcards, writing Hiragana for Kanji and vis versa, simple arithmetic in Japanese – it’s all good. But if you want to be able to do anything more complex than identifying individual numbers, you need to have the basics down cold.

Learning the Kanji the first time around let’s you kill two birds with one stone, and also helps a great deal with learning larger numbers. The Kanji will help you see the structure of the numbers more easily than reading them spelled out in Hiragana, as well as allowing you pick them up more quickly than using Arabic numerals, which you’ve already associated heavily with their English pronunciations.

Adding in Zero

Japanese has two words for zero: れい “rei”, and ゼロ “zero”. The borrowed word zero is the common word now, and is when giving phone numbers, for example. Rei is somewhat more formal, so you’re more likely to hear that one in broadcast messages, formal speeches, and so on. The Kanji for zero is 零, but you don’t need to learn it any time soon. Often, a big fat 〇 is used instead for years in vertical writing, such as 二〇一一年 for the year 2011 (normally 二千十一年).

Counting to 100

Although we got sidetracked with some issues in pronunciation at the beginning, it is nonetheless extremely easy to count even to large numbers in Japanese.

We’ll start with the “teens”. Simply add a number from ichi to kyuu after juu (10).

Kanji Pronunciation Gloss Arabic
十一 じゅういち/juu ichi ten + one 11
十二 じゅうに/juu ni ten + two 12
十三 じゅうさん/juu san ten + three 13
十四 じゅうよん/juu yon
(じゅうし/juu shi)
ten + four 14

And so on through juukyuu (19).

Next, to create new 10′s place numbers, simply attach a number from 1 to 9 in front of juu.

Kanji Pronunciation Gloss Arabic
二十 にじゅう/nijuu two-ten 20
三十 さんじゅう/sanjuu three-ten 30
四十 よんじゅう/yonjuu
(しじゅう/shijuu)
four-ten 40
五十 ごじゅう/gojuu five-ten 50
六十 ろくじゅう/rokujuu six-ten 60
七十 ななじゅう/nanajuu
(しちじゅう/shichijuu)
seven-ten 70
八十 はちじゅう/hachijuu eight-ten 80
九十 きゅうじゅう/kyuujuu nine-ten 90

With larger numbers, yon, nana, and kyuu seem to be preferred.

Now, to fill in the gaps, you can add another ichi through kyuu for the ones place.

Kanji Pronunciation Gloss Arabic
二十一 にじゅういち/nijuu two-ten 20
二十二 にじゅうに/nijuu ni two-ten + one 21
二十三 にじゅうさん/nijuu san two-ten + two 23
二十九 にじゅうきゅう/nijuu kyuu two-ten + nine 29
三十 さんじゅう/sanjuu three-ten 30
三十一 さんじゅういち/sanjuu ichi three-ten + one 31
九十九 きゅうじゅうきゅう/kyuujuu kyuu nine-ten + nine 99

So, the number before juu multiplies it, and the number after it is added. As you can see, Japanese numbers are a lot more compact when written in Kanji than in Hiragana. This is true for most compound words as well.

Finally, one new number…

Kanji Pronunciation Gloss Arabic
ひゃく/hyaku hundred 100

In summary:

For numbers up to 99, the format is

[A]十[B]  /  [A] じゅう [B]  /  [A] juu [B]

Where A and B are numbers from 1 to 9, A is the 10′s place, and B is the 1′s place. For a ’1′ in the 10′s place, omit [A], and for a ’0′ in the 1′s place, omit [B].

0 by itself is ゼロ・れい (zero/rei), and 100 is 百/ひゃく/hyaku

Counting to 1000

The 100′s place works exactly like the 10′s place. To make numbers from 101 to 199, simply add the numbers for 1 to 99 after hyaku.

Kanji Pronunciation Gloss Arabic
百一 ひゃくいち/hyaku ichi hundred + one 101
百十 ひゃくじゅう/hyaku juu hundred + ten 110
百十二 ひゃくじゅうに/hyaku juu ni hundred + ten + two 112
百三十 ひゃくさんじゅう/hyaku sanjuu hundred + three-ten 130
百四十五 ひゃくよんじゅうご/hyaku yonju go hundred + four-ten + five 145

To create a larger 100′s place numbers, add ni through kyuu in front of hyaku. This time, there are a couple of sound changes.

Kanji Pronunciation Gloss Arabic
ひゃく/hyaku hundred 100
二百 にひゃく/nihyaku two-hundred 200
三百 さんびゃく/sanbyaku three-hundred 300
四百 よんひゃく/yonhyaku four-hundred 400
五百 ごひゃく/gohyaku five-hundred 500
六百 ろっぴゃく/roppyaku six-hundred 600
七百 ななひゃく/nanahyaku seven-hundred 700
八百 はっぴゃく/happyaku eight-hundred 800
九百 きゅうひゃく/kyuuhyaku nini-hundred 900

These particular sound changes actually aren’t irregular, since they also occur with the counter hon (long objects), creating sanbon, roppon, and happon respectively. In other words, the initial ‘h’ after the number triggers the change. Native Japanese speakers will generally say that these kinds of changes make the words easier to say.

At this point, you should be able to guess how to create the rest of the numbers up to 999.

Kanji Pronunciation Gloss Arabic
四百五 よんひゃくご/yonhyaku go four-hundred + five 405
六百七十 ろっぴゃくななじゅう/roppyaku nanajuu six-hundred + seven-ten 670
八百九十九 はっぴゃくきゅうじゅうきゅう/happyaku kyuujuu kyuu eight-hundred + nine-ten + nine 899

And one last new number:

Kanji Pronunciation Gloss Arabic
せん/sen thousand 1000

In summary:

For numbers up to 999, the format is

[A]百[B]十[C]  /  [A] ひゃく [B] じゅう [C]  /  [A] hyaku [B] juu [B]

Where A and B are numbers from 1 to 9, A is the 10′s place, and B is the 1′s place. For a ’1′ in the the 100′s or 10′s place, omit [A] or [B] respectively. For a ’0′ in either place, omit the hyaku or the juu as well as the preceding number. For a ’0′ in the 1′s place, omit [C].

0 by itself is ゼロ・れい (zero/rei), and 1000 is 千/せん/sen.

Do you see how the Kanji translate to the numbers we’re familiar with? I think this is worth looking at one more time.

Kanji Think this… ..to get this
[A]百[B]十[C] = [A]*100  +  [B]*10  +  [C] = [A] [B] [C]

The primary difference from English is that hyaku by itself already means ’100′, so no preceding ichi is necessary, just as it isn’t for juu (10).

Related Topics

The pattern you’ve learned in this lesson actually works up through the 10,000′s place (99,999). At that point, things finally get more difficult. The construction of large numbers will be covered in a subsequent lesson.

There is also an additional set of native Japanese numbers, the hitotsu-futatsu-mittsu system, which is used for counting small numbers of objects, and creating some counters and compound words. These numbers will be covered in a future lesson.

The following number-related topics will be also covered in subsequent lessons:

  • Telling Time (Hours and minutes)
  • Reading Dates (Days, Months, and Years)
  • Counter Words
  • Arithmetic in Japanese


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