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Instructions on Counting to 20 in Japanese

Updated on September 22, 2014
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Learning to count in Japanese is one of the hardest parts of the language for somebody who has just started learning Japanese. There's simply so many different pronunciations, writings and counting systems which change a lot depending on the context.

First of all, let me introduce you the numbers from one to ten with their most common readings. For instance, these pronunciations would be used by children when counting strokes in a kanji or let's say all red-colored cars passing by.

They go as follows:


one
two
three
four
five
six
seven
eight
nine
ten
ichi
ni
san
yon
go
roku
nana
hachi
kyuu
jyuu

Numbers from 11 to 20

Luckily, unlike in most European languages, here comes an easier part.

When simply counting numbers, to pronounce two digit numbers all you have to do is spell out each digit forming it. Therefore "11" is literally "ten-one" and "19" would be pronounced as "ten-nine". "20" isn't a big surprise either whereas mostly it's pronounced "two-ten".

eleven
twelve
thirteen
/.../
seventeen
eighteen
nineteen
twenty
jyuuichi
jyuuni
jyuusan
/.../
jyuunana
jyuuhachi
jyuukyuu
nijyuu
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When it really gets complicated

The odds are that after practicing a day or two everything presented in the two tables is memorized quite easily. But the tricky part is putting this newly acquired skill to use. We quickly discover that in most situations it's quite hard to find the right thing to say. For example number two could be pronounced as "ichi" or "hito" (and sometimes turns into "tsui" as in first day of the month - "tsuitachi")

The original, Japanese pronunciation is "hito" and we find it different compounds such as "one person" which is "hito-ri". Ri is called a counter and it's something mostly found in East Asian languages. In English we could compare it to words such as kg or meters, with one exception - in English we can omit the counters and still be understood, but in Japanese you always have to use a counter. The most common and most easily used counter is "-tsu" or "-ko". Tsu and ko are used for inanimate (small) objects which don't have fixed counter word or it is acceptable to use it if the person counting does not know the appropriate word. Therefore, children and foreigners can always use "tsu" or "ko" counter. From one two ten "tsu" is more common. There are words after ten with "tsu" counter but they are so rare and so seldom used, better not to memorize them yet. Instead, use "ko" counter which is rather used for numbers from 11 to 20.

Let's compare the numbers with "tsu" an "ko" counting systems and for comparison let's add also the counting words for people and flat objects. The counter word for people is great to show off the varying nature of Japanese numerals where different pronunciation systems are used all together, seemingly without any rules. The counter word for thin, flat objects "mai", used to count clothes, sheets of paper, photos etc.

 
Common reading
Generic tsu counting
Generic ko counting
Counting people
Counting flat, thin objects
1
ichi
hitotsu
ikko
hitori
ichimai
2
ni
futatsu
niko
futari
nimai
3
san
mittsu
sanko
sannin
sanmai
4
yon
yottsu
yonko
yonin
yonmai
5
go
itsutsu
goko
gonin
gomai
6
roku
muttsu
rokko
rokunin
rokumai
7
nana
nanatsu
nanako
shichinin / nananin
nanamai
8
hachi
yattsu
hakko
hachinin
hachimai
9
kyuu
kokonotsu
kyuuko
kyuunin
kyuumai
10
jyuu
tou (too)
jyukko
jyuunin
jyuumai
11
jyuuichi
 
jyuuikko
jyuuichinin
jyuuichimai
12
jyuuni
 
jyuuniko
jyuuninin
jyuunimai
13
jyuusan
 
jyuusanko
jyuusannin
jyuusanmai
14
jyuuyon
 
jyuuyonko
jyuuyonin
jyuuyonmai
15
jyuugo
 
jyuugoko
jyuugonin
jyuugomai
16
jyuuroku
 
jyuurokko
jyuurokunin
jyuurokumai
17
jyuunana
 
jyuunanako
jyuushichinin / jyuunananin
jyuunanamai
18
jyuuhachi
 
jyuuhakko
jyuuhachinin
jyuuhachimai
19
jyuukyuu
 
jyuukyuuko
jyuukyuunin
jyuukyuumai
20
nijyuu
 
nijyukko
nijyuunin
nijyuumai

As you can see, in reality the counting systems have evolved and changed. There is no more one single system which would use only native Japanese pronunciations (because "ichi" and "ni" are more easily pronounced and understood as their native "hito" and "futa" counterparts) but also there is no one system with only Chinese pronunciations as the Japanese have preferred to keep some native versions as "yon" instead of "shi" which has lots of synonyms, including "death". For the same reasons "nana" is more used than "shichi". On the other hand, "shichi" is still often encountered as in some combinations it's easier to pronounce than "nana".

Although the myriad of counters might be frightening to begin with, don't worry. Once you have mastered the four basic counting systems, the rest come quite easily. You'll start getting this hunch whether it's better to use the Chinese or Japanese reading and you'll see that most of them follow quite similar pattern.

So my final word would be that after all, it's not so complicated, but simply different. Although it's true that a journey of 10 000 miles starts with two steps, but those two steps are most important and the hardest. After the first ones, the remaining are quite easy. Don't forget, that's the best part about Japanese. If you work hard the first two years, you can be conversing already in your third year. There's not so many languages which let you advance so fast in the beginning.

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    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 4 years ago

      thanks for the hub on learning how to count to twenty

      i believe in order to learn a new language that you

      have to first start with the basics

      Voted up

    • profile image

      VivaLaVina 4 years ago

      Oh dear, this hub reminds me to study my Japanese again. I took lesson once, and then had a few Japanese friends to converse with; but after that, I somehow lost contact with the language. I'm still able to understand, but when it comes to speaking it, well... it's a little problem now. haha.. great hub!

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