How To Use Japanese Counters

One of the hurdles in learning the Japanese language is mastering the use of Japanese counters. Each language uses varied ways of counting objects. The Japanese use Japanese counters for counting things, people, time, animals and all other stuff. Japanese counters are difficult to master because each counter has different sets of rules. Each set of rules defines how a quantity is pronounced.

Japanese counters are similar to how the English language uses counters like "cup" (example: 2 cups of coffee) or "pairs" (example: 3 pairs of shoes). In Japanese, all nouns need a counter to describe them.

  • There are a variety of counters used in counting objects but usually, they are based on the shapes of the object. For example, objects that are long, thin and narrow like trees and pencils use the counter "hon." Objects that are flat like paper and tickets use the Japanese counter "mai."
  • The Japanese counter has a separate way of naming those things that cannot be clearly categorized. These ones are identified using Japanese numbers. Examples of things that can't be categorized are words regarding duration like years, hours or minutes. When you want to say ten years, you would use "juu-nenkan." Here, "nenkan" is the counter used to indicate "year" and "juu" is the Japanese number for ten.
  • When indicating animals, Japanese counters are based on the size, shape and description of the animal. For example, insects, small animals like dogs and cats, and fish use the Japanese counter "hiki." Those larger animals like horses and bears use the Japanese counter "tou."
  • When referring to people, the Japanese counter "nin" is used. There are exceptions to this rule though, when referring to one person (hitori) and two persons (futari).
  • The Japanese language does not have a separate word for each month of the year. A month is identified by what number the month is in a year. For example, the equivalent of January would be "ichi-gatsu" where "ichi" refers to number one and "gatsu" is the counter used when talking about months.
  • There are also different types of inanimate objects that do not have a specific counter. In the Japanese language, you can use "tsu" to refer to these. Examples of those objects that use the counter "tsu" are furniture, bags or traffic lights.
  • When counting in a sequence, especially when referring to dates, the Japanese counter is full of irregularities. These irregularities are all based on Japanese numbers. For example when referring to the second day of the month the Japanese word to use is "futsuka." When you want to talk about the 7th day of the month, it is "nanoka." And at ten days, it becomes "juichi-nichi." This is because the Japanese set for numbers originally counted only from 1 to 10.

Japanese counters are usually attached directly to a number. Although there may be exceptions, you can easily remember them. Although Japanese counters seem to be so varied and complex, you will surely have fun memorizing all of them.


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