Counting in Japanese

By Nuu Hightower

Counting isn’t hard, right? We’ve all learned that the second we walk in the school building back in Pre-K. However, the number system in Japanese isn’t all the same, and instead uses different systems depending on the context. These contexts include people, objects, and just in general. The first time I learned to not use the general numbers for counting how many people are in my family, I was confused, and didn’t get why there was a different way of counting just to count up the number of people. Then again, I shouldn’t have expected a different language to be like English.

Now here’s the general Japanese counting system:

1 = ichi

2 = ni

3 = san

4 = shi/yon

5 = go

6 = roku

7 = nana

8 = hachi

9 = kyuu

10 = jyuu

However, you don’t use these numbers when you count, let’s say…potatoes. Instead, you use these numbers instead:

1 = hitotsu

2 = futatsu

3 = mittsu

4 = yottsu

5 = itsutsu

6 = mutsu

7 = nanatsu

8 = yatsu

9 = kokonatsu

10 = to

Now you know how to count potatoes (at least, from one to ten). Notice how almost all of them end with “-tsu”. These are the numbers that you use for objects, as mentioned earlier. But how about counting people, you may ask. Well, you use these numbers:

1 = hitori

2 = futari

3 = san-nin

4 = yon-nin

5 = go-nin

6 = roku-nin

7 = shichi-nin

8 = hachi-nin

9 = kyuu-nin

10 = jyuu-nin

As you can tell, there’s another pattern that’s present in these numbers; almost all of them end with “-nin”. You may think that it can be confusing to constantly keep switching to different ways of saying “three” depending on the context, and you’re right in a way. However when you start to keep using these sorts of numbers over and over again while learning different subjects slowly, you can get used to it. In one class period, we’ve learned to count how many family members we have, and started to learn that number system before moving on to a different subject and thus a different number system to get used to. It’s nice that when I thought that learning counting in Japanese would be really difficult due to many ways of just saying numbers, but then realizing that I’m getting the hang of it is good to know. Remember: “-tsu” is for objects, “-nin” is for people.

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