Counting in Japanese

Are there two ways or variations to count to 10 in Japanese?

The reason I ask, is I was watching a show the other night that was teaching beginner japanese, including the numbers.

They said 4 was “yong” and either 7 or 8 was “nana”.

Whereas I thought 4 was “shi” and 7 and 8 were “shichi” and “ha-chi”?

Can anyone shed some light on this?


“Shi” and “shichi,” as I recall, are homophones for “shinu,” meaning “to die.” So sometimes 4 is “yon” and 7 is “nana.” I recall that when couting people, 3 people is “san-nin” and 4 people is “yo-nin.” But the famous movie Seven Samurai is “Shichi-nin No Samurai.”

Go figure.

My son is taking a Japanese class in high school, and I had this same conversation with him. My dad was stationed in Japan with the Air Force when I was about 6 yrs old and I learned the same way you did.

My son tells me that shi and yong are both used for 4 and that shichi and nana can both be used for 7.

when counting months, you say “yong getsu” or 4th month for April and “nana getsu” for the 7th month or July.

China Guy said:
when counting months, you say “yong getsu” or 4th month for April and “nana getsu” for the 7th month or July.

Actually, you don’t. April is “Shigatsu” and July is “Shichigatsu”.

But Japanese counting IS weird. If you want to say “four months” you have to say “yon ka getsu” and if you want to say “seven months” you have to say “nana ka getsu”.

And if you count up from one to ten you say

but if you count backwards from ten, you say



Also numbers change their names and shapes according to what you are counting. The basic counting of “things” goes

  1. Hitotsu
  2. Futatsu
  3. Mittsu
  4. Yottsu
  5. Itsutsu
  6. Muttsu
  7. Nanatsu
  8. Yattsu
  9. Kokonatsu
  10. To

But if you are counting specific things then the counter changes according to the things’ shape.

So one penicil is Ippon
One sheet of paper is Ichimai
One cow is Ittou (big animals)
One hamster is Ippiki
One bird (and rabbits - eh??) is Ichiwa
One piece of land is Hitokake
One person is Hitori
One cake (small thing) is Ikko
and so on and so on.

For little kids here, counting is a nightmare! (and me.)

My six year old first grader was writing example sentences for his characters, and he wanted to write “there were 8 ghosts” He came to me and asked how you count ghosts.
“Nin” (counter for people) I said, but he didn’t like that because they are not people.
“Piki” (for animals) But it’s not an animal!
“Ko” (For things) But it’s not a thing, you can’t touch it!

At that point I got fed up and asked him what he would say. In the end he made his own counter and wrote, “Yurei wa hachi yuu
ga imasu” Yurei is ghost, and he invented his own counter, Yuu, just for them. The teacher hasn’t marked it yet so I can’t tell you what the proper counter for ghosts is…

I think only receptionists and bureaucrats use those pronunciations to avoid confusion. I say “shi gatu” and “shichi gatsu.”

Anyway, it’s not two different counting systems. Some words just happen to have two possible pronunciations. (Actually they all have more than 2, with slightly different connotations and/or usage.)

I really hope the nezumi aren’t going to eat this one again.

First, nitpick: nine is kokonotsu.

The series above is the “native” Japanese way of counting that was in use before the more familiar words were borrowed from Chinese.

Note that you cannot combine these words in modern Japanese. Five clouds -> Itsutsu no kumo. Fifteen clouds -> juu-go no kumo.

Counting the days of the months is another headache for the learner:
January 1rst: ichi-gatsu tsuitachi
January 3rd: ichi-gatsu mikka
January 4th: ichi-gatsu yokka
January 15th: ichi-gatsu juu-go-nichi
January 16th: ichi-gatsu juu-roku-nichi
Janurary 20th: ichi-gatsu hatsuka

Hokkaido Brit, I don’t know how your reading skills are, but according to this page, you can use both -nin or -hiki to count imaginary creatures. Now, if you want to sound really erudite, there is a counter for ghosts of actual people (I kid you not), it’s hashira.

Counting things in Japanese is no more of a headache for English speakers than dealing with countable and uncountable nouns is for the Japanese learner of English.

The system for counting the days of the month, or other sequential items, is actually quite similar in English and Japanese; they’re known as ordinal numbers (which jovan has already partially listed).

How many? One, two, three…

Which? First, second, third…

Oh, yeah, and “4” in Japanese is yon or shi, but never “yong”.

My favorite Japanese counter is the one used exclusively for squid and beverages by the glassful…

ippai is the counter for one squid or for one glass of beer, water, wine, whatever… this has been turned into a physical pun by creating beer mugs made from dried squid.
:rolleyes: I guess you have to be here… :rolleyes:

The ordinal and cardinal numbers from 1-100 are extremely complicated in Bengali as well. There’s practically no discernible pattern.

Actually ordinal numbers are very easy, you just need to tack -me onto the counter.

3 people -> san-nin
3rd person -> san-nin-me

The only truly irregular series is the days. Everything else is fairly straightforward, you just need to memorize a few extra words and categories for the suffix.