Japanese Lesson – Classifiers & Counters

Hello Everyone,

In today’s lesson we are going to discuss about Japanese counter words (counters) and classifiers: what they are and how to use them. Let’s go!

Classifiers?

Classifiers: What’s that?

You have to understand that in Japan, like in some other countries, almost every object, fact or being enters into a class, a category, and that when counting instances of these objects, facts or beings, Japanese people refer to the corresponding number of elements of that category.

Well… not that clear at first sight. Let’s take an example.

In English, when you want 3 apples from a merchant, you simply say: “I want 3 apples, please.”

In Japanese, you cannot copy the same pattern. You have first to know that an apple is considered as a small round object 個 (こ) [ko], and to ask for “3 apples” you have to ask for “apples, 3 small and round objects”.

りんご 林檎[ ringo]/ apple /
[o]/ {object} /
さんこ三個[sanko]/ 3 small and round objects /
ください下ださい[kudasai]/ to give to me /
[.]/ . /

If you still a bit unclear, look at the following example: “1 glass of orange juice.”. A glass in Japanese is a category in itself, 杯 (はい,ぱい,ばい) [hai, pai or bai according to the figure that precedes] and to say “1 glass of orange juice.” you will say:

オレンジ ジュース オレンジジュース[ ORENJI JU~SU]/ orange juice /
[o]/ {object} /
いっぱい一杯[ippai]/ 1 glass /
[.]/ . /

I hope this is clearer now, but if it isn’t to not hesitate to ask for some clarifications.

Counters?

The notion of counters is more easy to get. Counters can be seen as some unit of measure, like meters, feet, gallons. For instance, to give your age, you will use the counter for years of age: 歳 (さい) [sai], like you use year(s) in English. “I am 23 years old.”:

さん じゅう さん 三十三[ san ju~ san]/ 23 /
さい[sai]/ years of age /
ですです[desu]/ to be /
[.]/ . /

Counters & Classifiers

Now, lets discover a few classifiers and counters.

人, the classifier for persons
何人 なん にん nan nini How many persons?
 一人 ひとり hitori 1 person
 二人 ふたり futari 2 persons
 三人 さんにん san nin 3 persons
 四人 よにん yonin 4 persons
 五人 ごにん go nin 5 persons
 六人 ろくにん roku nin 6 persons
 七人 しちにん shichi nin 7 persons
 八人  はちにん hachi nin 8 persons
 九人  きゅうにん kyu~ nin 9 persons
 十人  じゅうにん ju~ nin 10 persons
匹, the classifier for small animals, insects and demons
何匹 なんびき nanbiki How many small animals
一匹 いっぴき ippiki 1 small animal
二匹 に ひき ni hiki 2 small animals
三匹 さんびき sanbiki 3 small animals
四匹 よん ひき yon hiki 4 small animals
五匹 ご ひき go hiki 5 small animals
六匹 ろっぴき roppiki 6 small animals
七匹 なな ひき nana hiki 7 small animals
八匹 はっぴき happiki 8 small animals
九匹 きゅう ひき kyu~ hiki 9 small animals
十匹 じゅう ひき ju~ hiki 10 small animals
百匹 ひゃっぴき hyappiki 100 small animals
千匹 せんびき senbiki 1,000 small animals
万匹 まんびき manbiki 10,000 small animals
台, the classifier for manufactured objects (cars, dishwashers, bicycles…)
何台 なん だい nan dai How many manufactured objects
一台 いち だい ichi dai 1 manufactured object
二台 に だい ni dai 2 manufactured objects
三台 さん だい san dai 3 manufactured objects
回, the counter for occurences/number of times
何回 なん かい nan kai How many occurences/times?
一回 いっかい ikkai 1 occurence / once
二回 に かい ni kai 2 occurences / twice
三回 さん かい san kai 3 occurences / 3 times
四回 よん かい yon kai 4 occurences / 4 times
五回 ご かい go kai 5 occurences / 5 times
六回 ろっかい rokkai 6 occurences / 6 times
七回 なな かい nana kai 7 occurences / 7 times
八回 はっかい hakkai 8 occurences / 8 times
九回 きゅう かい kyu~ kai 9 occurences / 9 times
十回 じゅっかい jukkai 10 occurences / 10 times
百回 ひゃっかい hyakkai 100 occurences / 100 times
本, the classifier for long thin objects (bottles, rivers, pencil, necktie…) and also many other elements (telephone calls, points in sport…)
何本 なんぼん nanbon How many long and thin objects
一本 いっぽん ippon 1 long and thin object
二本 に ほん ni hon 2 long and thin objects
三本 さんぼん sanbon 3 long and thin objects
四本 よん ほん yon hon 4 long and thin objects
五本 ご ほん go hon 5 long and thin objects
六本 ろっぽん roppon 6 long and thin objects
七本 なな ほん nana hon 7 long and thin objects
八本 はっぽん happon 8 long and thin objects
九本 きゅう ほん kyu~ hon 9 long and thin objects
十本 じゅう ほん ju~ hon 10 long and thin objects
百本 ひゃっぽん hyappon 100 long and thin objects
千本 せんぼん senbon 1,000 long and thin objects
万本 まんぼん manbon 10,000 long and thin objects
枚, the classifier for flat objects (sheets of paper, photos, plates, clothes…)
何枚 なん まい nan mai How many flat objects
一枚 いち まい ichi mai 1 flat object
二枚 に まい ni mai 2 flat objects
三枚 さん まい san mai 3 flat objects

Some other counters we have encountered in our previous lessons:

Counter Unit Lesson
hours Refer to What time is it?
minutes
seconds
years Years
months Months
曜日 days of week Days of week
days of month Days of month
歳/才 years of age How old are you?

How many…?

As you may have noticed above, to ask about a number of objects, fact or being, just use the question word  何 (なん) [nan] / what / followed by the counter or classifier corresponding to the object, fact or being.

For instance:

なん にん 何人[ nan nin]/ how many persons /
ですです[desu]/ to be /
[ka]/ {question} /
[.]/ . /

/ How many persons are you? /

And what if I don’t know the counter/classifier for an object or being?

There may come some times when you do not know the classifier for an object or being, or where you may get lost between the different classifiers. Happily, there exists in Japanese a general purpose classifier, that can be used for every object or being: つ [tsu]. You may remember seing it in our lesson on numbers as it is being used when counting using Japanese numbers.

For instance if you don’t know the classifier glasses and you want 1 beer you will say:

ビール ビール[ BI~RU]/ beer /
[o]/ {object} /
ひとつ一つ[hitotsu]/ 1 /
ください下ださい[kudasai]/ to give to me /
[.]/ . /

Exercise

Translate the following sentences:

What is your age?
Answer
何歳ですか。
なん さい です か。
nan sai desu ka.

 

 

I am <your age>.
Answer
<your age>歳です。
<your age> さい です。
<your age> sai desu.

 

 

3 cats. (cat: 猫 ねこ neko)
Answer
猫を三匹。
ねこ を さんびき。
neko o sanbiki.

 

 

Here it is for today. I will provide you with a large list of counters in a future lesson. In the meantime you can have a look here (and you will understand why knowing about ・つ is a good thing ^^).

As always, do not hesitate to comment, like and share!

Stéphane

Links

When looking for a counter, you can refer to the following website which lists all the applicable counters and classifiers for many different items:

http://www.benricho.org/kazu/a.html

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