Counters (助数詞) count things, but they are not easy to use correctly. There are a lot of them, but only a small amount of them are used in the spoken language. Even so, reading them correctly poses a great challenge.
When we discussed the different readings that 漢字 can have, the difference between 音 and 訓 readings may have felt like trivial knowledge to make things more confusing. However, there is nothing trivial about the distinction. These different kinds of readings represent two fundamentally different sources of where words come from. Before Japanese ever got influenced majorly by Chinese, it already had numbers and it already had counters. Upon receiving heavy influence from Chinese, though, Chinese numbers and counters became incorporated into Japanese. Instead of keeping Japanese numbers and counters and Chinese numbers and counters separate, they have been mixed together quite a bit. So, you could have a counter from Chinese used with a native number or a native counter with a Chinese number.
Because of how complex reading counters is to even native speakers, this lesson will avoid counters which are particularly hard to read. It is impossible to avoid every counter phrase with more than one reading, and it is also a problem that common phrases are consequently avoided to make things easier. By the end of this lesson, however, you will have been introduced to quite a handful of the most important counters as well as native numbers which are used so much with counters.
Counters count specific things. Usually, the counter is a completely separate word, but sometimes the thing you want to count and the counter for it are the same. Measure words are great examples of this. For example, 円 is both yen and the counter to count yen. Counters may also be very specific. As you can see in the chart below, small animals and large animals are counted with different counters. Not only that, not all living things are counted with the counters for small and large animals.
|～階（かい）||Floors|| ～個（こ）|| Small/round things|
|～冊（さつ）||Books/magazines||～歳・才（さい）||Years old (living things)|
|～台（だい）|| Big machines/devices||～足（そく）||Footwear|
|～頭（とう）|| Large animals|| ～人（にん）|| Person|
|～本（ほん）||Long, thin things||～杯（はい）||Cups, squids, boats, etc.|
|～歩（ほ）|| (Foot)steps||～枚（まい）||Flat/clothing items|
1. 4 is よ when the counter begins with an n. It is also よ with 円. し is rarely used with counters. In fact, any instances of it are either in set phrases or reflective of older Japanese.
2. く is not as common as きゅう overall for 9 in counter phrases.
3. Foreign counters are sometimes even used with foreign numbers. So, ワン, ツー, スリー etc. The only one we have learned so far is ページ, which is not an example for this, but things like ワンルーム for "one room" are perfect examples of this.
4. ～人 has several exceptions.The options in bold are the preferable readings.
|1 Person||一人、独り||ひとり||2 People||二人||ふたり|
|4 People||四人||よにん||7 People||七人||しちにん・ななにん|
| 9 People||九人||くにん・きゅうにん||14 People||十四人||じゅうよにん|
|19 People||十九人||じゅうくにん・じゅうきゅうにん||24 People||二十四人||にじゅうよにん|
Variation Note: Speakers in some parts of Japan may use みたり and よ(っ)たり for 3 and 4 people respectively. If you read slightly older Japanese, you can see them more frequently. However, because these readings are not deemed to be of Standard Japanese, you should not use them in class. It would be like trying to use a few words from Old English yet not speak fully in Old English. Mentioning them simply provides a reason for why the pattern suddenly stops at 2 for something you would think Japanese would have had from the beginning.
Reading Note: 万人 is read as either ばんじん or ばんにん and means "all people" whereas 一万人 is read as いちまんにん and means ten thousand people. If you ever see the character 万 start a phrase without a number, it will be read as ばん. The world famous phrase 万歳 read as ばんざい is a great example of this. Literally, the phrase means "ten thousand years", but it is used in Chinese and Japanese for celebratory purposes. This phrase just like 万人 has to be contrasted with the hypothetical phrase 一万歳 for "ten thousand years old." This would be read as いちまんさい, which requires no extra memorization to know how to read.
Some number-counter series initially start out with a character that is not a number. Take for instance the hierarchy of siblings in Japanese. Children are not referred by first born, second born, etc. (though there are words for this) in disregard of gender. If you are the second born, you may still be the "oldest daughter."
Since counters specifically count certain things, the actual item(s) they are counting may be omitted from the sentence so long as that information is contextually obvious or recoverable information.
”How many dogs are there?" ”There are five of them".
When a word doesn't have a particular counter, using the word as the counter is very common, especially with words from Chinese/foreign origin.
Noun or Adverb Phrase?
Counter phrases may function as nouns or adverbs depending on the sentence structures. For example, "ten dogs" = 10匹の犬 (noun)/犬10匹 (adverbial).
Practice (1): What is the most reasonable counter for 1. Camels 2. Dollars 3. Textbook?
I have three pens.
I have two shirts.
There are five fish.
To buy one pair.
You're 15 years old, right?
The prefix 何 + counter means "how many...?". Just "how many" is いくつ.
How many days will it take?
What time is it?
|何＋千＋本 ＝ なんぜんぼん||何＋百＋本 ＝ なんびゃくほん||何＋万＋本 ＝ なんまんぼん|
Practice (2): Translate the following.
1. How many people? 2. How many books? 3. How many cows?
4. How many pens? 5. How many sheets?
These rules explain the sound changes in counter phrases including big numbers. These rules usually only affect Sino-Japanese counters.
|1||いち → いっ before k, s, sh, t, ch, h, and f. H & f → P||いっかい; いっぷん|
|3|| H → B/P and F → P|| さんぼん; さんぱい; さんぷん |
|4||*H → P|| よんぷん |
|6||ろく → ろっ before k, h, and f. H & f → p.|| ろっかい; ろっぷん (6 min.)|
|8||Same as 1. はち → はっ.|| はっさい; はっぷん (8 min.)|
|10|| Same as 1. じゅう → じゅっ.||じゅっかい; じゅっさい； じゅっぽ|
|100|| Same as 6. ひゃく → ひゃっ.||ひゃっかい; ひゃっぴき|
|1000|| Same as 3||せんぼん; せんぱい; せんぷん|
|万||Same as 3.|| いちまんぼん; いちまんぷん|
|何||Same as 3.|| なんぼん; なんぱい; なんぷん|
*: H → p is wrong most of the time. よんぴき X よんぽん X よんぴゃく X
**: Originally, h → b only existed. Today, there is confusion on when to use which. H → b is used with 本,匹, 杯 when used with 3 and 何. Despite this, h → p can be seen with a few counters like 杯.
Preference Note: じゅっ is prevalent and じっ is old-fashioned. You'll often hear no contractions with 8. All of these rules are often ignored by the elderly. Exceptions to these exceptions exist. For example, ～服 (doses) is usually only irregular with 1. Then again, each counter has its quirks. 何服 isn't even really used.
Practice (3): Translate the following. Write counter phrases in ひらがな.
1. Three dogs 2. 20 yen 3. 100 machines
4. 100 cows 5. 1,000 pens 6. Seven cupfuls
Now it is time to learn about what native numbers are and how they are used. We have avoided them up to this point. So, you don't have to worry about them for everything mentioned above. So, what are native numbers? Native numbers are the original number words of Japanese. Nowadays, the native numbers above 10 are hardly ever used. If they are, they are limited to set phrases.
Native numbers are most frequently used with the native counter ～つ, which is seen with the native numbers 1~9 and can count almost anything. This native counter is a general counter used to count more or less anything when a specific counter is not available or is unknown to the average native speaker. Every number after 9 in the native counter series requires no counter, but that leaves only 10 being frequently used. The others, again, are in set phrases.
If counting generic things ends at ten, then there has to be a Sino-Japanese counter to compensate, and there is. This counter is 個. Aside from being the counter for round things, it can be used to count generic things. So, for counting 1-9 generic things, you can use either ～つ with the native counters which are shown below or ～個. For 10, you can use the native word for 10 or ～個. For things above 10, use ～個.
Warning Note: Don't use つ if there is a specific, frequently used counter.
Word Note: はたち ＝ "twenty years old". はた in this case is an old word for 20, and ち is a form of the native counter once used for 20, 30, 40, etc.
To eat one.
To choose two.
Native Numbers with Other Counters
Many counters are used with native numbers, but the forms that are allowed and when is really confusing. You basically have to memorize the readings of counter phrases one counter at a time. It doesn't help that there are many variants. For instance, 1箱 (one box) is mainly pronounced as いっぱこ or ひとはこ, but the rare いちはこ lurks around. Usually, if a counter is used with native numbers, at least ひと and ふた will be used. Some accept み (3) and よ (4), but there is a lot of speaker variation.
|～箱（はこ）||Boxes||～そろい|| Sets||～品（しな）||Kinds of dishes|
Usage Notes: It's fair to say that there is a lot of info to remember for each counter, so don't feel like you have to learn all the details now. The information below is simply necessary to fully grasp these counters.
1. ひとあし and いっぽ are essentially synonymous and really only differ in the set phrases that they're used in. However, ～あし is essentially limited to the numeral 1.
2. 品 may also be read as ひん. So, what is the difference between いっぴん and ひとしな? They can both be used to count dishes (food), but the latter is often felt to be a little more formal. When reading out 1品, 2品, 3品, they're typically read as ひとしな, ふたしな, みしな (more by older people)/さんしな (more by younger people). Both can also be used to count articles of things, but this usage is not as common. It's also the cause that speakers don't like ひん at all.
3. 晩 is only used with 1 (ひと) and 2 (ふた). 3 (み), though, can be seen in the set phrase 三日三晩（みっかみばん） meaning "three days and three nights".
Practice (4): Translate the following. Write in ひらがな. Several answers may be acceptable.
1. One character 2. Two boxes. 3. Two nights.
4. Three slices.
Resource Note: http://www.trussel.com/jcount.htm will help you a lot with this.
The counter phrases that you do need to know the readings for from 1-10 will be shown below. Any special sound change will be listed in bold. All the other example counters in this lesson are not expected of you to remember at this time. Refer to this chart for the exercises in this lesson.
|人||ひとり||ふたり||さんにん||よにん||ごにん||ろくにん||ななにん||はちにん|| きゅうにん |
Note: You are free to use any correct spelling or counter for the exercises. Not all possible answers will be given here since there are so many.
1. 頭、匹 2. ドル 3. 冊
1. 何人 2. 何冊 3. 何頭・何匹（の牛） 4. 何本（のペン） 5. 何枚（のシート）