Numbers in Japanese
Numbers in Japanese are generally not difficult to understand. The method for defining a numeric value is quite regular and easy to interpret once you gain a rudimentary understanding of basic terminology. Here is a list of some common numeric values. At a minimum, you will want to memorize the numbers one through ten. Once you know those, the other numbers are easy to identify.
Romaji is a westernized spelling of Japanese words that makes the language readable to people speaking the various western romantic languages. The spellings were initiated with Portuguese influence in the mid-sixteenth through early seventeen centuries (but have since evolved a bit from the original system). Kanji is the ancient Japanese (and Chinese) character for the number.
You will notice that larger numbers (above ten) are often just a string of the numbers one through ten. For example, twenty-one is composed of Ni – Ju – Ichi – or two tens and a one.
There are several different counting methodologies in Japan and you may find different wording used for the same numerical value. Sometimes the number one is referred to as “Sho”. This is not often used to count, but this number is used in some numerical sequences (see below).
When the Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system they melded their native counting system with the Chinese system. The Chinese word for the number 4 sounds much like “Shi”. However, “Shi” also means “death” in Japanese, so the older counting system words of “Yon” and “Nana” are often substituted when using the numbers four and seven. This varies greatly and both counting systems are commonly used.
When counting you might use the sequence Ichi, Ni, San… That is good for a general abstract counting exercise. But counting objects, events, and other things is a complex endeavor. Counting pencils is different than counting erasers which is yet again different from counting days. We won’t go into all the perhaps hundreds of ways you can count different things. It is usually not relevant to our instruction, but you should be aware that counting things is different than listing numbers in sequence. If you see something like “Nihon” instead of “Ni”, it is an example of counting and not a numerical listing.
You will encounter numeric sequences quite often. Generally, these involve combining a number with a term. For example, Ikkyu, meaning first level, or Shodan meaning first (or sometimes first degree). The latter is often used to count versions of something (for example, versions of a Kata) or to indicate a black belt ranking.
Here are some common numerical sequences:
You may notice that “Ik” (found in Ikkyu) is not listed among the numbers in the first section above. That is because the sequence containing Ikkyu is not providing a numerical sequence. It is counting levels. This is an example of a unique counting sequence. The “dan” sequence is as well, but it just happens to be a bit more regular. People who have not yet reached black belt status will have a rank from the right columns. A lower number here means a higher ranking. Black belt rankings are represented on the left, where a higher number represents a higher ranking. Students begin in Tensoku Ryu as a Kyukyu and work to earn their (Yellow Belt) Hachikyu ranking.
You will most frequently encounter these sequences when doing Kata or performing other exercises that have numeric versions. So, for example, the five versions of the Pinan Kata (learned later) are, in order: Pinan Shodan, Pinan Nidan, and Pinan Sandan, Pinan Yondan, and Pinan Godan (again, this is a counting sequence instead of simply using “Pinan Ichi”).
Once again, you should not assume that counting items means simply adding “dan” to the end of each number. Counting, especially when it involves counting things, can be very complex in Japanese. For example, there are separate and different counting systems for counting people, cylindrical objects, books, buildings, locations, papers, ages, small animals, and drops of water (and many, many more). Each of these object types utilizes a different counting system and there are no simple rules for deciding which counting system is appropriate.