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How to Count in Japanese

From Jon, published on 20/02/2018 Blog > Languages > Japanese > Counting in the Japanese Language

Failure is the foundation of success.

(しっぱいはせいこうのもといなり / shippai wa seikou no motoi nari).

Learning Japanese can be complicated at times. This proverb is a good source of motivation. We cannot succeed without trying and failing from time to time.

The advantage with numbers in Japanese is that you should be able to learn them quite easily.

As with all foreign languages, knowing how to count in the language is fundamental and won’t take you too much time. Know that in Japanese, by knowing just 11 Japanese words, we are able to count to 999!

Above all, with the Japanese language, numbers are not displayed in the same way as in the western world. For example, to say one hundred million, in English, we group the figures by three, like this: 100 000 000. In Japanese, the grouping of numbers are represented 4 digits at a time, and one hundred million is written like this: 1 0000 0000.

Learning a variety of Japanese vocabulary will not only allow you to construct a sentence, it will also allow to build expressions. If Japanese learning is the house, words are the bricks. The same is true of numbers. Numbers will compose an essential part of your vocabulary in Japanese.

Here are some tips for learning to count in Japanese during your Japanese private lessons.

Similarities and Differences between Numbers in Japanese and Chinese Digitization

Japanese digitization is borrowed from the Chinese model. The sinograms or characters found in Mandarin are strictly the same as those of Japanese kanji. With one exception: the counting methodology.

In Japanese, as in Chinese, the kanji or the sinogram to designate the number 1 is written “一”. On the other hand, when one wants to say 100, one will use in Japanese the kanji “百” and the characters “一百” in Chinese which could be assimilated to “once a hundred”.

We find the same principle to designate “thousand”. “千” in Japanese and “一 千” in Chinese. Again to say 2000 or 600, we will find the same representation in Chinese and Japanese.

The only notable difference is that we quantify the 1 in Chinese when we speak of a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand, which we do not do in Japanese.

To learn how to say the date or time in Japanese, you must first learn the numbers!

Japanese numbers are important in speaking Japanese Rest assured, no need to go back to school to learn the numbers in Japanese!

Knowing how to count from 0 to 9

If you want to learn basic Japanese, you have to start with the fundamentals. The basics of learning to count is to master 0 to 9. Just as when you learn to count in kindergarden, you start with the basics. It is because of the basics that we can form higher numbers, such as 42 or 87 for example.

Japanese works the same way, namely a decomposition of the number into several distinct entities.

The following table will highlight various useful elements, from hiragana writing, to kanji or romaji transcription through pronunciation.

Figure / Kanji /Hiragana /Romaji Prononciation
0    /  零   /   れい  /  rei eye
1     /   一    /   いち/いつ   /   Ichichi / When ichi / itsu itchi / itsu
2    / 二    /     に     /ni / ni
3   / 三  /   さん   /  San  /  sanne
4     /  四   /    し / よん    /        shi / yon        /       chi / tonne
5    / 五   /    ご   /  Go /  go
6  / 六   /   ろく  /       roku   / rokou
7 /    七   /   しち / なな     /     shichi / nana        /          chitchi / nana
8   /   八    /     はち   /      hachi              /             hatchi
9   /   九    /    きゅう/く      /      kyu / ku                /              kyou / kou

10 /   十   /   じ ゅ う    /       jū

Indeed, this table can help you to master any oral comprehension of a number (via the pronunciation) but also Japanese writing through the ideograms that you find in hiragana for example. To master all the elements on this table is an excellent start for someone studying Japanese, and especially for someone learning Japanese figures and numbers.

We can use it even if we decide to learn to speak Japanese before tackling the difficult tasking of reading and writing in kana and kanji.

When you introduce yourself in Japanese, you could want to talk about your age. A good reason to know the Japanese numbers…

Some Numbers to Know for More Complex Numbers

Numbers are very easy to learn in Japanese Numbers are not just for solving mathematical problems.

With a similar table, you can learn about numbers beyond the number 9. As you will be able to note, it is not necessary to know a lot more information. With the numbers 0 to 9, you will eventually be able to form all the numbers.

number          /            Kanji         /       Hiragana              /            Romaji            /               phonetic pronunciation
10               /                十               /           じ ゅ う              /                jū                      /                              jou-
20               /                二十            /                     に じ ゅ う     /           niju                        /                                nijou-
30              /                 三十            /          さ ん じ ゅ う        /       Sanju                              /                          sanjou-
100           /               百               /               ひ ゃ く           /             hyaku                                  /                     hyakou
1000         /               千                /                  せ ん             /               sen                              /                      seine
1 0000      /             万                    /                  ま ん             /            man                        /                       manna
10 0000          /          十万             /           じ ゅ う ま ん      /          jūman                   /                 jou-manne
100 0000        /        百万 ひ             /          ゃ く ま ま ん       /       hyakuman            /              hyakoumanne
1000 0000      /          一 い い          /            っ せ ん ま ま ん    issenman              /                  issennemanne
1 0000 0000     /     億                         /                  お く            /             boku                      /                        okou

The numbers between are very easy to formulate.
For example, for 20, we observe that the decomposition of the number is done with 2 and 10 to signify that 20 is the equivalent of two times ten.
We find the two components (2 and 10) both in kanji writing and hiragana, but also when we try to transcribe romaji. You should also note that in this case, 2 always comes before 10.

For those who wonder what the sign ‘-‘ means in the column “pronunciation,” know that it is simply to lengthen the pronunciation or the last syllable of the word in question. For example, to say 30 out loud we will focus on the “or,” which marks the last syllable of the word.

As we said before and contrary to what one encounters when counting in English, the Japanese grouping of the numbers is done by 4 instead of 3. Thus, when in English you decompose 100 000 as  hundred times thousand, the same logic will not apply to Japanese numbers. In Japanese, one hundred thousand will be neither be more nor less than ten times thousand, because of the dividing by 4 and not 3.

The same logic applies to a million which will be decomposed in 100 times 1000. Nevertheless, we can not speak here of exceptions, since it is simply the counting system which differs. Thus, in Japanese logic, there is no need to speak of an exception. There is simply a difference in how we count and write numbers.

Some Exceptions in Japanese Numbers

Learn to count to 10 in Japanese today! The Japanese count on their fingers differently than the Westerners.

Unfortunately, not everything is easy and there are some numbers that are an exception to the general rule. Do you know the expression “the exception confirms the rule”? We got to know this expression well enough at school, especially when it comes to grammar and learning all of the different exceptions for example. It’s the same in Japanese for some numbers!

Here at Superprof, we do not want to hide anything from you and that is why you need to learn these rare exceptions in order not to make any errors.

Most of these exceptions are logical, both orally (pronunciation) and writing-wise. They are often present to facilitate oral diction or to make writing easier.

For 300, we do not say “sanhyaku” but “sanbyaku” (三百 in kanjis and さ ん び ゃ く in hiragana).

Likewise:

600 (六百): You say “roppyaku” (ろ ぴ ゃ く) instead of “rokuhyaku”,
800: (八百): You say “happyaku” (は ぴ ゃ く) instead of “hachihyaku”,
3000 (三千): You say “san sen” but “san zen” (さ ん ぜ ん),
8000 (八千): you say “hassen”.

It is important to note that these exceptions are found in all the numbers in which they are included. For example, 824 or 3252.

Some Examples For Further Understanding

We’ve looked at the theory, let’s get into the practice now. Can you decompose the following numbers? We’ll give you the answers underneath the picture.

  • 15
  • 32
  • 106
  • 1764
  • 15 0000

Dedication and determination are key to learning Japanese Come on, hold on a little longer, the lesson is almost over!

The answers are:

  • 15 = 十五 ten plus five. To pronounce “jûgo”,
  • 32 = 三十二 three tens and two units to make thirty-two (sanjūni in Japanese),
  • 106 = 百六 one hundred plus six (hyakuroku) to pronounce “hyakourokou”,
  • 1764 = 千七百六十四 soit (1000 – 7 – 100 – 6 – 10 – 4) so once a thousand, seven times one hundred, six times ten, and four units. We will write “sen’shichihyakuroku’jūyon”,
  • 15 0000 : 十五万 that is 15 times 10,000 and not one hundred and fifty thousand (100 * 50 * 1000) like when we break down into English.

Numbers Outside of Mathematics

For example, to count a person, one will use the kanji 人 followed by the digit or the number. Nevertheless, the pronunciation changes. For example, to designate a person, one will write “一 人” which is pronounced as “hitoli.” Note that in Chinese, the same ideogram exists to designate people.

To ask “How many people?” we use “何 人” nan’nin ‘or “何 名 様”, nan’mèèsama in the more polite or formal version.

There will also be differences when it comes to counting “things.” For this, we use the kanji “つ” (tsu) and stick to the kanji of the number or the associated number. One thing will be written “一 つ” but will be pronounced “hitotsu” and not “itchitsu” as we might think.

Other specific counting methods exist for counting books, furniture, clothes, slices, or pills.

Japan is a country full of culture and tradition, and when it comes to counting, there are even lucky and unlucky numbers.

But all you need to concern yourself with is learning a few polite phrases in Japanese. That’s it!

Don’t get discouraged! Learning Japanese isn’t as hard as you think! You have the numbers down now!

It’s true that the Japanese writing system is different to English or any other European language. However, foreigners can get by with learning the 44 or so hiragana or katakana characters that represent sounds in much the same way as the English alphabet does.

In addition, the grammar in Japanese is much simpler than that of European languages in many ways. Japanese nouns have no genders, plural forms, or accompanying articles to learn. The language also has only two verb tenses, present and past, and there aren’t many irregular verbs. Spoken Japanese has only 5 vowel sounds and spelling is phonetically consistent, making the language relatively easy to pronounce.

In short:

  • Whether you want to travel to Japan, Kyoto, Osaka, or the foot of Mount Fuji, want to work in Japan, or are simply curious and admire Japanese culture and more generally the land of the rising sun, knowing how to count is extremely useful in daily situations, like ordering at the restaurant or knowing which metro line to take in Tokyo for example. In short,counting is one of the first elements to master when learning Japanese.
  • Very different from the Latin alphabet, the Japanese alphabet (kanjis, kana with hiragana katakana) contains some difficulties for foreign learners and more generally for all those with a different writing system.
  • As a result, the major difficulty in learning numbers in Japanese will be the “writing” aspect of the language. The pronunciation is more accessible than when one seeks to learn Chinese.
  • The last thing we will tell you is to pay close attention to how numbers divide up into 4 digits instead of 3. So, for 150 000 (15 0000 in Japanese), the breaking down will not occur like in the west, where we say a hundred and fifty thousand but rather fifteen times ten thousand. These are the things not to forget when counting out loud in Japanese to a Japanese speaker!
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