In Japanese, as in Chinese and Korean, numerals cannot quantify nouns by themselves (except, in certain cases, for the numbers from one to ten; see below). For example, to express the idea "two dogs" in Japanese one must say inu nihiki (犬二匹, literally "dog two-small-animal"). Here inu 犬#Japanese Kanji means "dog", ni 二#Japanese Kanji is the number 2, and hiki 匹#Japanese Kanji is the counter for small animals. The counters are not independent words and always appear with a number before them.
Counter words are similar in function to the word "sheet" in "two sheets of paper" or "cup" in "two cups of coffee", but in Japanese, (almost) all nouns require a counter. In this sense, all Japanese nouns are mass nouns. This grammatical feature can result in situations where one is unable to express the number of a particular object in a grammatically correct way because one does not know, or cannot remember, the appropriate counting word. The problem is partially solved for the numbers from one to ten by using the traditional numbers (see below) which can be used to quantify some nouns by themselves. For example, "four apples" is ringo yonko (リンゴ四個) where ko (こ) is the counter), but can also be expressed using the traditional numeral four as ringo yottsu (リンゴ四つ). These traditional numerals cannot be used to count all nouns however; some, including people and animals, require the proper counter.
Counters can also be intentionally misused for humorous, sarcastic, or insulting effects. For example, one might say 男一匹なのに (Otoko ippiki nano ni; "I am only one man..."). Using the counter hiki (匹), the counter for small animals, humorously suggests that the person is overpowered by massive obstacles.
Some of the more common counters may be used instead of less common ones. For example, 匹 hiki (see below) is often used for all animals, regardless of size. However, many speakers will correct themselves and use the traditionally "correct" counter, 頭 tō, when speaking of, for example, horses.
Just as in English, different counters for the same thing can be used to convey different meanings. In English, one can say one loaf of bread or one slice of bread, and the referent is different. In Japanese, the same effect is made by saying パン一斤 pan ikkin, literally "bread one-loaf" versus パン一枚 pan ichimai, literally "bread one-flat piece".
|Numeral||Japanese||Pronunciation (romaji)||Pronunciation (hiragana)|
|20||二十||hatachi (used for age)||はたち|
|ba||場||Scene of a play|
|bai||倍||Multiples, -fold as in "twofold"|
|ban||晩||Nights (see also: ya)|
|bi||尾||Small fish and shrimps (used in the fish trade; most people say hiki instead)|
|bu||部||Copies of a magazine or newspaper, or other packets of papers|
|chaku||着||Suits of clothing (see also: mai)|
|chō||挺||Guns, sticks of ink, palanquins, rickshaws, violins|
|chō||丁||Tools, scissors, saws, trousers, pistols, cakes of tofu, town blocks,|
|dai||代||Generations, periods, reigns|
|dai||台||Cars, bicycles, machines, mechanical devices, household appliances|
|do, also tabi||度||Occurrences, number of times, degrees of temperature or angle (see also: kai).|
|fuku, puku||服||Bowls of matcha (powdered green tea); packets or doses of powdered medicine|
|fuku, puku||幅||Hanging scrolls (kakejiku)|
|gakkyū||学級||Classes (in pre-university education)|
|gatsu, also tsuki||月||Months of the year. Month-long periods when read tsuki (see also: kagetsu)|
|gon, also koto||言||Words|
|gu||具||Suits of armour, sets of furniture|
|gyō||行||Lines of text|
|haku||泊||Nights of a stay|
|hai||杯||Cups and glasses of drink, spoonfuls, cuttlefish, octopuses, crabs, squid, abalone, boats (slang)|
|hai||敗||Losses (sports bouts)|
|hari||張||Umbrellas, parasols, tents|
|hashira||柱||Gods, memorial tablets|
|hatsu, patsu||発||Gunshots, bullets, aerial fireworks|
|hiki, piki||匹||Small animals, insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, oni (ogres)|
|hin, pin||品||Parts of a meal, courses (see also: shina)|
|ho, po||歩||Number of (foot)steps|
|hon, pon,bon||本||Long, thin objects: rivers, roads, train tracks, ties, pencils, bottles, guitars; also, metaphorically, telephone calls, train or bus routes, movies (see also: tsūwa), points or bounds in sports events. Although 本 also means "book", the counter for books is satsu.|
|ji||字||Letters, kanji, kana|
|ji||児||Children. As in 'father of two (children)', etc.|
|ji||時||Hours of the day|
|jō||畳||Tatami mats. The kanji 畳 is also read tatami and is the same one used for the mats. The room size of a washitsu in Japan is given as a number of mats, for example 4½ jō|
|ka||日||Day of the month|
|kabu||株||Stocks; nursery trees|
|kagetsu||ヶ月, 箇月||Month-long periods (see also: gatsu). 箇 is normally abbreviated using a small katakana ヶ in modern Japanese. Alternatively 個, hiragana か, small katakana ヵ and full-size katakana カ & ケ can also be seen, although only か is similarly frequent.|
|kai||回||Occurrences, number of times (see also: do)|
|kai||階||Number of floors, stories|
|kakokugo||ヶ国語, 箇国語||(National) languages|
|kaku||画||Strokes in kanji|
|kan||貫||Pieces of nigiri-zushi|
|ken||件||Abstract matters and cases|
|ki||基||Graves, wreaths, CPUs, reactors, elevators, dams|
|kire||切れ||Slices (of bread, cake, sashimi etc.)|
|ko||個, 箇, 个, or ヶ||General measure word, used when there is no specific counter. 個 is also used for military units.|
|ko||戸||Houses (戸 means "door")|
|kō||稿||Drafts of a manuscript|
|koma||齣, コマ||Frames, panels. 齣 is virtually unused nowadays.|
|ku||区||Sections, city districts|
|kuchi||口||(Bank) accounts, donations (口 means "opening" or "entrance")|
|kumi||組||Groups, a pair of people (twins, a husband and a wife, dancers, etc.)|
|kyaku||脚||Desks, chairs, long-stemmed glasses|
|kyaku||客||Pairs of cup and saucer|
|kyoku||曲||Pieces of music|
|kyoku||局||Board game matches (chess, Igo, Shogi, Mahjong); radio stations, television stations|
|mai||枚||Thin, flat objects, sheets of paper, photographs, plates, articles of clothing (see also: chaku)|
|maki or kan||巻||Rolls, scrolls, kan for volumes of book|
|mei||名||People (polite) (名 means "name")|
|men||面||Mirrors, boards for board games (chess, Igo, Shogi), stages of computer games, walls of a room, tennis courts,|
|nen||年||Years, school years (grades); not years of age|
|nichi||日||Days of the month (but see table of exceptions below)|
|nin||人||People (but see table of exceptions below)|
|ninmae||人前||Food portions (without exceptions, unlike nin above)|
|rei||礼||Bows during worship at a shrine|
|sai||才 or 歳||Years of age|
|sao||棹||Chests of drawers, flags|
|seki||席||Seats, Rakugo shows, (drinking) parties|
|shina||品||Parts of a meal, courses (see also: hin)|
|sha||社||used for businesses, i.e. 会社|
|shiki||式||Sets of things, such as documents or furniture|
|shō||勝||Wins (sports bouts)|
|shurui or shu||種類 or 種||Kinds, species|
|soku||足||Pairs of footwear, pairs of socks, stockings, and tabis.|
|tai||体||Images, person's remains, dolls|
|tawara||俵||Bags of rice|
|teki||滴||Drops of liquid|
|tō||頭||Large animals, cattle, elephants (頭 means "head")|
|tōri||通り||Combinations, puzzle solutions|
|tsūwa||通話||Telephone calls (see also: hon)|
|toki||時||Time periods, a sixth of either day or night (in the traditional, obsolete way of telling time). See also: jikan|
|tsubo||坪||Commonly used unit of area equal to 3.3 square metres.|
|wa||羽||Birds, rabbits* (because of their ears); 羽 means "feather" or "wing".|
|ya||夜||Nights (see also: ''ban')|
|zen||膳||Pairs of chopsticks; bowls of rice|
Systematic changes occur when particular numbers precede counters that begin with certain phonemes. For example, ichi 一 + k- = ikk-, roku 六 + h- = ropp-. The details are listed in the table below.
These changes are followed fairly consistently but exceptions and variations between speakers do exist. Where variations are common, more than one alternative is listed.
Jū is replaced by either ju- or ji- (じゅっ/じっ) followed by a doubled consonant before the voiceless consonants as shown in the table. Ji- is the older form, but it has been replaced by ju- in the speech of recent generations.
|Numeral||k- (か きゃ etc.)||s/sh- (さ しゃ etc.)||t/ch- (た ちゃ etc.)||h- (は ひ へ ほ ひゃ ひゅ ひょ)||f- (ふ)||p- (ぱ etc.)||w- (わ)|
|1 ichi||ikk- いっか||iss- いっさ||itt- いった||ipp- いっぱ||ipp- いっぷ||ipp- いっぱ|
|3 san||sanb- さんば||sanp- さんぷ||sanb- さんば|
|4 yon||yonh- よんは yonp- よんば||yonf- よんふ yonp- よんぷ||yow- よわ yonw- よんわ yonb- よんば|
|6 roku||rokk- ろっか||ropp- ろっぱ||ropp- ろっぷ||ropp- ろっぱ||rokuw- ろくわ ropp- ろっぱ|
|8 hachi||hakk- はっか||hass- はっさ||hatt- はった||happ- はっぱ||happ- はっぷ||happ- はっぱ||happ- はっぱ hachiw- はちわ|
|10 jū||jikk- じっか jukk- じゅっか||jiss- じっさ juss- じゅっさ||jitt- じった jutt- じゅった||jipp- じっぱ jupp- じゅっぱ||jipp- じっぷ jupp- じゅっぷ||jipp- じっぱ jupp- じゅっぱ||jipp- じっぱ|
|100 hyaku||hyakk- ひゃっか||hyapp- ひゃっぱ||hyapp- ひゃっぷ||hyapp- ひゃっぱ|
|1000 sen||senb- せんば||senp- せんぷ|
|10000 man||manb- まんば||manp- まんぷ|
|何 nan||nanb- なんば||nanp- なんぷ|
The traditional numbers are used by and for young children to give their ages, instead of using the age counter sai 歳. The kanji is sometimes written using the simpler kanji 才.
Some counters, notably nichi 日 and nin 人, use the traditional numerals for some numbers as shown in the table below. Other uses of traditional numbers are usually restricted to certain phrases, such as hitotsuki 一月 and futatsuki 二月 (one and two months respectively), hitokoto 一言 (a single word) and hitotabi 一度 (once).
Sometimes common numbers that have a derived meaning are written using different kanji. For example, hitori (alone) is written 独り, and futatabi (once more, another time) is normally written 再び instead of 二度. The counter for months kagetsu (derived from kanji 箇月) is commonly written ヶ月.
Nana and shichi are alternatives for 7, yon and shi are alternatives for 4, and kyū and ku are alternatives for 9. Having said that, nana, yon and kyū are more commonly used. Some counters, however, notably nin 人 (people), gatsu 月 (month of the year), ka/nichi 日 (day of the month, days), ji 時 (time of day) and jikan 時間 (hours) take certain alternatives only. These are shown in the table below.
While kai 回 (occurrences) and sen 銭 (0.01 yen, obviously now rarely used) follow the euphonic changes listed above, homophones kai 階 (storeys/floors) and sen 千 (1000) are slightly different as shown below, although these differences are not followed by all speakers. Thus 三階 ("third floor") can be read either sankai or sangai, while 三回 ("three times") can only be read sankai.
|Numeral||nichi 日||nin 人||gatsu 月||ji 時||jikan 時間||kai 階||sen 千|
** Both ikunin 幾人 and nannin 何人 are used to mean "how many people".
*** In remote rural areas (ie. Northern Honshū and Eastern Hokkaido) older speakers might use yottari.
In general, the counter words mentioned above are cardinal numbers, in that they indicate quantity. To transform a counter word into an ordinal number that denotes position in a sequence, me (目) is added to the end of the counter. Thus "one time" would be translated as ikkai (一回), where as "the first time" would be translated as ikkaime (一回目).
This rule is inconsistent, however, as counters without the me suffix are often used interchangeably with cardinal and ordinal meanings. For example, sankai (三階) can mean both "three floors" and "third floor."
To express a period of time one may add kan 間 to the following words: byō 秒, fun 分, ji 時, nichi 日(and its irregular readings aside from tsuitachi), shū 週, kagetsu 箇月 and nen 年. Usage varies depending on the word, though. For example, omitting kan in the case of jikan 時間 would be a grave mistake, whereas shūkan and shū are both in frequent use. What's more, kagetsukan is rarely heard due to essentially being superfluous, the ka already functioning to express the length.