Alright, so here’s the scoop on numbers and counting in Japanese. This is part one where we’ll go over counting from one to ten, including zero.
For most purposes, “normal” Arabic numerals are used pretty much everywhere. Whether its refering to times, or prices, or well, pretty much everything. The Japanese have adopted the “western” use of Arabic numbers and that makes things really easy for us tourists.
There are still some places that will throw the “old” or proper Japanese numbers at you. I find the most likely place this happens is at restaurants on the menus. Either on paper menus (see the photo above) or on signs on the wall. Why is this?
My theory is that its a way to discourage foreign types (like you and me) from the business. I know, that sounds mean, but its a fact on the ground in Japan. So what do you do about it?
You learn how to read Japanese numbers so you know what you’re looking at. Lets get started.
The first three number kanji are really, really, really easy to remember what they mean. Just count the strokes and that’s it. Observe:
一 - 1 – one – ichi (ee-chee) NOT “itchy”
二 - 2 – two – ni (knee)
三 - 3 – three – san (sahn) think “gone” and NOT “sand”
Those really are that simple. Take note of the pronunciation. One thing that really drives me nuts after spending so much time learning Japanese is bad pronunciation. There’s trying, and then there’s not trying. Make sure you pronounce one as “ee-chee” and not “itchy”. If I have to hear “itchy ban” one more time…. grrrr. Moving on! The rest aren’t quite so simple, but they’re really not difficult.
四 - 4 – yon (yoan) note that this can sometimes be pronounced “shi” (shee) but not often, as that’s also the pronunciation for death 死 and the “bad luck” thing is real.
五 - 5 – go (go) yep, pronounced just like “go”
六 - 6 – roku (roh-koo)
七 - 7 – nana (nah-nah) OR shichi (shee-chee) depending on context. (They’ll be able to figure it out if you get it wrong, don’t worry. They’ll be glad you tried.)
八 - 8 – hachi (hah-chee)
九 - 9 – kyuu or ku (basically “Q” or “koo) – again, context but don’t worry too much about nailing it.
十 - 10 – juu (“jew”) sometimes its a long “ew” and sometimes short. Again, depends, but it could go either way.
And there’s the kanji for 1-10. Pretty simple, right? But we forgot one.
〇 - 0 – zero (zay-row) – the ONLY place you’ll see this is where native Japanese numbers are in play. And its exactly what you think it is. Zero. Sometimes (but not often) it’ll be called “oh” but “zay-row” is the way its done.
OK,. so if we look at our menu image above, we can see these numbers all over the place. BUT, they’re all vertically written. There’s another piece of context, and we will talk about context as it relates to Japanese in plenty more articles, but it can be written either way…
If we zoom in on this section for example, we see these numbers below the menu items (and I’m going from right-to-left here, as you do with vertically written Japanese):
四一〇円 - 410円 or 410 yen. The 円 is one of two ways to write “yen” or ¥ (and the menu item is “tomato slices” トマトスライス)
四〇〇円 - 400円 or 400 yen. And I’ll be honest I cannot make out the writing there. its Japanese something.
The next two are types of Kimchi but the smaller characters are too blurry. BUT the numbers are as follows:
四五〇円 - 450円 or 450 yen
六〇〇円 - 600円 or 600 yen
One thing to notice, and it’ll stand out like a sore thumb once we get to the next article on counting (hundreds and thousands) is that it is NOT listed as (i.e.) “six-hundred” yen. That would be written as:
but rather each digit is spelled out separately. so its six-zero-zero. HOWEVER, if you were to speak this out loud, you would pronounce it “roppyaku-en” which is “roku” (six) smashed together with “hyaku” (hundred counter) so its easier to pronouce… Yes, it can be confusing.
Don’t ask me why that is. I don’t know. Maybe someone who does can explain in the comments.
But there you have it, a brief lesson in numbers in Japanese from one to ten.
Like I said, the only places you will probably see this is on restaurant/food menus and probably within temple/shrines where prices are listed. In my experience its rare to find it anywhere else. But, if you do find it elsewhere, now you know what it is and can read it!
Hope that helps get you started! You will be counting in Japanese in no time flat!