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Japanese Counters Explained for Beginner Learners

So you finally mastered numbers in Japanese. Great! Now you can count as easy as ichi-ni-san! But not so fast… now how do you plan on putting that new skill to use? If you thought “to count objects and express amounts more fluently,” you’ve got another thing coming.  Japanese counters aren’t so straightforward.
 
That’s right. Unlike the English language, Japanese requires a little more work than simply plastering a number in front of an item’s name. Just like conjugations, items have their own specific counting words depending on what kind of item they are.
 
Sounds confusing? Don’t worry! It won’t be for long. Believe it or not, we have counters in the English language too! It’s the same concept as saying “one glass of water” (not, “one water”), or “a pair of pants” (and not, “a pant”). However in Japanese, this applies to EVERYTHING.
 
So instead of saying simply “one book” you would say “hon wo issatsu” (hon = book, i= one, and satsu= counter for bound objects, like books, magazines, etc). Another example would be “shashin wo ichimai” in which shashin = a photo, and mai= counter for flat objects (papers, napkins, bills, etc).
 

How to Know Which Japanese Counter to Use

The good news is, there is a system, so once you memorize these, it’s easy to know which word to use for which object. In most cases it’s based on the type, size, or shape of the object. For example, there are counters for flat objects such as paper, bound objects such as books, and small objects such as apples. Then there are more specific ones, such as for vehicles, time and place, people and animals, and more! We will cover the most basic ones more in depth below.
 

When All Else Fails?

Luckily, if you get tripped up in the beginning and forget, there is a general counting system that can work in almost all situations. (I highly recommend learning these first so you have them to fall back on when you need!) That’s the つ (tsu) system! This system is very convenient to use because you can use it in place of most specific counters, and people will still understand what you mean. (As opposed to if you confused specific counters, and used the counter for small flat objects when talking about your car!)
 
This system is irregular compared to the ones that follow the ichi-ni-san pattern, but once you get the hang of it you will find it handy in other counting situations as well. (Watch out for number ten! It looks like 十 (juu), which does mean ten, but in this case is pronounced “tou!”)
 
The General Counting System
一つ hitotsu
二つ futatsu
三つ mittsu
四つ yottsu
五つ itsutsu
六つ muttsu
七つ nanatsu
八つ hattsu
九つ kokonotsu
十 tou
 
Calendar

Time & Dates

Time and dates are relatively straightforward, as the usage is pretty similar to English. For example, just as we would say “one second,” the Japanese equivalent is 一秒(いちびょう ichibyou) where byou counts seconds. Similarly, 分(ふん・ぷん fun/pun)is minutes, and 時(じ ji)is hours.
 
As for longer periods of time, such as days, weeks, and months, the counters are again used in the same way we would say “one year” or “five weeks.”
 
Important note: 間 (kan) is often used together with time counters to indicate periods of time. You will notice it when counting hours especially. This is because when 時 (ji) is on its own (without間), the meaning becomes “o’clock.” So, 一時 (ichiji) would mean 1 o’clock, whereas 一時間(ichijikan) would indicate 1 hour.
 
Here is a quick chart summing up the most common counters for time and date, up to ten.
 

Seconds

びょう
byou
Minute

ふん
fun(pun)
Hour
時間
じかん
ji
Day

にち
nichi
Week
週間
しゅう
shuu
Month
ヶ月
かげつ
kagetsu
Year

ねん
nen
1いちびょういっぷんいちじかんいちにちいっしゅうかんいっかげついちねん
2にびょうにふんにじかんふつかにしゅうかんにっかげつにねん
3さんびょうさんぷんさんじかんみっかさんしゅうかんさんかげつさんねん
4よんびょうよんふんよじかんよっかよんしゅうかんよんかげつよんねん
5ごびょうごふんごじかんいつかごしゅうかんごかげつごねん
6ろくびょうろっぷんろくじかんむいかろくしゅうかんろっかげつろくねん
7ななびょうななふんしちじかんなのかななしゅうかんななかげつななねん
8はちびょうはっぷんはちじかんようかはっしゅうかんはっかげつはちねん
9きゅうびょうきゅうふんきゅうじかんここのかきゅうしゅうかんきゅうかげつきゅうねん
10じゅうびょうじゅっぷんじゅうじかんとうかじゅっしゅうかんじゅっかげつじゅうねん

 
Japanese school students

People

Next is counting people. This may sound awkward when thinking in English, but just think of it as adding the word “person” at the end of the people you are counting. Now, the symbol 人 alone may be pronounced じん・にん (jin/nin) which does mean person, however when paired with a number it becomes irregular, just like the previous “hitotsu, futatsu” counting system.
 
Example: 友達一人 (tomodachi hitori) – one friend
Example: 二人の学生 (futari no gakusei) two students
 
Kyoto Temple

Places & Positions

There are also special words for counting locations, positions, order, and number of times. The conjugation is pretty similar to most other words with their unique irregularities, so we will just leave you with the meaning and the chart.
 
ヶ所kasho – for counting places
階 kai – floor (as in floors of a building)
回kai – number of times (doing something)
番ban – position/order (first, second, etc)
 

Person

にん・じん
nin/jin*
Place
ヶ所
っかしょ
kkasho
Floor

かい
kai
Time(s)

かい
kai
Position/
Order

ばん
ban
1一人
ひとり
一ヵ所
いっかしょ
一階
いっかい
一回
いっかい
一番
いちばん
2二人
ふたり
二ヵ所
にかしょ
二階
にかい
二回
にかい
二番
にばん
3三人
さんにん
三ヵ所
さんかしょ
三階
さんかい
三回
さんかい
三番
さんばん
4四人
よんにん
四ヵ所
よんかしょ
四階
よんかい
四回
よんかい
四番
よんばん
5五人
ごにん
五ヵ所
ごかしょ
五階
ごかい
五回
ごかい
五番
ごばん
6六人
ろくにん
六ヶ所
ろっかしょ
六階
ろっかい
六回
ろっかい
六番
ろくばん
7七人
しちにん
七ヵ所
ななかしょ
七階
ななかい
七回
ななかい
七番
ななばん
8八人
はちにん
八ヶ所
はっかしょ
八階
はっかい
八回
はっかい
八番
はちばん
9九人九ヵ所
きゅうかしょ
九階
きゅうかい
九回
きゅうかい
九番
きゅうばん
10十人
じゅうにん
十ヵ所
じゅうかしょ
十階
じゅっかい
十回
じゅっかい
十番
じゅうばん

 
Lego

Size and Shapes

The next group is for counters that are determined by size and shape of an object. Note that within these there may be certain items with even more specific counters (for example, you might think a slice of cheese fits in with 枚mai, the counter for flat objects, but it actually has its own counter, 切れkire, and is actually closer to the English word “a slice”).
 
枚mai – for flat objects (paper, bills, napkins, photos, cloth, door, wall, plate, mat, etc)
冊satsu – for bound objects (books, magazines, newspapers, notebooks)
本 hon/pon – for long, cylindrical objects (pencils, straws, bottles, chopsticks, umbrellas, cigarettes, etc.)
匹 hiki/ppiki – small animals (dog, cat, mouse, squirrels, some insects, etc.)
個ko – small (usually round, but not always) objects (fruit, rocks, small accessories, small toys,
台dai – large objects such as vehicles and machines (bikes, cars, boats, computers, appliances)
 

Flat objects

まい
mai
Bound objects

さつ
satsu
Long cylindrical本
ほん
hon
Small animals

ひき
hiki
Small objects


ko
Vehicles, Machines台
だい
dai
1一枚
いちまい
一冊
いっさつ
一本
いっぽん
一匹
いっぴき
一個
いっこ
一台
いちだい
2二枚
にまい
二冊
にさつ
二本
にほん
二匹
にひき
二個
にこ
二台
にだい
3三枚
さんまい
3冊
さんさつ
三本
さんぼん
三匹
さんびき
三個
さんこ
三台
さんだい
4四枚
よんまい
四冊
よんさつ
四本
よんほん
四匹
よんひき
四個
よんこ
四台
よんだい
5五枚
ごまい
五冊
ごさつ
五本
ごほん
五匹
ごひき
五個
ごこ
五台
ごだい
6六枚
ろくまい
六冊
ろくさつ
六本
ろっぽん
六匹
ろっぴき
六個
ろっこ
六台
ろくだい
7七枚
ななまい
七冊
ななさつ
七本
ななほん
七匹
ななひき
七個
ななこ
七大
ななだい
8八枚
はちまい
八冊
はちさつ
八本
はっぽん
八匹
はっぴき
八個
はっこ
八台
はちだい
9九枚
きゅうまい
九冊
きゅうさつ
九本
きゅうほん
九匹
きゅうひき
九個
きゅうこ
九台
きゅうだい
10十枚
じゅうまい
十冊
じゅうさつ
十本
じゅっぽん
十匹
じゅっぴき
十個
じゅっこ
十台
じゅうだい

 

Bonus Japanese Counters

Just to make things a little more interesting, here are some very specific Japanese counters you can cram into your brain if you have any room left.
 
脚 kyaku – for chairs with legs
個 ko – for chairs without legs
話 wa – for episodes (of your favorite show!)
串 kushi – for skewers and kebabs
門 mon – for cannons
 

How to Learn Japanese Counters

There we have some of the most common counters you will probably be seeing as you study Japanese more and more. 
 
Rather than memorize this post section by section, a more enjoyable way to learn Japanese counters is by finding them splashed around your favorite stories, anime, or songs. I mean, wouldn’t you want to see how Japanese counters are used in different context?
 
The best way to come across Japanese counters is by using LingQ. LingQ let’s you study Japanese using content you love. Not only is there 1000s of hours of content to read and listen to, but you can import content too.
 
Let me quickly show you how to import by using one of my favorite anime shows, Shirokuma Cafe.
 
Install the LingQ browser extension (a simple Google search will help you find it), head over to Animelon, and search “Shirokuma Cafe”.
 
Open an episode, click the LingQ extension, and hit the import button.
 
Shirokuma Cafe
 
Once it’s imported, go to LingQ and you’ll have your brand new lesson that includes the Japanese transcript and audio from the episode you’ve imported!
 
Learn Japanese on LingQ
 
Also, LingQ’s mobile app lets you access your lessons on your phone. Put your headphones on and take advantage of those long commutes to work 😉
 
Learn Japanese Counters on LingQ
 
For more information on how to import your favorite anime, please check out this post.
 
Good luck!
 

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Krystle is a NYC native who has spent more than half of her life studying Japanese language and culture. A former English teacher in Japan, she now uses her skills as a translator, and to help new learners of both languages.

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