Japanese

The Ultimate Guide To Learning Japanese Numbers

One of the most powerful things you can do to improve your abilities in any language is to learn and master numbers. With that end in mind, I have decided to create the ultimate guide to learning Japanese numbers.

Granted, this won’t be able to contain every single number possible in Japanese (since numbers are infinite) but will rather take you from absolute beginner in this particular area, to an advanced student who is aware of the necessary information.

In order to do so, we’re going to have to lay down some groundwork so that when we actually do get to the numbers themselves, you are ready for them in all of their nuanced glory, and you aren’t left scratching your head in confusion.

The first thing we need to go over is how the readings of Japanese number will change depending on the situation, and why that happens.

Why The Readings Are Different And Sometimes Change

In English we only have a single reading for the number 1. Obviously you already know that it is spelled “one.”

But this same number in Japanese actually has two possible readings: いち and ひと.

FYI: If you can’t read hiragana yet, I advise you learn how to do so here, and then come back.

Now the big question is “why does Japanese have more than one way to say the same word?”

It is a good question, let me tell you… I asked it myself a lot in the beginning!

Basically it all comes down to the history of the language. Originally, the Japanese language was 100% Japanese and they only used ひと for 1. But this was before they had any sort of writing system.

At some point in history the Chinese system of writing was introduced and adopted into Japanese. In this case, the Chinese character used to represent the number 1 is 一.

But guess what? The Chinese language already had a way to say this number. As you may have guessed by now, it’s いち, which is the other way that you can say 1 in Japanese.

This situation isn’t just limited to numbers in Japanese, there are an incredible amount of Chinese words that were adopted into the Japanese language, even though Japanese already had a way to say it.

At any rate, the point I want to make is that modern Japanese has more than one way to say most numbers, and the reason is because some of them are of Chinese origin (as opposed to Japanese origin).

The good news is that, even though is it possible to use either reading for numbers, generally speaking only one of the readings is ever used for any given situation.

But that’s the rub: you gotta know the situation!

This is one of those things were you really just get used to it through massive exposure to the language. But even so, I’m still going to go over them so that you can have that awareness in your mind.

Now let’s talk about one more reason for the readings of numbers changing, before moving on.

If you’ve been studying Japanese for any time so far, you’ve probably come across what are known as “counters” in the language. (Quick note: If this is new to you, don’t worry as I will go into depth in a section below).

When certain counters are combined with particular numbers, the readings of the numbers can change from their normal readings.

Let me give you an example of this first, and then I’ll explain why this happens.

As you already know from above, one of the readings for the number 1 in Japanese is いち. Something you may not know yet is that the Japanese counter used to represent “number of times” is 回 which is read as かい.

Therefore 一回 (or 1回) means “one time” in Japanese. You may initially be tempted to pronounce this word as 「いちかい」 but unfortunally, that would be incorrect.

The right way to read it is 「いっかい」 with that brief pause (this thing っ) between the first and third mora.

So why does this happen? It all comes down to one reason: ease of speaking.

When you are speaking at a natural speed for natives, saying 「いっかい」 is faster, easier, and feels much more natural than 「いちかい」.

Think about it, people talk a lot throughout the day. They don’t want to have to work at it and tire themselves out in the process.

Now here’s the big dilemma, how do you learn all of the exceptions for when the readings of numbers change?!

Well, there’s really two ways I think:

  1. Study them specifically (like the article you’re reading now)
  2. Get massive exposure to spoken Japanese.

By using both of these methods, you are setting yourself up for guaranteed success.

You spend some time learning exactly how to say the words that you need to (method #1) and you also get so much exposure to spoken Japanese that you begin to get a natural feel for the way the language works (method #2).

I can’t really do much for you with method #2, since that’s something that you have to do on your own time.

But I can help you will method #1. Let’s do that right now.

The Basic Japanese Numbers And Their Kanji

The Basic Japanese Numbers And Their Kanji

So the first thing that I wanted to do for you here is introduce you to the kanji that are used for numbers in Japanese, and also inform you on how they count in Japanese (it’s a little different than English).

We’ll continue to build on this section’s knowledge in the next ones, but like they say, first things first!

Now the first thing that we need to do is lean the kanji for numbers 1-10 in Japanese. What I’ll do is have a number listed first, followed by the kanji next.

Then I’ll have the reading listed for each number when it is used by itself, without any sort of counter to alter the sound.

Keep in mind that for a few of them, both the Japanese origin AND the Chinese origin readings are correct. In these situations, you can use whichever one you like.

Let’s begin!

  1. 一 (いち)
  2. 二 (に)
  3. 三 (さん)
  4. 四 (し/よん)
  5. 五 (ご)
  6. 六 (ろく)
  7. 七 (しち/なな)
  8. 八 (はち)
  9. 九 (く/きゅう)
  10. 十 (じゅう)

Now there are a couple of things I want to touch on before we get to counting above 10 in Japanese.

The first is that, while し is a correct reading for the number four in Japanese, it is generally avoided since it shares the same pronunciation as for the word death!

It’s kind of a superstitious thing, like how we think “13” brings back luck in English, so most Japanese opt for the reading よん for number 4.

The other thing is that there are three ways to say zero (0) in Japanese. Let’s go over them now:

  • 零 (れい)
  • ゼロ
  • 〇 (まる)

Now the first reading for zero (れい) gets used when you are talking about the temperature (like zero degrees) and when you are talking about the zero that comes before a decimal point (like 0.5).

The second reading (ゼロ) is actually a loan word from the English “zero” which is why it’s written in katakana. It gets used more often than 零 does, so in situations that fall outside of the two listed above, you should feel free to use this version.

Finally, the last reading (まる) literally means “round” in Japanese and gets used pretty much the same way that we use “O” (oh) in English.

For example, in the phrase “I’m taking Math 101 this semester” the number is read as “one-oh-one” in English. In Japanese, it would be read as 「いち・まる・いち」.

Pretty cool, right?

How Do You Count Above Ten In Japanese?

Alright, so now we need to talk about big numbers. The main reason why is because in Japan, the currency that they use (yen) is about equivalent to a penny.

So instead of paying $12.50 for your lunch at the restaurant, you’ll pay ¥1,250!

Basically, when it comes to money, you’re going to be dealing in large numbers regularly in Japanese. No way to get around it!

In order to say 11 in Japanese, you simply put the ten first, followed by the one: 十一 (じゅういち).

This makes it pretty simply since you can leave the 十 where it is and simple change the 一 to 二 for 12, and then continue that pattern on up until you hit 20.

Then what do you do at 20? you simply put a 二 in front of the 十 like so: 二十 (にじゅう) which means 20 in Japanese.

As you may have guessed, all you gotta’ do is slap on a 一 at the end to make it 21: 二十一 (にじゅういち)

Let me give you something that illustrates this now so that you can see it all in one place:

  • 11 = 十一 (じゅういち)
  • 12 = 十二 (じゅうに)
  • 13 = 十三 (じゅうさん)
  • 20 = 二十 (にじゅう)
  • 30 = 三十 (さんじゅう)
  • 40 = 四十 (よんじゅう)
  • 50 = 五十 (ごじゅう)
  • 54 = 五十四 (ごじゅうよん)
  • 55 = 五十五 (ごじゅうご)
  • 56 = 五十六 (ごじゅうろく)
  • 60 = 六十 (ろくじゅう)
  • 70 = 七十 (ななじゅう)
  • 80 = 八十 (はちじゅう)
  • 90 = 九十 (きゅうじゅう)
  • 97 = 九十七 (きゅうじゅうなな)
  • 98 = 九十八 (きゅうじゅうはち)
  • 99 = 九十九 (きゅうじゅうきゅう)

Then when you want to say 100, you use 百 (ひゃく).

The earlier pattern holds true here as well. Smaller numbers go after 百 like so: 156 = 百五十六 (ひゃくごじゅうろく).

And to say 200 you put a 二 in front of 百: 270 = 二百七十 (にひゃくななじゅう).

Let me give you another list that shows it, this time for all of the hundreds, and I want you to pay attention because this is a situation where some of the readings are going to change in order to make them easier to pronounce.

I’ll put a star* after the ones with irregular readings.

  • 100 = 百 (ひゃく)
  • 101 = 百一 (ひゃくいち)
  • 110 = 百十 (ひゃくじゅう)
  • 115 = 百十五 (ひゃくじゅうご)
  • 130 = 百三十 (ひゃくさんじゅう)
  • 200 = 二百 (にひゃく)
  • 300 = 三百 (さんびゃく)*
  • 400 = 四百 (よんひゃく)
  • 500 = 五百 (ごひゃく)
  • 600 = 六百 (ろっぴゃく)*
  • 700 = 七百 (ななひゃく)
  • 800 = 八百 (はっぴゃく)*
  • 900 = 九百 (きゅうひゃく)

Then we continue on with the word for 1,000 which is 千 (せん). It functions just like the last group, which you can see here:

  • 1,000 = 千 (せん) / 一千 (いっせん) both of these readings are correct for 1,000.
  • 2,000 = 二千 (にせん)
  • 3,000 = 三千 (さんぜん)*
  • 4,000 = 四千 (よんせん)
  • 5,000 = 五千 (ごせん)
  • 6,000 = 六千 (ろくせん)
  • 7,000 = 七千 (ななせん)
  • 8,000 = 八千 (はっせん)*
  • 9,000 = 九千 (きゅうせん)

Things take a slightly different turn here at the 10,000 mark, as there is a specific word for this quantity.

The word is 一万 (いちまん) and the thing you have to remember is that even though the 万 part is what means 10,000 in Japanese, it still has to have the word for 1 一 in front of it.

一万 literally means one unit of ‘ten thousand’, which sounds a little odd to English speakers, but perfectly normal to the Japanese.

Besides that though, it functions pretty normally as seen below:

  • 10,000 = 一万 (いちまん)
  • 20,000 = 二万 (にまん)
  • 30,000 = 三万 (さんまん)
  • 40,000 = 四万 (よんまん)
  • 50,000 = 五万 (ごまん)
  • 60,000 = 六万 (ろくまん)
  • 70,000 = 七万 (ななまん)
  • 80,000 = 八万 (はちまん)
  • 90,000 = 九万 (きゅうまん)
  • 100,000 = 十万 (じゅうまん)

Those numbers above will cover most of the ones that you will encounter, but occasionally you will dip into the Big Boys listed below.

I would say that there’s no need to memorize them at this time, but perhaps simply bookmark this page so that you can reference back to them at any point.

  • One million = 百万 (ひゃくまん)
  • Ten million = 一千万 (いっせんまん)
  • One hundred million = 一億 (いちおく)
  • One billion = 十億 (じゅうおく)
  • Ten billion = 百億 (ひゃくおく)
  • One hundred billion = 一千億 (いっせんおく)
  • One trillion = 一兆 (いっちょう)

By the way, I should let you know that even though there are kanji for all of these larger units, most Japanese materials simply use Arabic numbers like we do in English.

Seeing a big number like 二千八百九十一 is a lot more confusing than just 2,891 even though they are the same number.

So go ahead and get familiar with the larger kanji above, but keep in mind that their readings are what matter most since Arabic numerals get used more often.

What Are Japanese Counters (And How Do You Use Them)?

Did ya think you were done learning? Think again my friend!

Now we get into a unique aspect of the Japanese language, namely, the use of counters.

In Japanese, you can’t just say a number of something. You have to include a counter that describes it in some way.

Let me illustrate this now:

私は車を二台買いました。
I bought two new cars.

The number two 二 is immediately followed by the counter 台 (だい) which is used for machines such as cars, TVs, computers, and so on.

Let’s look at another one:

雑誌を1冊買った。
(I) bought one magazine.

Now we see the number 1 is immediately followed by 冊 (さつ) which is used for books, magazines, etc.

It’s important that you use the correct counter with the item, as they are connected in some way. For example, the counter 本 (ほん) is used to describe “long, slender objects” such as fingers, bottles, pencils, and so on. It would be wrong to have used it in either of the above example sentences.

Something you may have noticed is that the word 本 is actually a standalone word meaning “book” in Japanese. This is something that you’ll just have to be aware of: Some counters are also standalone words.

What gives them away is the fact that counters follow numbers and are used (in a way) to describe the items.

-Now here’s something that you already know: A single counter can be used for multiple things.

-Here’s something that you might not know: A single item can potentially have multiple correct counters!

For example, the typical counter used for counting rabbits is 羽 (わ), but it is also okay to use 匹 (ひき) for them as well.

Now I’m about to get into the nitty and gritty of counters so that you can learn to use them, but I just wanted to say a final thing before we get there.

There are a LOT of counters!

If you want a crazy big list of not only the counters themselves, but also all of the many, many, many (did I say “many”?) different things that each one can be used for, then check out this list of them compiled by the awesome folks over at Tofugu.

Here’s the only thing: not all of them are really used all that often. So it’s best to focus on the most common ones first so that you can get the most bang for your buck so to speak.

Below are the ones that you should all know (or at least be familiar with), so use this as a super helpful reference list!

The Most Common Japanese Counters And Their Readings

The Most Common Japanese Counters And Their Readings

What I’ll do here is list the counter with its basic reading and what it is typically used for. Then I’ll provide a list of it with numbers one through ten if there are any irregular readings.

But if all of the readings are normal, then I’ll just tell you that since you’ll be able to compile them yourself from the earlier part of this lesson.

The reason why we don’t need to go higher than ten is because you typically use the reading of the final number with the counter. So if you were counting animals with 匹, all numbers ending in 2 (like 2, 32, 72, and so on) would all end in the にひき reading as seen below:

  • 二匹 (にひき)
  • 三十二匹 (さんじゅうにひき)
  • 七十二匹 (ななじゅうにひき)

Finally, there are some that have an incredible amount of weird readings (like the days of the month) which I have already written about before. So where appropriate, I’ll provide a link to those posts as they will need some special attention.

But I won’t make a habit of doing that. Actually… enough of my blabbering! Let’s get to it!

Explanation on this format:

When ever a counter uses the standard readings for numbers 1-10, which we went over earlier, I’ll tell you something along the lines of “use the standard readings for this counter.”

If there are irregular readings for any particular number, I’ll completely write those out so that you can see and learn them.

For example, the counter for people is 人 (にん) and it uses the standard readings for all numbers except for the following two:

  • 一人 (いとり) = one person
  • 二人 (ふたり) = two people

With this format, we should be able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.


The ultimate shortcut counter

I wrote a post a while ago that talks about the first counter everyone should learn in Japanese since it can be used in place of almost any and all counters.

Click on the link in order to read about the best Japanese counter to learn first.

Counters for living things:

人 (にん) = people

  • Uses the standard readings, except for:
  • 一人 (ひとり) = one person
  • 二人 (ふたり) = two people

名 (めい) = people (formal)

  • Uses all standard readings.

匹 (ひき) = small animals: dogs, cats, insects, etc.

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一匹 (いっぴき) = one animal
  • 三匹 (さんびき) = three animals
  • 六匹 (ろっぴき) = six animals
  • 八匹 (はっぴき) = eight animals
  • 十匹 (じゅっぴき) = ten animals

羽 (わ) = birds and rabbits

  • Uses all standard readings.

頭 (とう) = large animals: horses, cows, whales, etc.

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一頭 (いっとう) = one large animal
  • 八頭 (はっとう) = eight large animals
  • 十頭 (じゅっとう) = ten large animals

Counters for clothing, and a few other things:

着 (ちゃく) = suits, dresses, pair of paints

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一着 (いっちゃく) = one clothing
  • 八着 (はっちゃく) = eight clothings
  • 十着 (じゅっちゃく) = ten clothings

足 (そく) = pair of shoes/socks

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一足 (いっそく) = one pair
  • 三足 (さんぞく) = three pair
  • 八足 (はっそく) = eight pair
  • 十足 (じゅっそく) = ten pair

枚 (まい) = flat objects such as shirts, paper, tickets, etc.

  • Uses all standard readings.

本 (ほん) = long and slender things such as paints, pens, bottles, etc.

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一本 (いっぽん) = one
  • 三本 (さんぼん) = three
  • 六本 (ろっぽん) = six
  • 八本 (はっぽん) = eight
  • 十本 (じゅっぽん) = ten

Counters for machines and vehicles:

台 (だい) = cars, bicycles, TVs

  • Uses all standard readings.

両 (りょう) = used specifically for cars

  • Uses all standard readings.

機 (き) = airplanes

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一機 (いっき) = one plane
  • 六機 (ろっき) = six planes
  • 八機 (はっき) = eight planes
  • 十機 (じゅっき) = ten planes

艘 (そう) = small boats

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一艘 (いっそう) = one boat
  • 八艘 (はっそう) = eight boats
  • 十艘 (じゅっそう) = ten boats

隻 (せき) = large ships

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一隻 (いっせき) = one ship
  • 八隻 (はっせき) = eight ships
  • 十隻 (じゅっせき) = ten ships

Counters for buildings:

軒 (けん) = house

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一軒 (いっけん) one house
  • 三軒 (さんげん) three houses
  • 六軒 (ろっけん) six houses
  • 八軒 (はっけん) eight houses
  • 十軒 (じゅっけん) ten houses

階 (かい) = floor or story of a building

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一階 (いっかい) 1st floor
  • 三階 (さんがい) 3rd floor
  • 六階 (ろっかい) 6th floor
  • 八階 (はっかい) 8th floor
  • 十階 (じゅっかい) 10th floor

Counters for time:

秒 (びょう) = seconds

  • Uses all standard readings.

分 (ふん) = minutes

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一分 (いっぷん) = one minute
  • 三分 (さんぷん) three minutes
  • 六分 (ろっぷん) six minutes
  • 八分 (はっぷん) eight minutes
  • 十分 (じゅっぷん) ten minutes

時間 (じかん) hours

  • Uses all standard readings.

日 (にち) days

Out of the 31 possible days that you could use (of the month) about half of them are irregular. If you need to look them up, then check out this article I wrote on how to say sun in Japanese. Just scroll down to the section on counters and you should be good to go.

週間 (しゅうかん) week

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一週間 (いっしゅうかん) one week
  • 八週間 (はっしゅうかん) eight weeks
  • 十週間 (じゅっしゅうかん) ten weeks

月 (げつ/がつ) month

The reading for the month completely changes when you’re talking about one of the twelve months of the year, or you’re talking about a number of months (as in, “it took three months to complete the project”).

Check out this article I wrote on how to say moon in Japanese and just scroll down to the sections where I discuss both ways to use 月 as a counter for months.

年 (ねん) the calendar year (i.e. the year 2018)

  • Uses all standard readings.

年間 (ねんかん) a number or years (i.e. “it took me three years to learn Japanese”)

  • Uses all standard readings.

歳 / 才 (さい) years old (i.e. “I am 27 years old”)

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一歳 (いっさい) one year old
  • 八才 (はっさい) eight years old
  • 十歳 (じゅっさい) ten years old

Counters for food and drink:

杯 (はい) cup or glass of a drink

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一杯 (いっぱい) one cup/glass
  • 三杯 (さんばい) three cups/glasses
  • 六杯 (ろっぱい) six cups/glasses
  • 八杯 (はっぱい) eight cups/glasses
  • 十杯 (じゅっぱい) ten cups/glasses

個 (こ) small round objects, such as apples, oranges, eggs

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一個 (いっこ) one
  • 六個 (ろっこ) six
  • 八個 (はっこ) eight
  • 十個 (じゅっこ) ten

Counters for miscellaneous stuff:

冊 (さつ) books, magazines, notebooks

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一冊 (いっさつ) one
  • 八冊 (はっさつ) eight
  • 十冊 (じゅっさつ) ten

点 (てん) point or grade

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一点 (いってん) one point
  • 八点 (はってん) eight points
  • 十点 (じゅってん) ten points

度 (ど) degrees (temperature), occurrences

  • Uses all standard readings.

回 (かい) times, rounds of a game, revolutions. This one is very similar to the one above, with only slight differences.

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一回 (いっかい) = one time
  • 六回 (ろっかい) = six times
  • 十回 (じゅっかい) = ten times

章 (しょう) chaper of a book, and such.

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一章 (いっしょう) chapter 1
  • 八章 (はっしょう) chapter 8
  • 十章 (じゅっしょう) chapter 10

課 (か) lesson in a textbook, course, etc.

  • Uses standard readings except for:
  • 一課 (いっか) lesson 1
  • 六課 (ろっか) lesson 6
  • 八課 (はっか) lesson 8
  • 十課 (じゅっか) lesson 10

Counters for oridinal numbers:

第 (だい) usually comes before chapter and lesson numbers. Here are two examples:

  1. 第二章 (だいにしょう) = chapter number 2
  2. 第三課 (だいさんか) = lesson number 3
  • Uses all standard readings.

番 (ばん) used in rankings such as “he’s the number #3 hero.”

  • Uses all standard readings.

目 (め) used to indicate the order. Here are two example sentences:

  1. 三回の結婚をした = married for the third time
  2. 二つの交差点で曲がる = turn on the second intersection
  • Uses all standard readings. It is also often used with the つ counters as shown in example #2 above. Click on the following link to learn the Japanese つ counters.

Has Your Brain Exploded Yet?

This was a lot of information to take in all at once. I highly recommend that you use this page as more of a reference than as a lesson, since numbers can be quite boring if taken in large doses.

One of the main reasons why I wrote this post was so that anyone who is taking my How to THINK in Japanese course could use it in combination with the third lesson which was all about (you guessed it) numbers.

My thought was that, if you could combine your knowledge of Japanese numbers with the habit of thinking in Japanese (which the course teaches) then you could essentially have dozens and hundreds of thoughts each day, all in Japanese.

It takes a bit of work, but so does everything, right?

If you guys are interested at all in that, you can check it out by clicking on this link. The first lesson is totally free, so you can see if it’s something you’re interested in.

Otherwise, let me know your thoughts on how the Japanese language handles things like numbers and counters by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

2 Comments

  • Daniel

    I thought that 羽 (わ) had some special readings, like ろっぱ for six birds? Perhaps I just remember it wrong, but that’s just kind of the feeling I get when I think of it.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Naw, you’re actually spot on with your gut feeling, as ろっぱ is also a correct reading for it. This is just one of those situations where both are correct and I opted to only put up the easier version of the two (rather than include them both) as I thought it might be a little pedantic to give all possible readings, when just the simplest form would suffice.

      Good catch though!

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