Once you’ve mastered basic counting in Japanese, you’re ready to start studying Japanese counters. What are counters? In Japanese, there are words that indicate what kind of object is being counted. These words most often have no English translation.
In other words, you do not say “san orenji さんオレンジ (三オレンジ)” to mean “three oranges [the fruit].” Instead, you would say “san-ko no orenji さんこのオレンジ (三個のオレンジ).” No の is a preposition that means “of” and it’s often used with counters. (Sometimes you will see the preposition object marker wo を instead when the object is stated before the number; for example “enpitsu wo sanbon えんぴつを三本” means “three pencils.”) You’ll learn more about the counter ko 個 below.
There are over 100 different types of counters in Japanese, but not all of them are used in everyday conversation. Don’t get overwhelmed! We’ll learn just three common counters this lesson, although to use two of the counters, you’ll also need to study a new way to count from 1-10.
Kunyomi Numerals: 1-10 and Counting Assorted Things
Let’s start by studying the second way to pronounce numerals in Japanese. When you studied basic counting in the previous lesson, you were learning the onyomi reading, the Cantonese (a dialect of Chinese)-based pronunciation. The kunyomi readings are the original Japanese readings of the kanji and they’re sometimes used with counters to count people and objects.
The counter tsu つ is a generic counter used to count assorted inanimate objects that aren’t classified into any other counter category. This includes objects such as furniture, bags, and certain types of food—just about anything that’s doesn’t have a specific shape like “long and cylindrical” or “thin and flat.” Although you may not know enough to know exactly what kinds of items are counted with tsu つ, you should study the tsu つ counter because you will encounter it often in the Japanese language.
Here are the kunyomi pronunciations of numerals 1 to 10 with the counter tsu つ in parentheses:
Notice that 10 actually doesn’t have a tsu つ! When counting 10 assorted objects that don’t fit into any other form of counter, you don’t use tsu つ, just the kunyomi pronunciation of the word. In other words, while “nine bags” is “kokono-tsu no fukuro” 九つの袋, “ten bags” is “too no fukuro” 十の袋.
Most numbers greater than 10 don’t use the tsu つ counter, either, and they revert back to their onyomi reading. So “eleven bags” is just “juu-ichi no fukuro” 十一の袋.
Counting Small Assorted (Often Rounded) Things
Another counter you’ll frequently encounter in Japanese is ko 個. Ko 個, like tsu つ, can be used for assorted inanimate objects that aren’t categorized with other counters. It’s most often used for small and rounded things, like balls and small round fruits, but some Japanese may use it to count other general objects.
Ko 個 uses the onyomi pronunciations (some of which are modified slightly) of numerals:
The counter ko 個 continues to be used even after the number 10, but it follows an easy pattern for the most part. For example, “eleven oranges” is “juu ik-ko no orenji じゅういっこのオレンジ (十一個のオレンジ).”
One of the most frequent “objects” you’re likely to count are people! The counter for people is usually pronounced nin 人. With three exceptions, counting people follows a simple pattern of saying the onyomi pronunciation of numerals (the ones you learned in the basic counting lesson) and adding nin 人. The three exceptions (1, 2, and 4) are bolded:
The 人 in “one person” and “two people” is pronounced “ri” and instead of the onyomi pronunciations “ichi” and “ni,” the kunyomi pronunciations “hito” and “futa” are used instead. “Four people” is an exception because the kunyomi pronunciation (“yo”) is used instead of the onyomi pronunciation (“yon”), although the 人 character is still pronounced “nin.”
Let’s take a look at using the three counters you’ve encountered in this lesson.
I have two laptop computers.
Watashi ni futa-tsu no rapputoppu ga aru.
I ate two peaches.
Watashi wa ni-ko no momo wo tabemashita.
I met two people.
Watashi wa futari ni aimashita.
Japanese counters can be difficult to master, but you’ll have already made impressive progress once you memorize these three frequently used counters. Make sure you’re comfortable with these three counters before you move on to the next counter lesson!