How to use Japanese Counters

This blog entry will take on one of the more neglected topics of Japanese language. And by “neglected”, I don’t mean that it is not covered at all in text books, what I mean is that the coverage given in textbooks tends to lack structure and be generally inadequate for advanced learning.

For example: you might know to count the floors of a building with the counter-suffix 階 (かい). So 1階, 2階, 3階, 4階 and so on. That’s fine and dandy if you only ever had to write the words. But we need to be able to pronounce them too, right? If you’re really thorough with your studies or have a teacher that has covered their bases well, you’ll know that these are read: いっかい にかい さんがい よんかい.

But why? Why does 1 become いっ here but keep its original form ( いち) in 1年 (いちねん)? And why do the counters get voiced in 3階 (さんがい) and 3千 (さんぜん) but don’t in 3回 (さんかい) and 3線 (さんせん)? This article hopes to answer some of these questions.

The three main pronunciation constructs

There are exceptions which I will get to in a minute, but basically there are three core patterns for the pronunciation of numbers. Here they are:

So first there’s a basic pattern that you’re probably familiar with. But before S and T sounds (= さしすせそたちつてと, NOT including their voiced Z/D counterparts), the “default” readings for 1 and 10 change to abbreviated forms. For K and H sounds (かきくけこはひふへほ, again, excluding voiced/aspirated counterparts G/B/P) the readings for 1, 6, 10 and 100 change. The purported reason for these changes is that they make words easier to pronounce. Whether or not they actually do, I’m not so sure. But that’s the way things are. So now, lets look at cases where these 3 core patterns don’t hold up.


1. The じ sound. (and also the counters 年 and 人)

The counters starting with this sound include 時 and 次 and their derivatives (時間, 時限, 次元, etc.), and also these two counters 年 (ねん) and 人 (にん). These counters follow the Basic pattern, with the following exceptions:

  • 4: よ
  • 7: しち
  • 9: く

Note that this exception does not apply to じゃ, じゅ, or じょ sounds (examples: 重, 条, 畳).

Also,  しち and く are considered optional for 年 and 人; ななねん/きゅうねん and ななにん/きゅうにん are also acceptable.

2. The “CH” sounds.

These include ち, ちょ, ちゃ, and ちゅ (though I can’t think of any counters that start with ち or  ちゅ off the top of my head). The CH sound falls within the S/T pattern (remember that ち is a T-line character), but instead of receiving はち for 8, they typically get はっ. This happens to avoid having two “CH” sounds too close together.

  • 8丁、8兆、8町: はっちょう
  • 8着: はっちゃく

3. S counters that take はっ (8).

  • 8歳(はっさい)
  • 8千(はっせん)
  • 8席(はっせき) (the counter for meetings)

S-line counters are in most cases OK with either はち or はっ, it just depends on the speaker’s preference. The 3 listed above definitely tend toward はっ though.

4. Counters that take ひと/ふた

Some counters in Japanese take the native Japanese number stems for numbers 1, 2 and/or 3. Two you might already know are 1人(ひとり) and 2人(ふたり). Here are some others:

  • 1束: ひとたば (one bundle of things)
  • 1房: ひとふさ (one bunch of things, eg. bananas/grapes)
  • 1箱: ひとはこ ふたはこ (one box of thing)
  • 1粒: ひとつぶ ふたつぶ (one small, round thing)
  • 1皿: ひとさら ふたさら みさら (plates of food)
  • 1文字: ひともじ (one character/letter)

Note that Hi-Fu-Mi readings ONLY apply to 1, 2, and 3. They do not come up again after 10. So 11人 is じゅういちにん, not じゅうひとり.

5. S/K Counters that (are supposed to) get voiced after 3 and 何

  • 3千/何千: さんぜん、なんぜん
  • 3間/何間: さんげん、なんげん
  • 3階/何階: さんがい、なんがい

Other counters that are supposed to get voiced include: 足 (そく) (pairs of shoes, socks), and 軒 (けん) (buildings/houses), and also 斤, 貫, 尺 and 寸. But honestly the only ones I ever actually hear voiced are the three listed above. And of those, even native speakers don’t always voice 階 where they’re supposed to.

6. Katakana words take いち

Katakana words will generally take いち instead of いっ, regardless of what sound they start with (1キロ=いちきろ). However, if they start with a P sound, they can optionally take the いっ form. So 1ページ can become いっぺーじ.

What to do with H-line counters

Now for the really fun part: how to use the H-line counters (including ふ)! Here’s the magic chart:

So 分 (ふん), the counter for minutes, becomes いっぷん にふん さんぷん よんぷん ごふん ろっぷん and so on. In the chart, 8 is shown in gray because it’s only used for the most common counters. 8分 can be pronounced as either はちふん or はっぷん . 本(ほん) and 匹(ひき) sound perfectly natural with a P here too (はっぽん, はっぴき).  Other less commonly used H-line counters tend to sound more natural as はち+H, but a lot of it depends on the speaker’s preference.

The other thing you need to be aware of with H-line counters is that a select few become B with 3 and cannot change to P with 4. Notice how I’ve made a subsection to show this on the chart.

The counters that become B for 3 remain H for 4 are:

  • 本(ほん): long objects  – さんぼん, よんほん
  • 匹(ひき): animals – さんびき, よんひき
  • 杯(はい) bowls/mugs – さんばい, よんはい
  • 票(ひょう): ballots/votes. - さんびょう, よんひょう

Final Notes

How to pronounce counting words is an aspect of Japanese that doesn’t always have a clear line between right and wrong. In particular, less common counter suffixes used with higher numbers have more gray area. There’s also variation between individuals and I would also imagine between regions and dialects. The priority for learners is to grasp the basic patterns and the main exceptions, and then just always keep your ears open.

If this post was interesting or useful for you, please check out Nihonshock’s Japanese Cheat Sheet Pack! All this pronunciation information, along with lists of the most common counters and tons more information is available on the Numbers and Time sheet. :-)

Posted under Language & Study by Nihonshock.

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