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: 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”.
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:
I hope this is clearer now, but if it isn’t to not hesitate to ask for some clarifications.
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.”:
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?|
|三人||さんにん||san nin||3 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:
|侍||hours||Refer to What time is it?|
|曜日||days of week||Days of week|
|日||days of month||Days of month|
|歳/才||years of age||How old are you?|
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.
/ 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:
Translate the following sentences:
なん さい です か。
nan sai desu ka.
<your age> さい です。
<your age> sai desu.
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!
When looking for a counter, you can refer to the following website which lists all the applicable counters and classifiers for many different items: