In our second lesson on counters, we will tackle how to count things in general with -tsu つ and -ko 個.
Before Chinese loan words inundated Japanese, the language already had a counter system. Even then, there was one counter most frequently used. That counter continues to be used to count things in general. This counter is -tsu つ. Naturally, this counter is used with native numbers. However, it is because of this that it is greatly limited. After the number 9, 10 can be expressed with a native expression, but the system for counting things in general is largely limited up to 10 as an effect.
Notes: Nashi なし literally means “nothing” and is where -nai ない derives. The small っ, although shown as being optional, is almost always pronounced. Other native numbers do exist, but they survive only in set phrases. As such, these numbers will be addressed later in IMABI.
The Kanji 漢字 spellings for these phrases are as follows.
Orthography Note: Typically, 1-9 are written with Arabic numerals.
Overusing -tsu つ will cause your speech to sound uneducated. This is partly because it is a native word and not a Sino-Japanese word. Sino-Japanese words tend to sound more sophisticated, especially when a native counterpart exists. When you use -tsu つ for just anything, there is also the risk that you’ll ignore counters that have always been in Japanese. By extension, blanketly using -tsu つ to count anything may make it seem as if you’re ignoring the whole system.
Howbeit, it is still used heavily in natural conversation. As such, we will now discuss the instances -tsu つ is used so that your usage of it may be as natural as possible.
Variation Note: Because the counter -tsu つ often replaces the ‘proper’ counter, variation may include counters not yet introduced. In such an event, you are not required to memorize said counters for now. However, it is still important to know that you have options and that those options may be more appropriate than -tsu つ.
1. Used to count three-dimensional items: This usage is the most common and the most problematic. Most physical items have counters to count them, but there are also some things solely counted with -tsu つ.
Please give me two (of them).
Būsu wa yottsu arimasu.
There are four booths.
Ofisu ni tēburu ga itsutsu arimasu.
There are five tables in the office.
Nihon ni onsen wa [ikutsu/nankasho] arimasu ka?
How many hot springs are there in Japan?
5. ベッドは｛五つ △・5床 〇・5台 〇｝あります。
Beddo wa [itsutsu/goshō/godai] arimasu.
There are five beds.
Ame wo [hitotsu/ikko] tabemasu.
I’ll eat one piece of candy.
2. Used to count things with an indeterminate form:
Taoru ni kiiroi shimi ga futatsu arimasu.
There are two yellow stains on the towel.
Semmendai no shita ni ōkina mizutamari ga hitotsu arimasu.
There is a large puddle beneath the washstand.
Hai ni kage ga mittsu arimashita.
There were three shadows on the/my lungs.
3. Used to count age (1-9) or to ask someone’s age:
O-ikutsu desu ka?
How old are you?
Uchi no ko wa mittsu desu.
My child is three.
Grammar Note: Tō 十 can be used to mean “10 years old” to complete the series from 1-10.
4. Used to count abstract things:
Riyū wa muttsu arimasu.
There are six reasons.
Misshon wa nanatsu arimasu.
There are seven missions.
Jōken wa hitotsu arimasu.
There is one condition.
Kawashita jū no yakusoku wa hitotsu mo mamoranakatta.
You didn’t even protect one of the ten promises we made.
Grammar Note: Ex. 15 shows an example of a number being used without a counter. This is because the series for counting “promises” switches from -tsu つ to no counter at all after 9. The counter -ko 個, which is to be discussed shortly, could be used. The choice is up to the speaker in situations like this.
5. Used when ordering things:
Hamu-sandoitchi to kōhii wo hitotsu kudasai.
One ham sandwich and coffee please.
Aisukōhii wo [hitotsu/ippai] kudasai.
One iced coffee please.
6. Used to replace the proper counter when deemed most convenient:
Kin’yōbi ni jugyō wa [ikutsu/nankurasu] arimasu ka?
How many classes do you have on Friday?
Ie no [futatsu-mae no eki/futaeki-mae] de tomodachi to machiawasemashita.
I met with a friend at the station two stations before my place.
Usage Note: It is this usage that causes students problems. This is because the decision to replace the proper counter with -tsu つ is one that is often very difficult even to native speakers. As such, it is best to use the counters you know and listen to when natives use -tsu つ.
7. Used in set phrases:
Shichōsha(-tachi) no kokoro ga hitotsu ni natta deshō.
The hearts of the viewers were surely one.
The counter -ko 個 can be used to count round items or items that form a cluster. Incidentally, this counter is also used by some speakers to count anything. This comes from how it is used to count things when a specific counter can’t be thought of by the speaker. In a way, you can view it as meaning “article” as in “an article of belongings.”
Though generic, it accounts for physical items in general with which categorization is irrelevant. Even when it is used with something that is not necessary a physical item, the thing in question will be treated as if it were a concrete item. This is a fundamental difference between it and -tsu つ. Thus, although -ko 個 may be more frequently used because of prestige it gets as a Sino-Japanese word, the number of things it can be used with (provided the speaker isn’t one who uses it with anything and everything) is less than with -tsu つ. Nevertheless, the two do still overlap as some of the examples below illustrate.
Variation Note: In the examples below, variants are mentioned regardless of whether they’ve been taught by this point or not. Because -ko 個 does at times replace the ‘proper’ counter, it’s best to know your options.
Kesa, tamago wo [sanko/mittsu] tabemashita.
I ate three eggs this morning.
Ringo wo [ikko/hitotama] kaimashita.
I bought one apple.
Spelling Note: Ringo is only seldom spelled as 林檎.
Shiroi tama ga niko arimasu.
There are two white balls/beads.
Nimotsu wa nanko desu ka?
How many parcels/bags do you have?
Atarashii seihin ga ichimanko arimasu.
There are ten thousand new products.
Ushi ni wa i ga [yonko/yottsu] mo arimasu.
A cow has four stomachs.
Ningen ni wa saibō ga [nanko/ikutsu] arimasu ka?
How many cells does a human have?
Tsumiki wa nanko arimasu ka?
How many building blocks are there?
Tokei wa nanko arimasu ka?
How many watches are there/do you have?
Counter Note: For arm watches (udedokei 腕時計), the counters -ko 個 and -hon 本 can be used. For alarm clocks (mezamashidokei 目覚まし時計), the counter -ko 個 is used. For wall clocks (hashiradokei 柱時計) or those that hang on the wall (kakedokei 掛け時計), the counters -ko 個 and -dai 台 can be used.
Shikaku ga jukko arimasu.
There are ten squares.
Piasu no ana wa nanko arimasu ka?
How many pierces do you have?
Yume wa hyakko arimasu.
I have a hundred dreams.
Seisū wa zembu de nanko arimasu ka?
How many integers are there in total?
Nihon ni, shichōson wa nanko arimasu ka?
How many municipalities are there in Japan?
Counter Note: In bureaucratic documentation, municipalities will be counted with each kind functioning as a counter. Meaning, “three cities” would be 3市 and five villages would be
5村 etc. Notice that the Sino-Japanese readings are used in this case.
36. ｛1個下 △・1歳下 〇・ひとつ下 〇｝の彼氏がいます。
[Ikko-shita/issai-shita/hitotsu-shita] no kareshi ga imasu.
I have a boyfriend who is one year younger.
Jōro ga [goko/gohon] arimasu.
There are five watering cans?
Spelling Note: ジョウロ can seldom be spelled as 如雨露.
Fūsen ga [ikko/ichimai/ippon] arimasu.
There is one balloon.
Counter Note: When not inflated, balloons are counted with -mai 枚. When balloons are shaped in long, cylindrical shapes, they’re counted with -hon 本. When counting typical inflated balloons, you use -ko 個.
Kumo no su ga [goko/itsutsu] arimasu.
There are five spider webs.
Spelling Note: Kumo is occasionally spelled as 蜘蛛.
Jagaimo ga yonko arimasu.
There are four potatoes.
Spelling Note: Jagaimo is often spelled as じゃが芋.