Japanese Counters – Important Words to use with Numbers

Many people learn to count in Japanese first, but what about Japanese counters?

Counters are parts of the language used to count things in various categories. In Japanese, counters are used together with Japanese numbers to count things in different categories. Compared to English, where counters are fairly simple and not used that often, Japanese counters cover a wide variety of things and there are a huge number of them.

Japanese counters

In this article, we’re going to cover as many common counters as possible to help you on your language learning journey.

Japanese Counters

There are different Japanese counters used for small things, long objects, drinks, clothes, machines, and many more! Some of the most common Japanese counters are for objects, living beings, frequency, and time.

Japanese Counters List

Here’s a quick reference guide to some of the most common counters in Japanese.

  • Generic counter (can count anything) – つ (tsu )
  • Small objects  – こ ( ko)
  • Flat and thin objects – まい (mai)
  • Long and thin objects – ほん (hon)
  • Books – さつ  (satsu)
  • Large objects – だい (dai)
  • Footwear – そく (soku)
  • Liquids in bowls or cups – はい (hai)
  • People – にん (nin)
  • Small and medium sized animals – ひき (hiki)
  • Large animals – とう (tou)
  • Birds – わ (wa)
  • Seconds – びょう(byou)
  • Minutes – ふん (fun)
  • Time and hours – じ (ji) / じかん (Jikan)
  • Days  – にち (nichi)
  • Months  – かげつ (kagetsu)
  • Number of times something is done – かい (kai)

We’ll go over each of these in more detail below!

Counters in Japanese

The Japanese word for “counters” is じょすうし (josuushi | 助数詞 ). It is pronounced as jo-suu-shi. Counters aren’t independent words; they’re indicators of the type of object you’re counting, so they should always be next to a number.

Japanese Counting System

In the Japanese language, there are two different counting systems, which are the Sino-Japanese counting system and the Native Japanese counting system. The difference between the two is Sino-Japanese is of Chinese origin, whereas Native Japanese is of Japanese origin. However, it’s recommended for Japanese learners to learn the Sino-Japanese counting method first.

Check out our article about Japanese Numbers to learn more about this.

How many Japanese counters are there?

The answer to this question can be a little intimidating. There are roughly 500 Japanese counters! But don’t worry, many Japanese counters are not used very often, so you don’t need to remember all of them. However, it is important to learn a few so that you won’t be confused when a store clerk asks you how many bags you need for example.

How to use Japanese counters in sentences?

Thankfully, despite there being a large number of counters, they are generally used the same way. As long as you already know how to count using Japanese numbers, it’s simply a matter of attaching the counter to a number. 

For example: まい (mai | 枚) is used to count for flat objects such as sheets of paper would be 1 =いちまい (ichi-mai), 2 = にまい (ni-mai), 3 = さんまい (san-mai), and so on. This is the general rule; however, a number of counters can change the pronunciation of the preceding number in different ways, so we’ll include tables in this article when this is the case to show the difference.

Structures for using Japanese counters

All the counters are only used with the Sino-Japanese counting system. It’s not required to be used in Native Japanese. You’ll need to learn more about counting systems to fully understand them. However, I’m going to give a few examples of how they differ.

Japanese nouns require you to always have a counter with them. The typical order is to use the noun or object + particle + Japanese counter word + verb.

Examples:

EnglishKanjiHiraganaRomaji
I have three baskets of fruits.私は果物のバスケットを三つ持っています。わたしはくだもののバスケットをみっつもっています。watashi wa kudamono no basuketto o mittsu motte imasu.
I saw one bird in the sky.私は空に一羽の鳥を見ました。わたしはそらにいちわのとりをみました。watashi wa sora ni ichi wanotori o mimashita.

The count is only up to ten in Native Japanese readings. It’s like a universal counting system in Japanese and can be compared to English’s one, two, three, and so on. The difference is that it is used on more straightforward questions, such as the one in the example below.

Question:

EnglishKanjiHiraganaRomaji
How many pairs of shoes did you buy?靴を何足買いましたか。くつをなんぞくかいましたか。kutsu o nanzoku kaimashita ka?

Answer:

EnglishKanjiHiraganaRomaji
Three pairs / three.三つです。みっつです。mittsu desu.

As mentioned before, it doesn’t use Japanese counters and it’s being used as simple as that.

The Most Important Japanese Counter

Counter 〜つ (tsu)

The most important Japanese counter you can learn is what’s sometimes called つ (tsu | 〜つ). It can be thought of as a generic counter. This isn’t actually a counter so much as a way of counting using the Japanese reading of the kanji. It is used to count almost anything up to nine (ten is rarely used) except for living things or things related to time.

There are many Japanese counters, but the counter つ (tsu) is a great fall back if you can’t remember the specific counter. Still, keep it in mind to use the proper counters when necessary.

English Kanji HiraganaRomaji
Oneひとつhitotsu
Twoふたつfutatsu
Threeみっつmittsu
Fourよっつyottsu
Fiveいつつitsutsu
Six むっつmuttsu
Sevenななつnanatsu
Eightやっつyattsu
Nineここのつkokonotsu
Tenとおtoo

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
I ate two apples.私はりんごを二つ食べました。わたしはりんごをふたつたべました。watashi wa ringo o futatsu tabemashita.
We ordered one ramen, two sushi, and three colas.私たちはラーメン一つ、寿司二つ、コーラ三つを注文しました。わたしたちはらめんひとつ、 すしふたつ、 コーラみっつをちゅうもんしました。watashitachi wa ramen hitotsu, sushi futatsu, kora mittsu o chuumon shimashita.

Japanese Counters for Objects

Objects may actually be one of the most numerous kinds of counters. There are many different Japanese counters for objects. There are counters for small, long objects, large machines, and flat and thin objects.

However, most of the time, it’s simply a matter of remembering the correct counter as they all follow a similar pattern.

こ (ko) counter

First of all, the most basic Japanese counter for objects that you can use is こ (ko | 個). This is mostly used to count small objects such as pieces of fruit, but is very versatile and can be used for an enormous range of things.

The こ (ko) counter is very useful to remember, so make it one of the first ones you learn. こ (ko) is also a counter that changes the pronunciation of the number preceding it. Please see the table below for the variations.

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One 一個いっこikko
Two二個にこniko
Three三個さんこsanko
Four四個よんこyonko
Five五個ごこgoko
Six六個ろっこrokko
Seven七個ななこnanako
Eight八個はっこhakko
Nine九個きゅうこkyuuko
Ten十個じゅっこjukko

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
There are two oranges left at the grocery store.食料品店にオレンジが二個残っています。しょくりょうひんてん に オレンジ が にこ のこっています。shokuryouhinten ni orenji ga niko nokotte imasu.
I bought twelve eggs today.今日は卵を十二個買いました。きょうはたまごをじゅうにこかいました。kyou wa tamago o juuniko kaimashita.

まい (mai) counter

Next up, we’re going to take a look at some other common counters for objects, which is まい (mai | 枚). まい (mai) is a Japanese counter used to count thin, flat objects such as sheets of paper, clothing, or cards. This is very easy and simple to use and just needs to be attached to a regular number, so three pieces of paper would be さんまい (san mai).

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One flat object一枚いちまいichimai
Two flat objects二枚にまいnimai
Three flat objects三枚さんまいsanmai
Four flat objects四枚よんまいyonmai
Five flat objects五枚ごまいgomai
Six flat objects六枚ろくまいrokumai
Seven flat objects七枚ななまいnanamai
Eight flat objects八枚はちまいhachimai
Nine flat objects九枚きゅうまいkyuumai
Ten flat objects十枚じゅうまいjuumai

The counter word まい (mai) counts a wide range of items, not just flat objects. It can also be used to count sections or parts, portions of food, positions, etc. However, because it is primarily used for flat objects, I’ll give a few examples of how to use the まい (mai) counter in a sentence with it.

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
I received ten letters this Christmas.私は今年のクリスマスに十枚の手紙を受け取りました。このクリスマスにじゅうまいのてがみをうけとりました。kono kurisumasu ni juumai no tegami o uketorimashita.
Sakura's goal is to have one hundred BTS photocards.さくらの目標は,百枚のBTSのフォトカードを持つことだ。サクラのもくひょうはひゃくまいのBTSフォトカードをもつことです。Sakura no mokuhyou wa hyakumai no BTS fotokado o motsu koto desu.

ほん (hon) counter

If まい (mai) is being used to count flat objects, we have ほん (hon | 本) for long and thin objects that’s a versatile counter. The ほん (hon) counter can count many things including bottles, pens and pencils, cans, sticks, and even fishing rods. This can also be counted for trees, train tracks, and tunnels.

Take note: Although the word 本 means “book” in Japanese, hon isn’t the counter for books.

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One long and thin object一本いっぽんippon
Two long and thin objects二本にほんnihon
Three long and thin objects三本さんぼんsanbon
Four long and thin objects四本よんほんyonbon
Five long and thin objects五本ごほんgohon
Six long and thin objects六本ろっぽんroppon
Seven long and thin objects七本ななほんnanahon
Eight long and thin objects八本はっぽんhappon
Nine long and thin objects九本きゅうほんkyuuhon
Ten long and thin objects十本じゅっぽんjuppon

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
Can I order two bottles of beer?ビールを二本注文できますか?ビール お に ほん ちゅうもん できます か ?bīru o ni hon chūmon dekimasu ka ?
It's healthy to eat one to two bananas every day.毎日一~二本のバナナを食べるのは健康的です。まいにちいちからにほんのバナナをたべるのはけんこうてきです。mai nichi ichi kara nihon no banana wo taberu no wa kenkouteki desu.

さつ (satsu) counter

Another counter word that we’ll look at in this section is さつ (satsu | 冊). The さつ (satsu) counter is used to count books, magazines, newspapers, documents, and notebooks.

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One一冊いっさつissatsu
Two 二冊にさつnisatsu
Three三冊さんさつsansatsu
Four四冊よんさつyonsatsu
Five五冊ごさつgosatsu
Six六冊ろくさつrokusatsu
Seven七冊ななさつnanasatsu
Eight 八冊はっさつhassatsu
Nine 九冊きゅうさつkyuusatsu
Ten十冊じゅっさつjussatsu

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
I'll read one book this weekend.私は今週末に一冊の本を読みます。こんしゅうまつにいっさつのほんをよみます。konshuumatsu ni issatsu no hon o yomimasu.
Please bring three notebooks tomorrow.明日、ノートを三冊持ってきてください。あしたはノートをさんさつ もってきてください。ashita wa noto o sansatsu motte kite kudasai.

だい (dai) counter

Some other counter for objects is だい (dai |台). This is used to count for large objects such as vehicles like cars, trucks, machines, mechanical devices, large musical instruments, and furniture.

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
My friend bought four new bicycles.私の友達は新しい自転車を四台買いました。わたし の ともだち わ あたらしい じてんしゃ お よん だい かいました 。watashi no tomodashi ga atarashii jitensha o nidai kaimashita.
Maria bought two new washing machines yesterday.マリアは昨日、新しい洗濯機を二台買った。マリアはきのうあたらしいせんたくきをにだいかいましたMaria wa kinou atarashii sentakuki o ni-dai kaimashita.

そく (soku) counter

そく (soku | 促) is for shoes, socks, or anything you wear on your feet.

Example:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
I lost ten pairs of socks.私は靴下を十足失った。わたし わ くつした お じゅう そく しつ くしました 。watashi wa kutsushita o jū soku shitsu kushimashita.

はい (hai) counter

はい (hai | 杯) is the final counter word for objects we’ll look at. This is the counter for cups or bowls that are used to drink from or with liquid. It is frequently used to count mugs of coffee, bowls of soup and rice, glasses of water, and other drinks.

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
I can finish two cups of rice.私はご飯二杯を仕上げることができます。わたしはごはんにはいおしあげることができます。watashi wa gohan nihai o shiageru koto ga dekimasu.
I drank five glasses of wine at the party.パーティーでグラス五杯のワインを飲みました。パーティーでグラスごはいのワインおのみました。pātī de gurasu go hai no wain o nomimashita.

Counter 杯 (hai)

Japanese Counters for Living Beings

There are designated counters when counting people, animals, or other living beings in the Japanese language. You’ll need to learn these words because the counters used for objects can’t be used for counting people and animals. 

In this section, you’ll learn the different Japanese counters for living beings.

にん (nin) counter

Let’s start with the easiest one in this category – humans. にん (nin | 人) is used to count for counting people. This can be considered a person counter and is very straightforward with the exceptions of one and two.

One person is ひとり(hitori)and two is ふたり(futari). After this, it’s just a matter of adding にん (nin) to the number such as さん (sannin) , よにん (yonin) and so on.

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One person一人ひとりhitori
Two people二人ふたりfutari
Three people三人さんにんsannin
Four people四人よにんyonin
Five people五人ごにんgonin
Six people六人ろくにんrokunin
Seven people七人しちにんshichinin
Eight people八人はちにんhachinin
Nine people九人きゅうにんkyuunin
Ten people十人じゅうにんjuunin

In Native Japanese readings, one person and two individuals are the only ones counted. When there are three or more people, we use Sino-Japanese.

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
She only has three friends.彼女には友達が三人しかいません。かのじょにはともだちがさんにんしかいません。kanojo ni wa tomodachi ga 3-ri shika imasen.
How many people were invited to the party?何人がパーティーに招待されましたか?なんじんがにしょうたいされましたか?nanjin ga pa-ti- ni shoutai sa remashita ka?

ひき (hiki) counter

Moving on to animals, there are two very important Japanese counters to learn: small and large animals. This is easy on the surface, but can sometimes be a little bit difficult with some medium-sized animals which fall into either category.

The first counter we will look at is ひき (hiki | 匹). It’s mostly used to count small animals, but it can be used for medium-sized animals such as dogs, cats, mice, monkeys, most fish, and sheep. Additionally, small animals like insects, bugs, small fish, mosquitoes, and worms can be counted with ひき (hiki) as well.

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One small animal一匹いっぴきippiki
Two small animals二匹にひきnihiki
Three small animals三匹さんびきsanbiki
Four small animals四匹よんひきyonhiki
Five small animals五匹ごひきgobiki
Six small animals六匹ろっぴきroppiki
Seven small animals七匹ななひきnanahiki
Eight small animals八匹はっぴきhappiki
Nine small animals九匹きゅうひきkyuuhiki
Ten small animals十 匹じゅっぴきjuppiki

Here are some example sentences for small animals:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
While riding a bike, I was chased by two dogs.自転車に乗っていると、二匹の犬に追われました。じてんしゃにのっていると、 にひきのいぬにおわれました。jitensha ni notte iru to, nihiki no inu ni owaremashita.
I brought one more cat at home.もう一匹猫を家に連れてきました。もういっぴきねこおいえにつれてきました。mou ippiki neko o ie ni tsurete kimashita

Despite the fact that ひき (hiki) is used for small animals, there are some limitations. We use the counter word 人 (nin) for pets that are regarded as family members and intelligent creatures such as Chimpanzees.

とう (tou) counter

Now you know how to use ひき (hiki) as a counter for small animals; the next counter word is とう (tou |頭), which is used for larger animals like elephants, horses, or cows. This counter, however, includes working animals such as guide and rescue dogs, so while most dogs are counted with ひき (hiki), these specific dogs are counted with とう (tou).

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One large animal一頭いっとうittou
Two large animals二頭にとうnitou
Three large animals三頭さんとうsantou
Four large animals四頭よんとうyontou
Five large animals五頭ごとうgotou
Six large animals六頭ろくとうrokutou
Seven large animals七頭ななとうnanatou
Eight large animals八頭はっとうhattou
Nine large animals九頭きゅうとうkyuutou
Ten large animals十頭じゅっとうjutto

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
We saw one elephant running across the road.一頭の象が道路を横切って走っているのを見ました。いっとうのぞうがどうろおよこぎってはしっているのをみました。ittou no zou ga douro o yokogitte hashitte iru no o mimashita.
There are six horses who raced today.今日は六頭の馬が出走しました。きょうはろくとうのうまがしゅっそうしました。kyou wa rokutou no uma ga shussou shimashita

わ (wa) counter

The Japanese counter わ (wa | 羽) is what’s being used to count birds. The strange thing about わ (wa) is that it is also used to count rabbits. You can definitely get away with using ひき (hiki), but わ (wa) is actually the correct way. The origins of this are unknown, but the most popular story is that in ancient times, monks were forbidden from eating land animals so they reclassified rabbits in order to be able to get away with eating them.

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
They captured four eagles in the forest.彼らは森の中で四羽のワシを捕獲しました。かれらはもりのなかでよんわのわしおほかくしました。karera wa mori no naka de yonwa no washi o hokaku shimashita.
I saw two chickens fighting.私は二羽の鶏が戦っているのを見ました。わたしはにわのにわとりがたたかっているのをみました。watashi wa niwa no niwatori ga tatakatte iru no o mimashita.

These are the main counters for animals that you will use. There are more odd exceptions when it comes to animals such as とう (tou) sometimes being used to count butterflies and the object counter ほん (hon) that’s being used to count for some species of fish, particularly long, thin fish, but if you stick to the broad categories of ひき (hiki) and とう (tou) you’ll be absolutely fine.

Japanese Counters for Time

Lastly, all the counters we’re going to look at in this section today are for time. These are very important and ones that you’ll no doubt be using on a daily basis.

びょう (byou), ふん (fun), じかん (jikan), and じ (ji) counters

Looking at basic units of time, we have びょう (byou | 秒) for seconds and ふん (fun | 分) for minutes. When counting hours じかん (jikan | 時間) is used to count for actual counting whereas じ (ji | 時) is used for telling the time.

For example, 11 じ (ji) is 11 o’clock. The Japanese counter for minutes ふん (fun) pronunciation varies depending on the number. Please see the table below for examples.

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One minute一分いっぷんippun
Two minutes二分にふんnifun
Three minutes三分さんぷんsanpun
Four minutes四分よんぷんyonpun
Five minutes五分ごふんgofun
Six minutes六分ろっぷんroppun
Seven minutes七分ななふんnanafun
Eight minutes八分はっぷんhappun
Nine minutes九分きゅうふんkyuufun
Ten minutes十分じゅっぷんjuppun

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
びょう (byou):

Just a few more seconds, please.


あと数秒お願いします。


あとすうびょうおねがいします。


ato suu byou onegaishimasu.
ふん (fun):

The sports game will start in ten minutes.


スポーツゲームは十分で始まります。


スポーツゲームはじゅっぷんではじまります。


supootsu gemu wa juupun de hajimarimasu.
じかん (jikan):

It took her two hours to get here.


彼女がここに着くのに二時間かかりました。


かのじょがここにつくのににじかんかかりました。


kanojo ga koko ni tsuku no ni nijikan kakarimashita.
じ (ji):

It's 5 p.m. already.


もう午後五時です。


もうごごごじ です。


mou gogo goji desu.

にち (nichi) counter

The Japanese counter for days is one of the most challenging because even though the kanji character for にち (nichi |日) is used when written, the pronunciation of the days is quite different. It starts off well enough with いちにち(ichinichi), sometimes ついたち (tsuitachi) when referring to the first day of the month), but then you have ふつか (futsuka), みっか (mikka), よっか (yokka), and so on.

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One一日いちにちichinichi
Two 二日ふつかfutsuka
Three三日みっかmikka
Four 四日よっかyokka
Five 五日いつかitsuka
Six六日むいかmuika
Seven 七日なのかnanoka
Eight 八日ようかyouka
Nine九日ここのかkokonoka
Ten 十日とおかtouka

Examples:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
There are five more days left before my birthday.私の誕生日まであと五日です。わたしのたんじょうびまであといっつかです。watashi wa ichi wanotori wo mimashita.
We'll have to pass the project on September fifth.9月5日にプロジェクトに合格する必要があります。くがついっつかにプロジェクトにごうかくするひつようがあります。kugatsu ittsuka ni purojekuto ni goukaku suru hitsuyou ga arimasu.

かげつ (kagetsu) counter

Months, on the other hand, are very straightforward. When counting months, you use the counter word かげつ (kagetsu | ヶ月). When referring to a specific month, がつ (gatsu | 月) is used; for example, January is いちがつ (ichigatsu). Finally, the counter for years is ねん(nen | 年).

Example:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
It only took me 3 months to learn Japanese.日本語を学ぶのにたった三ヶ月しかかかりませんでした。にほんごをまなぶたったさんかげつしかかかりませんでしたnihongo o manabu tatta sankagetsu shika kakarimasendeshita.

かい (kai) counter

One more that we’ll slot into the time category is the counter word かい (kai | 回). かい (kai) is used to count the number of times you’ve done a task. So いっかい (ikkai) for once, にかい (nikai) for twice, さんかい (sankai) for three times. It’s actually a very helpful counter and one that’s used very regularly.

There’s a second counter かい (kai | 階). But don’t get them mixed up because, while they’re both pronounced the same, they have different meanings and Kanji spellings. かい (kai | 回) again is used for frequency, while かい (kai | 階) is for the number of floors in a building.

For example:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
My room is located on the third floor.私の部屋は三階にあります。わたしのへやはさんかいにあります。watashi no heya wa sankai ni arimasu.

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
One一回いっかいikkai
Two 二回にかいnikai
Three三回さんかいsankai
Four 四回よんかいyonkai
Five 五回ごかいgokai
Six六回ろっかいrokkai
Seven 七回ななかいnanakai
Eight 八回はっかいhakkai
Nine九回きゅうかいkyuukai
Ten 十回じゅっかいjukkai

Example:

English KanjiHiraganaRomaji
I have to practice twenty times to master it.私はそれを習得するために二十回練習しなければなりません。 わたしはそれをしゅうとくするためににじゅうかいれんしゅうしなければ なりません。watashi wa sore o shuutoku suru tame ni nijuukai renshuu shinakereba narimasen.

Uncommon Japanese Counters

We’ve covered the most common Japanese counters, so now I’d like to share some examples of less common counter words that could come in handy in the future.

  • び (bi | 尾) – used to count for  fish and crustaceans
  • ひら (hira | 片/枚) – used to count small flat and thin objects
  • しずく (shizuku | 雫) – used to count for drops
  • もり (mori | 盛) – used to count a stack of food
  • ろう (ro | 浪) – used to count the number of years someone has studied to pass university or entrance tests

Learning Japanese Counters

In this article we’ve looked at counters in Japanese, focusing on common Japanese counters that are used in everyday speech. Even with these, it can sometimes seem like a lot to learn and impossible to remember all the counters. But as long as you memorize and practice, you’ll be counting anything and everything in no time!

がんばっ てください (Ganbatte kudasai)! ^^

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