Learning how to count in Japanese is a basic, essential skill for anyone who wishes to speak Japanese! If you visit a Japanese store or even a store in a nearby Japanese-speaking community in your home country, how will you know how much you owe at the checkout counter if you don’t understand numbers? If you ask for directions and a Japanese speaker gives you a series of numbers to find an address or to get on the right train line to take you to your destination, how will you be able to find your way?
Luckily, learning to count in basic Japanese is fairly simple if you put in the effort! There are only a few notable exceptions that might confuse the native English speaker, but we’ll worry about that later in the lesson. First, let’s study the basic numerals 0 through 10!
Basic Counting: 0-10
The basic method of counting in Japanese is listed below. (Note that some numerals have two pronunciations! These pronunciations are often used interchangeably, but the more frequently used pronunciations are listed first.)
|0||zero / rei||ゼロ / れい||零|
|4||yon / shi||よん / し||四|
|7||nana / shichi||なな / しち||七|
|9||kyuu / ku||きゅう / く||九|
Notice how most of the kanji for numbers (except the one for 0) are simple and easy to learn! They’re the perfect kanji for the beginning student of Japanese, so you should study the kanji for all the numbers along with their pronunciations.
Once you learn these basic 11 numerals, you’ll possess the knowledge necessary to pronounce every number through 99 in basic Japanese counting! Let’s take a look!
Basic Counting: 11-99
Basic counting in Japanese can be quite simple to master once you’ve got the hang of it! Every number between 11 and 99 in basic Japanese counting is made by combining the words for 1-10 that you learned earlier.
To pronounce a basic number in Japanese, you begin with the “number of tens” in the number. For example, in 15, there is one “ten” (10 can only go into 15 evenly once), so the number would begin with juu十. In 28, there are “two tens” (10 can go evenly into 25 twice), so you literally begin the number with “two tens,” ni-juu二十. This pattern continues through 90:
Notice that 40, 70, and 90 only have one pronunciation in basic Japanese counting, despite 4, 7, and 9 having two pronunciations each!
To get the numerals in between these numbers, you just add the basic numeral after the “number of tens”! For example, you know that you begin 15 with a 10 juu 十, then you add 5 go 五. 15 = juu go 十五.
28, as stated before, beings with “two tens,” ni-juu 二十; then we add the eight, hachi 八. 28 = ni-juu hachi 二十八.
Note: Any numbers that end in 4, 7, or 9 can use either of the two pronunciations for each numeral. For example, 34 = san-juu yon or san-juu shi 三十四; 47 = yon-juu nana or yon-juu shichi 四十七; and 59 = go-juu kyuu or go-juu ku五十九.
Basic Counting: 100 and Beyond
Now you know how to count from 1, ichi一, to 99, kyuu-juu kyuu 九十九, in the basic Japanese counting system. How do you count beyond that? You follow the same pattern you did with numbers 11-99. First, study these three basic numeral terms:
If you’ve got the hang of 1-99, you’ll easily be able to adapt to 100-9999. Just as you determined “how many tens” were in each two-digit number, you’ll determine “how many hundreds” are in each three-digit number and “how many thousands” are in each four-digit number.
200 has “two hundreds” and is pronounced ni-hyaku 二百. 3000 has “three thousands” and is pronounced san-sen 三千. How is 688 pronounced? There are “six hundreds,” “eight tens” and “eight” in the numeral, so 688 = roku-hyaku hachi-juu hachi 六百八十八. How about 8721? There are “eight thousands,” “seven hundreds,” “two tens” and “one” in the numeral, so 8721 = hachi-sen nana-hyaku ni-juu ichi 六千七百二十一.
But you might have noticed that 10,000 has a word of its own: man 万. In English, the next word after “thousand” that we give its own word is “million,” right? To us, 10,000 = ten thousand. Not so in Japanese! 10,000 has its own word, and so figuring out how to pronounce numbers greater than 10,000 may take a little math skills on your part!
Don’t be overwhelmed! Just remember to think of the same pattern you did before. Just ask yourself, “How many ten-thousands are there in this number?” So “how many ten-thousands” are in 40,000? Four! So 40,000 = yon-man 四万. 73,555 has “seven ten-thousands,” “three thousands,” “five hundreds,” “five tens” and “five” in the numeral, so 73,555 = nana-man san-sen go-hyaku go-juu go 七万三千五百五十五.
Things get really tricky when you get to 100,000 or 1,000,000. There are “ten ten-thousands” in 100,000, so it’s pronounced juu-man 十万 (no “hundred” involved!). A million doesn’t have its own unique word in Japanese! It’s got “one hundred ten-thousands” in it, so that’s what it’s called: hyaku-man百万! The “How many ten-thousands are in the numeral?”-pattern continues until 100,000,000, which has its own word, oku億 (おく). But let’s not worry about numbers that large quite yet!
The most general usage of basic numbers in Japanese is to state your age! To say how old you are in Japanese, speak the numeral and then add “years old,” sai 才 (さい). Sai is one of many counters that you attach to a number. You can think of a counter as something that modifies a number.
|English:||I am nineteen years old.|
|Romaji:||Watashi wa juu kyuu sai desu.|
|Kana/Kanji:||私は十九才です or 私は１９才です.|
The pronunciations for 4, 7, and 9 in ages are always yon よん, nana なな, and kyuu きゅう respectively. The most frequent irregular age numbers are any ages ending in 1 or 8 (ichi いち and hachi はち), due to the combination of the chi ちsyllable with the sa さ in sai 才 (さい). Ages ending in 1 become issai 一才 (いっさい) and ages ending in 8 become hassai 八才 (はっさい). Thus, “21 years old” is ni-juu issai 二十一才 (にじゅういっさい) and “18 years old” is juu hassai 十八才 (じゅうはっさい).
There’s just one more exception you may come across when it comes to ages! Although you can say ni-juu sai 二十才 (にじゅうさい) to mean “20 years old,” you’ll more often hear native Japanese speakers who are 20 say they are hatachi 二十歳 (はたち), without a sai anywhere to be found! (Watashi wa hatachi desu 私は二十歳です = “I am 20 years old.”)
Why the odd exception? Twenty is a monumental age for the Japanese, as it’s the age at which they become legal adults. (Learn more in the Customs: Holidays section.) The word hatachi はたち comes from hata はた, the pronunciation of the numeral 20 in a different form of Japanese counting. Yes, there are more ways to pronounce numerals in Japanese! But you’ve learned enough in this lesson. Once you’ve mastered basic Japanese counting, you can move on to lessons on counting various kinds of objects, where you’ll learn a few more number pronunciations.
Master the basic form of Japanese counting and you’ll have mastered an essential step in achieving Japanese fluency! You’ve also learned your first counter, the “age” counter. If you want to learn more about counters, head over to our Intro to Counters article.