Numbers are one of the elementary components of language. We learn to count almost as soon as we can talk; for us, two follows one as surely as the sun rises in the east. Two plus two will always equal four and everything we measure - from the number of steps our pedometers count to the VAT tax we have to pay... Everything is expressed in numbers that we all understand.

That is unless you live with dyscalculia. Numbers are much harder to make sense of if you live with that condition.

Numbers' sheer ubiquity may lead you to think that they are universal, both in function and appearance. To an extent, you would be right but other cultures have different relationships with the numbers in their lives.

For this article, we take a close look at numbers in Japan.

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An Overview of Japanese Numbers

If you've ever landed at any of Japan's 88 airports, travelled on their remarkably precise train system or had any exposure whatsoever to Japanese films, shows or books, you might be wondering why we're talking about numbers in Japanese.

They use Arabic numerals, just like the rest of the world, right?

You frequently see numbers as you're used to them but don't rely on seeing them every time
You'll see Arabic numbers on door keypads and sales adverts but elsewhere, be ready for numbers in kanji. Photo by Aykut Eke on Unsplash

Of course! Walk down any Japanese street and you'll see prices boldly listed in clearly legible numbers. That doesn't mean that numbers are pronounced the same way as elsewhere in the world, or even that they are consistently written the same way in every given instance.

Aside from everyday use, Japanese numbers are written in Kanji, just as Japanese names typically are. Written in kanji, the numbers look like this:

  • one:       一      pronounced ichi
  • two:       二      pronounced ni
  • three:    三      pronounced san
  • four:      四      pronounced yon (or shi)
  • five:       五      pronounced go
  • six:        六      pronounced roku
  • seven:   七      pronounced shichi or nana - depending on its usage
  • eight:    八      pronounced hachi
  • nine:     九      pronounced kyū, (or ku)
  • ten:       十      pronounced jū
  • nought (zero):    零      pronounced zero or rei

Just knowing these numbers is enough to get you started on counting in Japanese - not just to ten but all the way to 100. To count beyond 10, simply add the number over ten to the right of the ten: 十九 is nineteen, for example. To count beyond 19, insert the desired value in front of 10 and, again, behind it: 三十七 represents 37.

In Japanese, 100 is represented by 百 (pronounced hyaku). Counting beyond 100 follows the same technique as counting up to 100: 二百三十七 translates to 237. If you only need to write 137, it's a simple matter of not putting anything in front of 百.

Note that, even though the Japanese numbering system includes a character for zero, it is not often used. For instance, an advertisement detailing 101 (of something) would translate to 百一; there's no need for the zero to mark the absent 10's place.

When broken down like this, the Japanese numbering system is simple and logical in the extreme. The only trouble might be for those who speak/read Mandarin; the numbers look exactly the same (and work the same way); they just don't sound the same.

It's typical to display both Arabic and kanji numbers in high-traffic areas
This shoe cabinet, called getabako, displays both kanji and Arabic numbers. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Jeff Kramer

Differences Between Japanese and Western Numbers

On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much difference between how numbers work in our language and in Japan. Actually, there are substantial differences.

For one, our 'tens' have different names: twenty, thirty, forty and so on. By contrast, the Japanese numbers stay at 10, with a multiplier in front of it. Imagine how confusing numbers in English must be for ESOL learners!

Our 'teen' values have different names, too: eleven and twelve, before attaining form consistency at 13. Compared to the Japanese way of saying 'ten-one', 'ten-two' and 'ten-three' - all the way to 'ten-nine', before turning into 'two-ten', the English method seems unnecessarily complex.

In English, depending on the situation, it's common to insert 'and' between the hundreds and tens values: "That will be two hundred and three pounds, please" - as opposed to "I made two hundred three pounds hauling scrap today." You'll find no such 'and' anywhere in Japanese numbers, regardless of the situation.

One of the greatest differences between the Japanese numbering system and ours is how the numbers are grouped.

Think about how we would write a large number, say 356,521. Whereas we count off by the hundreds, most Asian cultures, including the Japanese count by the thousands (千 pronounced sen). The Japanese, writing in Arabic numbers, would express our sample number like so: 35,6521

And, finally, another anchor value: 10,000 (万, pronounced man). This number certainly exists in our familiar number structures but it lacks the clear demarcation it enjoys in Japanese.

For instance, you might say "I bought a house for £67,000". In Japan, that amount would be expressed as 六千七万 - six ten-thousands (and) seven thousands. For someone unused to that system of counting, it could take a bit of mental gymnastics to arrive at the proper sum.

Fortunately, the more you study Japanese words and phrases, the better attuned you will become to this efficient counting system.

Lucky and Unlucky Numbers

While reading the list of basic numbers in Japanese in this article's first segment, you might have noticed that three of them have different pronunciations, and that two of those alternate pronunciations are in parentheses.

That was the best way to illustrate that, while some Japanese numbers can be said differently depending on the circumstances, the parenthesised numbers should be avoided as much as possible.

The 'shi' pronunciation for the number 4 sounds very similar to the Japanese word for death (死). The number four is considered unlucky because of that connection; that's why you won't see many elevators with a button for the fourth floor. Nor will you likely find a room or flat numbered 4 in any building.

Nine is also considered unlucky because its alternate pronunciation, ku, relates to torture and suffering (苦) - obviously not a concept anyone wishes to feature in their daily lives and transactions. Whenever possible, be sure to use the kyū pronunciation.

The third number with dual pronunciation is nowhere near as ominous.

Seven is spoken as 'nana' when referring to someone or something's age. Shichi is used to talk about time and date. So, if you're thirty-seven years old, you would say san jū nana but if you‘re talking about the year Elliot Page was born (1987), you would say: sen kyū hachi shichi (千九八七).

Sometimes, numbers act as talismans and using them - in your business' name or occupying a flat with such a number is said to be particularly fortunate. Would you be surprised to learn those numbers are all prime?

Numbers 3, 5 and 7 are said to have a particularly beneficial influence. If you're the third son in a family, it's thought you will be quite fortunate in life, especially if your name contains 三,as in Sanyu. If named thus, you will surely have a happy, prosperous life.

You also need to know how the Japanese alphabet plays into investing someone with lifelong good fortune. That's the subject of a whole different article; let's move on to Japanese measure words.

This picture contains one number and two measure characters
Can you spot the number and measure characters in this picture? Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

Measure Words In Japanese

For us, it's quite common to say we're going for a coffee or rattling off the number of people in our family - "there's six of us at home". Doing so in Japan would return puzzled looks.

The Japanese language demands measure words anytime a number is used so, instead of going for a coffee, you would go for a cup of coffee (一杯; ippai - one cup). When describing your family, instead of assuming the 'us' in question is people, you have to actually say 'people' - rokunin (六人) would be the 6 people in our example household.

Indeed, -nin is the suffix meaning more than two people. To describe one person or two, you would attach the suffix -ri to hito or futa, respectively, resulting in hitori and futari.

For things other than people, measure words are generally assigned based on the physical appearance and/or function of the object in question.

For instance, thin, blade-like objects, including paper are designated -mai (枚) while long, round or cylindrical objects are -hon (本). As for the cup example given above? Its typical pronunciation is -hai, the measure word to describe anything that contains liquid.

Other measures include time: -gatsu (月) for months, -nichi or -ka (日) for days and  -fun or -pun (分) for minutes.

If you're still learning the basics of Japanese, you might be relieved to know that there is a universal measure word you can use for just about everything: -tsu (つ). If you're newly arrived in Japan - or obviously not a Japanese native, nobody would mock you for asking for a hitotsu of coffee - 'a thing of coffee' instead of a cup of coffee.

The important thing to remember is that the measure word always comes after the number and object it describes. That turns your order for a cup of coffee with sugar to Satō-iri kōhī ippai(砂糖入りコーヒー一杯).

Enjoy!  

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.