5 Ways Japanese Numbers Deliver A Mountain Of Pain

Numbers are supposed to be easy. They are the building blocks of most language and are used in every facet of life regardless of who you are or what you do. You learn them right from the start, and get near unlimited practice. So why, with such a commonly used part of the language, do you have trouble coming up with a number or understanding a number you hear.

Well…

5 Ways Japanese Numbers Deliver A Mountain Of Pain

5. Counters

100 objects, 100 different endings you have to add to the numbers depending on what you are counting. There is a top 10 list of most common counters, there are the “generic counters” for 1-10, and many counters are reused with “related” objects. But there is a lot to remember.

4. Counters have pronunciation variation based on number

Counters are annoying enough, but then for each counter you will have multiple pronunciations depending on which number it ends in.

3. 1-9999 underprepares you

5 Ways Japanese Numbers Deliver A Mountain Of Pain 2

Counting itself sounds fairly simple. They are just numbers after all, and when you start, it works exactly as you expect. Then you get to 10,000 and everything changes. This becomes a standard unit, as opposed to the way that English counts in units of 1,000.

That said, the 10,000 unit by itself doesn’t present that much madness when it’s between 10,000 and 99,999. It’s when you start counting the higher numbers in units of 10,000.

It starts looking like this:

Number: English expression vs. Japanese expression

100,000: 100 units of 1,000 vs. 10 units of 10,000
1,000,000: 1,000 units of 1,000 vs. 100 units of 10,000
10,000,000: 10,000 units of 1,000 vs. 1,000 units of 10,000

This pattern of count continues all the way up in every set of 3.

2. Money will throw you off

Getting a natural feel for money in Japanese yen, without converting it internally to your own currency, takes time. Before that, you are shifting numbers in your head. Once you finally figure out that something costs 100 units of 10,000, you then internalize the exchange rate depending on your country, and how much it costs in a way that has meaning to you. The reverse happens when you want to say how much something costs but you only know its cost in your home country’s currency.

1. Americans suffer the most

5 Ways Japanese Numbers Deliver A Mountain Of Pain 3

Everyone has to convert money for a while. But Americans have to deal with a bigger issue: the metric system. Now you can blame this being all America’s fault (which it completely is), but a system of measurement is ingrained in your head and the only way to get used to a new system is by using it a lot.

The culprits that will hit you hardest are:

Weight
Height
Temperature

The rest of the world can laugh at this problem.

Relax, you’ll get it.

Numbers will irritate you, but the more you hear them and the more you use them, the quicker your brain can deal with them. What takes a few to several seconds of thinking now will eventually be reduced to the same time as your own language. Some of these require more effort than others, but you will get it.

You can count (ouch) on it….



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Adam

Adam

Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese. On a quest to become 日本語王 (king of the Japanese language).

Comments

5 Ways Japanese Numbers Deliver A Mountain Of Pain — 32 Comments

  1. 5+4 (Counters and variations) These points are so true. Counters are probably one of the trickiest parts of Japanese relative to other languages. At least there is some logic to some of the counters, i.e. they use familiar kanji and readings, but I have encountered no other languages that work like this.

    3. (10000) This one realize screws with me. I had no idea how attached I was to thinking in sets of 1000. At least the rest of the number ordering is pretty straight forward and they use normal decimal digits for most figures met in daily life.

    2. (Money) This made me think about Europe before the Euro. The number of currencies we had to juggle was out of control. A lot easier now, but some of it still remains. Personally I operate with 5 currencies. It gets easier after number 2 :)

    1. (Metric) So true. This was a crazy challenge when I lived in the US. I still have no idea exactly how much an ounce is… neither of them :)
    Imagine the relief when I started studying Japanese and realized that they were fully metric.

    • I’m American and even I don’t really know ounces. We should convert to metric, but too bad that’s basically impossible. All the signs would have to change, and people would just try to use Imperial regardless.

      • I have actually noticed some signs that you guys are slowly beginning to transition. I see far more metric references in US media than 20 years ago and the scientific community also seems to be ahead of everyone else.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up where the British currently are in the near future. I believe that they are officially metric, but because this is a relatively recent change, there are still lots of imperial measurements used. Stones seem particularly popular, and are very confusing if you were not born on the British Isles :)

        • Your comment about British unique measurements also made me realize that I forgot to include some of the Japan unique ways of measuring. Like measuring a room in real estate based on tatami mats (despite not actually having tatami mats).

    • One way I’ve found of dealing with large numbers is to visualise the comma after every 4th digit, then you essentially count the commas to find out what number you need to say.

      • That’s pretty smart. This is actually how I deal with large western numbers already, so it would be easy to apply with 4 instead of 3.

  2. The number and variety of Counters is amazing. Just yesterday I found out there’s even a counter for Deities: 柱[はしら] (supposedly it can also be used to count pillars, in which case it’s read as ちゅう, but then again in media I’ve only ever seen the generic counter used for them)

  3. Ha, I imported a J-E deck from the shared decks server a while back that consists entirely of counters. It’s pretty crazy. I’m gonna see if I can find the link in case anyone wants to check it out.

  4. I was almost tempted to make an Anki listening deck of all numbers up to 1億, but that wouldn’t be very wise. It just sucks when the news mentions some figures and statistics and my brain literally lags for like two and a half seconds. When it gets to the sports section, my brain just totally crashes and I don’t understand anything anymore. If only there is a more systematic way to get used to this. I don’t want to hear that someone was born in 1948 and not get an idea of when that was anymore.

    • What’s helped me a ton with Japanese numbers is to just force myself to think of the Japanese pronunciation for every number I encounter in my daily life. I’m still slow, but definitely making progress from this.

    • What worked for me is to get used to hearing numbers in certain contexts. For example its easy to get used to prices at stores and then the totals of your purchases. Then move on to bigger things like jewelry, cars and houses. Eventually you just get used to how much 550万 is vs 3500万 without thinking and you get exposed to short-hand such as 3.5千万.

      The final hurdle for me is things like populations and extremely large financial sums. I have an idea of how much 1億 is but its still hard for me to contemplate the value of big companies without doing the mental math to convert it all the way back to USD.

      • Oh goodness, finance world numbers are way beyond my means of comprehension.

        Strangely enough though, I can do better with numbers written as 550万円 rather than written out as 5000000円. Seeing all those zeroes makes it hard for me to computer a number.

        But hey, it’s a good way to look at my bank account. If I can’t read the number anymore, then that means I have lots of money, right? :P

        • And then in finance sometimes they’ll throw you off even further by occasionally adding 0s instead of using the next measurement like they should. You get something like 50000万ドル. When I did finance translation I hated with this. I know, just add 4 zeros. But visually annoying.

      • Mike makes an excellent point that you just kind of get amounts based on life. You don’t need to count your way up from the beginning.

        Once you start getting a feel for how much a car costs, a house, a yearly salary (average worker vs. rich person),etc., you start to base future numbers using those internally as reference.

        So if someone told you that it’ll cost 五千万円, you would use that buying a house costs that, so you’d instantly visualize the feel for that price.

        • I agree, but I have this feeling that it only works for money. When the news talks about population for example, you still won’t get an idea of how many people 53千万人 is. You need to convert that inside your head like this: 53, 000, 0000 -> 530,000,000. Then you’ll get an idea of how many people that is.

          I guess you’ll just have to get used to numbers for all situations that matter to you. There are very few available resources about this topic. It’s such an important aspect of Japanese too, so it’s all the more frustrating.

  5. British people have the same amount of problems with height and weight! And distance! I have problems sometimes communicating with family in Britain now because I have become so used to using the metric system (after living in Japan for the past 8 years) that I honestly have no idea how tall I am in feet, and I don’t know how heavy I am in stone either.

    I also have problems with numbers that go higher than millions in Japanese… anything over 100万 is just “a lot” to me, haha. You’d think I would be have more of an idea of that given that as a translator I encounter really large numbers pretty much everyday, but nope. I think numbers are an area where doing some rote learning would actually be pretty helpful. I never officially learnt the pronunciation of dates either, so I always find myself hesitating before saying the 4th, the 8th or the 20th (and checking that I understood right when people use them in conversation!)

    At least counters and their pronunciation you can learn through exposure! After a while you can generally use the right one naturally, as long as you’re listening to/reading enough Japanese.

    • If it makes you feel any better, everyone has trouble with the dates. You learn them, remember them, and then when you have to say one of the odd date numbers you pause and wonder if you said it right.

      • My inner monologue every. single. time.
        “The fourth is よっか right, yeah that’s right. It’s the 8th that is ようか. Oh but did I actually put enough inflection on it for them to understand? I am pretty sure I did, but what if they think I don’t know the difference between the two and are confused anyway? Why did I not just say 金曜日?!”

        • Yup. That’s me too. Plus add in “I’d better just say 4 on its own to make sure that it’s got across, and then hold up 4 fingers too just to make sure! Then point to a calendar!”

      • Haha, it does a bit, I just feel that I should be able to just say dates confidently by now!! I’m pretty sure if I just sat down and made a special anki deck for it I would have no more problems with them, I’m just too lazy to do that. Maybe after another 10 years of immersion I’ll finally have it down!

  6. I really like reading your blog, but recently I’ve seen a few posts such as this one and the “Japanese is Never Confusing” post which just seem to put down the language. Though I’m sure it’s not the intention, the negativity is hard to look past, especially because some people might take your sarcasm and joking seriously. While things like numbering are interesting, titling your article with “mountain of pain” doesn’t make it any easier for anyone.

    • I also sometimes feel that way. However, I think they start a discussion. Personally, I feel good when he makes these because it covers/brings to light:
      1. Problems that I have faced. (A sort of “yeah” I faced that as a beginner. That was a tough one to conquer. I’ll try to write my solution in the comments).
      2. Problems that I am facing. (I am not alone! So it IS normal that I facing problems with numbers? Phew! So let me ask/lurk in comments.)
      3. Problems that I might potentially face, and possible solutions.

      I get it that it might be a bit discouraging to some, but these things are facts. I agree with your view on “mountain of pain” part, but then again, if years of surfing cracked has taught me anything, it’s that to take every title with a grain of salt.

    • Although I am not a fan of the negativity of the title either, I really loved the article itself as it touched upon some of the same issues I have been going through. I also think it sparked some really interesting discussions.

    • I didn’t see them as negative, but as introducing some challenging things. I never put down the language, but I enjoy introducing some of the more difficult aspects as everyone faces them, and it is better to be prepared for them together. The mentality of this site is challenges, and overcoming those challenges is a good thing. The title was just meant to be catchy.

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