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What! ...is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow? -Holy Grail Bridgekeeper
Numbers and Amounts
Numbers and counting in Japanese are difficult enough to require its own section. First of all, the number system is in units of four instead of
three, which can make converting into English quite difficult. Also, there are things called counters, which are required to count different types of
objects, animals, or people. We will learn the most generic and widely used counters to get you started so that you can learn more on your own.
To be honest, counters might be the only thing that'll make you want to quit learning Japanese, it's that bad. I recommend you digest only a little
bit of this section at a time because it's awfully a lot of things to memorize.
The Number System
The Japanese number system is spread into units of four. So a number such as 10,000,000 is actually split up as 1000,0000. However, thanks
to the strong influence of the Western world and the standardization of numbers, when numbers are actually written, the split-off is three digits.
Here are the first ten numbers.
As the chart indicates, 4 can either be 「し」 or 「よん」 and 7 can
either be 「しち」 or 「なな」. Basically, both are acceptable up to 10.
However, past ten, the reading is almost always 「よん」 and 「なな」.
In general, 「よん」 and 「なな」 are preferred over
「し」 and 「しち」 in most circumstances.
You can simply count from 1 to 99 with just these ten numbers. Japanese is easier than English in this respect because you do not have to
memorize separate words such as "twenty" or "fifty". In Japanese, it's simply just "two ten" and "five ten".
Notice that numbers are either always written in kanji or numerals because hiragana can get rather long and hard to decipher.
Numbers past 99
Here are the higher numbers:
Notice how the numbers jumped four digits from 10^4 to 10^8 between 万 and
億? That's because Japanese is divided into units of four.
Once you get past 1万 (10,000), you start all over until you reach 9,999万, then it rotates to 1億
(100,000,000). By the way, 百 is 100 and 千 is 1,000, but anything
past that, and you need to attach a 1 so the rest of the units become 一万 (10^4)、一億 (10^8)、一兆 (10^12).
Now you can count up to 9,999,999,999,999,999 or 9,999兆 just by chaining the numbers same as before. Only, this is where the trouble starts.
Try saying 「いちちょう」 、「ろくひゃく」、「さんせん」 really quickly, you'll notice it's difficult because of the repetition of similar consonant sounds.
Therefore, Japanese people have decided to make it easier on themselves by pronouncing them as 「いっちょう」、
「ろっぴゃく」、and 「さんぜん」. We
when to pronounce what. Here are all the slight sound changes.
Notice that it is customary to write large numbers only in numerals as even kanji can become difficult to decipher.
Some of you may be clamoring for larger numbers but you'll hardly ever use 「億」 much less
「兆」. I will guarantee that you will not need to
know this but I looked up a list for curiosity's sake.
Numbers smaller or less than 1
Zero in Japanese is 「零」 but we usually just use 「ゼロ」 or 「マル」. There is no special method of reading decimals, you simply say 「点」 for the dot
and read each individual number. Here's an example:
（１） 0.0021 - ゼロ、点、ゼロ、ゼロ、二、一。
For negative numbers, everything is the same as positive numbers except that you say 「マイナス」 first.
（１） マイナス二十九 = -29
Counting and Counters
Ah, and now we come to the fun part. In Japanese, when you are simply counting numbers, everything is just as you would expect,
and so on. However, if you want to count any type of object, you have to use something called a counter which depends on what type of object
you are counting and on top of this, there are various sound changes similar to the ones we saw with 六百, etc.. The counter themselves are
usually single kanji characters that often have a special reading just for the counter. First, let's learn the counters for dates
The year is very easy. All you have to do is say the number and add 「年」 which is pronounced here as
「ねん」. For example, Year 2003 becomes 2003年
(にせんさんねん）. Only, the catch is that there is another calendar which starts over every time a new emperor ascends the throne. The year is
preceded by the era, for example this year is: 平成15年. My birthday, 1981 is
昭和56年 (The Showa era lasted from 1926 to 1989).
Don't think you don't need to know this if you're going to be filling out forms in Japan because they often ask you your birthday or the
current date in the Japanese calendar （和暦）. So here's a neat converter into the Japanese calendar you can use.
Saying the months is actually easier than English because all you have to do is write the number (either in numerals or kanji)
of the month and add 「月」 which is read as
「がつ」. However, you need to pay attention to April
（４月）, July （７月）, and September
（９月） which are pronounced 「しがつ」、
「しちがつ」、and 「くがつ」 respectively.
Finally, we get to the days of the month, which is where the headache starts. The first day of the month is
different from 「いちにち」 （一日）, which
means "one day". Besides this and some other exceptions we'll soon cover, you can simply say the number and add
「日」 which is pronounced
here as 「にち」. For example, the 26th becomes 26日 （にじゅうろくにち）. Pretty simple,
however, the first 10 days, the 14th, 19th, 20th, 29th have special readings that
you must separately memorize. If you like memorizing things, you'll have a ball here. Notice that the kanji doesn't change but the reading does.
十 四 日
十 九 日
二 十 日
二 十 四 日
二 十 九 日
ひ ら が な
つ い た ち
ふ つ か
み っ か
よ っ か
い つ か
む い か
な の か
よ う か
こ こ の か
と お か
じ ゅ う よ っ か
じ ゅ う く に ち
は つ か
に じ ゅ う よ っ か
に じ ゅ う く に ち
In Japan, the full format for dates follows the international date format and looks like: XXXX年YY月ZZ日. For example, today's date would be:
Now, we'll learn how to tell time. The hour is given by saying the number and adding 「時」
which is pronounced here as 「じ」. Here is a chart of exceptions to look out for.
Notice how the numbers 4, 7, and 9 keep coming up to be a pain in the butt? Well, those and sometimes 1, 6 and 8 are the numbers to watch out
The minutes are given by adding 「分」 which usually read as
「ふん」 with the following exceptions:
For higher number, you use the normal pronunciation for the higher digits and
rotate around the same readings for 1 to 10. For instance, 24 minutes is 「にじゅうよんぷん」
30 minutes is 「さんじゅっぷん」
There are also other less common but still correct pronunciations such as 「はちふん」 for
「八分」 and 「じっぷん」 for
「十分」 (this one is almost never used).
All readings for seconds consists of the number plus 「秒」, which is read as
「びょう」. There are no exceptions for seconds and all the readings
are the same.
Some examples of time.
（１） 1時24分（いちじ・にじゅうよんぷん） - 1:24
（２） 午後4時10分 （ごご・よじ・じゅっぷん） - 4:10 PM
（３） 午前9時16分 （ごぜん・くじ・じゅうろっぷん） - 9:16 AM
（４） 13時16分 （じゅうさんじ・じゅうろっぷん） - 13:16
（５） 2時18分13秒 （にじ・じゅうはっぷん・じゅうさんびょう） - 2:18:13
A Span of Time
Ha! I bet you thought you were done with dates and time, well guess again. This time we will learn counters for counting spans of time, days,
months, and years. The basic counter for a span of time is 「間」, which is read as
「かん」. You can attach it to the end of hours, days, weeks,
and years. Minutes (in general) and seconds do not need this counter and months have a separate counter, which we will cover next.
（１） 二時間四十分 （にじかん・よんじゅっぷん） - 2 hours and 40 minutes
（２） 二十日間 （はつかかん） - 20 days
（３） 十五日間 （じゅうごにちかん） - 15 days
（４） 二年間 （にねんかん） - two years
（５） 三週間 （さんしゅうかん） - three weeks
（６） 一日 （いちにち） - 1 day
As mentioned before, a period of one day is 「一日」
（いちにち） which is different from the 1st of the month:
Pronunciations to watch out for when counting weeks is one week: 「一週間」
（いっしゅうかん） and 8 weeks:
To count number of months, you simple take a regular number, add 「か」 and 「月」
which is pronounced here as 「げつ」 and not
「がつ」. For some reason, the 「か」 is usually written as a small
katakana 「ヶ」. Don't ask me why. Watch out for the following sound changes:
Just like minutes, the high numbers rotate back using the same sounds for 1 to 10.
（１） 十一ヶ月 （じゅういっかげつ） - Eleven months
（２） 二十ヶ月 （にじゅっかげつ） - Twenty months
（３） 三十三ヶ月 （さんじゅうさんかげつ） - Thirty three months
We'll cover some of the most common counters so that you'll be familiar with how counters work. This will hopefully allow you to learn other
counters on your own because there are too many to even consider covering them all. The important thing to remember is that using the wrong
counter is grammatically incorrect. If you are counting people, you must use the people counter, etc. Sometimes, it is acceptable to use
a more generic counter when a less commonly used counter applies. Here are some counters.
When to Use
To count the number of people
To count long, cylindrical objects such as bottles or chopsticks
To count thin objects such as paper or shirts
To count bound objects usually books
To count small animals like cats or dogs
To count the age of a living creatures such as people
To count small (often round) objects
To count number of times
To count any generic object that has a rare or no counter
Counting 1 to 10
The changed sounds have been highlighted.
You don't count 0 because there is nothing to count. You can simply use 「ない」 or
「いない」. The chart has hiragana for pronunciation but, as before,
it is usually written with either numbers or kanji plus the counter with the single exception of 「とお」 which is
simply written as 「十」.
For higher numbers, it's the same as before, you use
the normal pronunciation for the higher digits and rotate around the same readings for 1 to 10 except for 「一人」
and 「二人」 which transforms to the normal 「いち」
and 「に」 once you get past the first two. So 「一人」 is
「ひとり」 while 「11人」 is
Also, the generic counter 「~つ」 only applies up to exactly ten items. Past that, you can just use regular plain numbers.
Note: The counter for age is often sometimes written as 「才」 for those who don't have the
time to write out the more complex kanji. Plus, age 20 is usually read as 「はたち」 and not 「にじゅっさい」.
Using 「目」 to show order
You can attach 「目」 (read as
「め」) to various counters to indicate the order. The most common example is
the 「番」 counter.
For example, 「一番」 which means "number one" becomes "the first" when you add
Similarly, 「一回目」 is the first time,
「二回目」 is the second time, 「四人目」
is the fourth person, and so on.
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