Whether you’re going to Japan, or just your local sushi-ya, you’re bound to use numbers. Let’s look at some of the ways to count in Japanese, and write Japanese numbers in kanji.
BonusDownload a free cheatsheet that will help you master math in Japanese.
Arabic numerals, which we are used to in the Western world (0, 1, 2, 3, ...), can very often be seen in Japanese texts. However, each number also has its own kanji, which is used mostly when written vertically, in formal writings, and in some other, specific situations.
Numbers higher than 10 are composed of several characters. Numbers between tens are composed not unlike Roman numerals. For example, to write 12, one would simply combine 十 and 二 to form 十二 (think “ten and two”).
Multiples of ten in Japanese, however, work differently from the Roman system. To write the number 20, for example, all one has to do is swap the two characters from the previous example to form 二十 (think “two lots of ten”). The number 21 is written 二十一, 22 is 二十二, and so on.
This pattern is very simple and doesn’t change even for large numbers (e.g., 三千七百十三, 3,713). However, such numbers become increasingly difficult to read when written in kanji (ex. 九百八十五万六千四百九十七, 9,856,497) and and you’ll usually see them written in Arabic numerals or as a combination of numerals and kanji (９万３千, 93,000).
As you may have noticed already, large numbers are grouped by 10,000, not by 1,000 as is common in western countries. In other words, numbers are organized as 1,0000; 1,0000,0000; 10^12; 10^16 and so on.
The number zero can be written in three different ways: Arabic numeral 0, kanji character 零, and in some cases, as 〇. For example, depending on the situation, 2009 can be written as ２００９, 二〇〇九, or 二千九.
Whichever way it is written, it is read either as れい or as ゼロ. Sometimes, 0 may also be read as まる (which means circle and is the de facto reading of the character 〇), similarly to how we spell this number as letter o in addresses, phone & room numbers.
By the way, if you’d like to learn how to do all kinds of mathematical operations with the numbers you’ve just learned, our post on math in Japanese will get you covered!
Counting in Japanese
In Japanese, depending on what you are going to count, you have to add a special counter word after the number. This is very similar to how you say “one loaf of bread” or “one slice of bread” in English. The Japanese equivalents would be パン一斤 (いっきん, “bread one-loaf”) and パン一枚 (いちまい, “bread one-flat piece”).
Native speakers use over a dozen different counters in day-to-day life, many of which we’ve compiled in our list of Japanese counters. Luckily, if you don’t know the right counter yourself, you can still get along just fine using what is called the ‘universal counter.’
The universal counter つ is so called because it can be theoretically used to count anything. In fact, these are not true counters, but rather traditional numerals, based on how Japanese counted before the arrival of the Chinese writing system.
These traditional numerals (the ‘universal counters’) only exist for numbers between 1 and 10. If you need to count more than ten items for which you don’t know the correct counter, you just use regular numbers which you’ve learned above.
Unlucky numbers in Japan
Numbers can offend and comfort around the world, but people in Japan being especially superstitious to this day, knowing Japanese unlucky numbers is even more important.
The two main unlucky numbers in Japan are 4 and 9 due to the way that they can be pronounced. The 音読み of 4 is し which is a homophone for the word death, 死. Equally, the reading for 9 is く, which is a homophone for the word 苦, which means pain, anguish or suffering.
You will find many instances in Japan where these numbers do not appear such as airline seats or hospital ward numbers. Also, gifts are given in denominations of three or five, never four.
If you’re interested, Greg wrote a lot more about Japanese lucky and unlucky numbers in a separate blog post.