Counting System of Japan

The Japanese share a counting system with Korea and China. This native Chinese counting system can take some getting used to, especially high numbers. Translating numbers in your head normally involves some quick, abstract thinking about the concept of what it means to count. The explanation here is conceptual and based on the semantics and orthography of the language, not on the various counters that Japanese uses, e.g., ‘one, two, three..” uses different words that ‘one piece of paper, two pieces…” and again different from “one bottle’s ‘one’” or “one airplane” or “#1.” It can get quite complicated and learning all of the right words related to numbers and counters is something that you will learn as part of a systematic and organized Japanese learning method, as laid out for you in the “Learn Japanese” section of TenColors. Ganbatte yo, minnasan, Rome wasn’t built in a day!!


“♪One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever see…♪”  True enough in this case, as the Sino-Japanese character for one is a simple, lonely horizontal line.  Easy to remember, so we’re off to a good start!

Two is a no-brainer!  Just note that the top line is shorter than the bottom one.

Again, three lines, easy.  Just notice that it is a short one on top, then a shorter one, then the long one on the bottom.

It might help to remember this one as a square, with a square having four angles, then just mark off the two top angles inside.

You’re on your own here, accept to notice that there are 5 lines for the number 5.  But be careful, ‘cause that is only 4 strokes, according to the Chinese stroke count for writing characters.

Hmm..6, let’s leave it at that.  Luckily Japanese love Western numbers and more commonly use “6” for these lower numbers anyhow.

7!  ‘Nough said.

8 is great, just two lines.

9, also very similar to the Chinese character for power or strength (力).

Ten, as in “ten people ten colors,” from where this site gets its distinguished name.  Ever notice that 十人十色 looks like TATE?  ..Just something to ponder.

十一,十二、十三 …
So now we can start to think about the conceptual differences between the way the Japanese (and the Chinese and Koreans, for that matter) think about numbers and counting, compared to Westerners.  Notice that every number is simple 10&1, 10&2, 10&3, and so on, with no exceptions.  There is no change after twelve for example.  So the term “teenager” in Japan would be meaningless, as referring to someone who is 13 years old or older.  You would have to say jyudai no hito, “a person who is in their 10’s.”  Ooooh, cool, interesting*

二十、二十一、二十二 … 三十
Here are the numbers for 20, 21, 22 … 30.  See how it works?  It’s just 2&10, 2&10&1, 2&10&2 … 3&10.  Easy!

This is the character for 100.  Notice that it is not 1&0&0, but rather has it’s own counter.

Again, 1,000 has it’s own counter in Japanese, not a combination of 1 and 0’s like in our system.

Now it gets weirder.  10,000 is not 10 one-thousands, like we think of it in the West.  It is a separate unit, and it is commonly used.  A 10,000 yen note or a “one man note” is the highest bill in Japanese currency.  People talk about many things in this way, salary, restaurant checks, etc.  For foreigners in Japan, this is one of the first conceptual differences that they need to adjust to quickly.  Often before a newcomer in Japan can even speak Japanese, he is talking to people about “how many man (万) he or she makes as a salary” or “how many man their new car cost them.”

百万 / 100万
Thus, every number above ten-thousand is now conceptually different in the Chinese counting system from it’s Western counter part.  In the same way that 10,000 of something is not as special of a number to us as 1 million is (since we have a new counter at 1,000,000), for the Japanese, the number “1 million” is simply “100 ten thousands” in their minds.

Therefore, “10 million” is “1,000 man” or “1,000 ten thousand units.”

The next unique counter in Japanese is an “oku” or “one hundred million” in Western number speak.

So, “1 oku,” “2 oku,” etc.  Notice that this tends to commonly be written with the Western-style “1,” as opposed to the less commonly used “一,” as in “一億” (one oku).

The last one you need is “cho,” which is “one hundred billion” and is used the same way “oku” is (one cho, two cho, 3兆, etc.).

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