Before we learn how to count people we must learn to use counters. Counting quantity in Japanese is different from English because we use counters. Technically speaking there are three different types of counters.
General counters can be used on any noun, except for people and animals. They are used for items that don't have their own counter, their counter is rarely used, or the speaker doesn't remember the counter for the noun they are trying to count.
1 - hitotsu (一つ)
2 - futatsu (二つ)
3 - mittsu (三つ)
4 - yottsu (四つ)
5 - itsutsu (五つ)
6 - muttsu (六つ)
7 - nanatsu (七つ)
8 - yattsu (八つ)
9 - kokonotsu (九つ)
10 - too (十)
The counter 10 is often misspelt as tou, this is incorrect.
8 pens = pen ga yattsu (ペンが八つ)
All other items have a different counter depending on the item, shape or form. Another type of counter is the ones that are not used alone as words themselves, instead are only used with a number to count items. From the perspective of an English speaker, it's similar to saying 3 bunches, 2 strokes, 8 scoops.
Finally we have counters that don't change the pronunciation of the number. These counters are words that can be used alone. From the perspective of an English speaker, these counters are similar to 3 hands, 1 toe, 7 doorknobs.
It is also becoming more and more common to see the Arabic numbers before つ Instead of the kanji to show the number.
One thing that you may find a little difficult, is adding a number to a counter is not very straight forward. There are different rules for each counter. The number that you place in front of it may change its pronunciation.
First we will look at the counter ko (個). This counter can be used for a wide variety of small and compact objects. It is usually used if there isn't another counter for objects like it and it is used for general items.
1 item = ikko (一個)
2 items = niko (二個)
3 items = sanko (三個)
4 items = yonko (四個)
5 items = goko (五個)
6 items = rokko (六個)
7 items = nanako (七個)
8 items = hakko (八個)
9 items = kyuuko (九個)
10 items = jukko (十個)
● It's also common to see the numbers written in Arabic numbers.
Nin (人) is the counter that is used for people. People can't be counted with the other set of numbers, they require the proper counter.
1 person = hitori (一人)
2 people = futari (二人)
3 people = sannin (三人)
4 people = yonin (四人)
5 people = gonin (五人)
6 people = rokunin (六人)
7 people = shichinin (七人)
8 people = hachinin (八人)
9 people = kyuunin (九人)
10 people = juunin (十人)
● The formal way to count people is useing the counter mei (名).
Hiki (匹) is the counter that is used for small animals. It can be used for insects, cats, dogs, fish and other small animals. This counter is not used on birds.
1 animal = ippiki (一匹)
2 animals = nihiki (二匹)
3 animals = sanbiki (三匹)
4 animals = yonhiki (四匹)
5 animals = gohiki (五匹)
6 animals = roppiki (六匹)
7 animals = shichihiki (七匹)
8 animals = happiki (八匹)
9 animals = kyuuhiki (九匹)
10 animals = juppiki (十匹)
● Tou (頭) is the counter for large animals and wa (羽) is the counter for birds.
There are many counters to learn so we will cover more counters and their pronunciations in other lessons.
List of counters
Below is a list of counters in alphabetical order.
bai (倍) - multiples, duplication
ban (番) - numbers, performances, rounds
bin (便) - public transport runs or flights
bu (部) - copies, scriptures, sets of books
bun (文) - sentences
byou (秒) - seconds
chou (挺) - long objects, guns, guitars, candles
chou (丁) - tools, scissors, pistols
chou (町) - town blocks
dai (代) - generations, periods, reigns
dai (台) - vehicles, appliances, devices
dan (段) - steps, levels, containers
do (度) - occurrences, degrees(temp) or angle
fun (分) - minutes
go (語) - words, languages
haku (泊) - nights of a stay
hai (杯) - cups, bowlful, spoonfuls, crabs
hai (敗) - defeats, losses
hiki (匹) - small animals
hin (品) - parts of meal, courses
ho (歩) - number of (foot)steps
hon (本) - long thin objects, rivers, roads, tracks, pencils
hyou (票) - votes
ji (時) - hours of the day
ji (字) - letters, kanji, kana
jikan (時間) - hour long periods
ka (課) - lessons
ka (架) - frames, folding screens
kai (階) - floors, stories
kai (回) - number of times, occurrences
ki (機) - plains , aircraft
ki (基) - machines, elevators, graves, dams
ko (戸)- houses, households
ko (個) - general articles, hats, goods, small items
ku (区)- city districts
kumi (組) - pairs, twins
mai (枚) - thin flat objects, paper, plates
men (面) - flat surfaces, mirrors, boards, courts
mon (問) - questions
nin (人) - people, more than 3 people
ninmae (人前) - servings of food
ryou (両) - rail cars
satsu (冊) - books, magazines
soku (足) - pairs of footwear, socks
teki (滴) - drops of small liquid
tou (頭) - large animals (horse, cow, whales)
tsuu (通) - mail, letters, cards
tsuuwa (通話) - telephone calls
wa (羽) - birds, rabbits
ya (夜) - evenings