You can count on the tales behind number-kanji

by Mary Sisk Noguchi

When giving talks on Japan in elementary school classrooms in the United States, I chalk the kanji 一, 二, and 三 on the blackboard and ask the children to guess their meanings. “One, two, three!” they shout, easily intuiting three kanji introduced to Japanese schoolchildren in the first grade. Japanese students go on to master more than a dozen other kanji representing numerals — in addition to Arabic numerals — and they also learn to count high numbers in a way alien to their American counterparts.

Numeral kanji, like other Sino-Japanese characters, have undergone major modifications in shape since they were first created in China four millennia ago. Divergent theories on the origins of kanji for numbers often reference hand signals used for counting. 一 (ICHI, one) depicts a single extended forefinger; in 二 (NI, two), a middle finger appears below it. 三 (SAN, three) likely represents a thumb and the first two fingers: Japanese and Chinese have traditionally begun with the thumb when counting from one to five, and they still do so today.

Because 一, 二 and 三 can easily be altered with a stroke or two by unscrupulous people, more graphically complex “formal numbers” (大字, daiji, big/letters) are used on financial and legal documents. Look for 壱 (ICHI, one) on the front of ¥10,000 bills (壱万円, ichimanen, one/10,000/yen) and 弐 (NI, two) on ¥2,000 bills (弐千円, nisenen, two/1,000/yen). 参 (SAN, three), with three hairlike strokes at the bottom, is the formal form of 三.

四 (SHI / yon, four), originally written with four parallel lines, is an approximation of the four fingers of a fist held palm-side down. 五 (GO, five) pictures the spool that replaced the five fingers for winding yarn. 六 (ROKU, six), a variation of a kanji meaning “roof,” was pronounced the same way as a multistroked character meaning “clenched fist” — an old way of showing six — and thus was used as an easier-to-write substitute.

七 (SHICHI / nana, seven) resembles a bent finger under a fist, which signaled seven in ancient China, and 八 (HACHI, eight) pictures the three middle fingers folded with thumb and little finger extended. The gesture symbolized the numeral 8 long before it was popularized as the “shaka” sign used today as a greeting among Hawaiians and surfers.

九 (KYŪ / KU, nine) depicts a bent elbow, used in ancient times to indicate nine when only one arm was free. The precursor of 十 ( / , 10) was 拾, comprised of an abbreviated “hand” (手) and “join together” (合) (i.e., 10 fingers on two hands joined together). Today, 拾 is used as the formal character for 十, and it also means “to pick up” (hirou).

In modern Japan, a thumbs-up gesture signifies “good,” but in ancient China it indicated “100.” 百 (HYAKU, 100) comprises 一 (“one”) and 白, which now means “white” but once pictured an upturned “thumbnail” (the bit sticking out the top represents a filed point).

千 (SEN, 1,000) comprises “person” (人) and “one” (一): The body symbolized 1,000 in ancient China. 万 (MAN, 10,000) may be a variant of the ancient Buddhist swastika, and its formal character, 萬, derives from a pictograph of a scorpion, swarms of which likely tormented this character’s creators. 万 also has the related meaning of “countless” (e.g., 万歳, banzai, countless/years, “Hurrah!” or “Long live [somebody/something]!”).

Japanese counts higher numbers in units of 10,000, as opposed to 1,000s, as in the West (e.g., 30,000 is “three 10,000s [sanman],” not “30 1,000s”). There is no kanji for “million”: 1,000,000 is “100 10,000s (hyakuman).” 億 (OKU, 100 million) and 兆 (CHŌ, a trillion) round out general-use kanji for high numbers.

At the other end of the spectrum, 零 (REI, zero) features rain (雨) at the top (i.e., the rain is practically nonexistent). The Arabic numeral 0 (pronounced “zeh-roh” in Japanese) often appears in lieu of 零 in a series of numeral-kanji and can also be “maru” (“circle”) when individual digits of a number are read in order (e.g., 502, “go-maru-ni”).

The Japanese counting system can be daunting to Westerners, but there is nothing like earning your paychecks in yen to inspire you to fully master it.


Write the following Arabic numerals in kanji. (Pronunciations are provided in romaji).

a. 22
b. 433
c. 509
d. 1,945
e. 2,010
f. 77,000
g. 880,000
h. 421,839
i. 1,200,000
j. 47,000,000
k. 390,000,000
l. 4,000,000,000,000

a. 二十二 (nijūni)
b. 四百三十三 (yonhyakusanjūsan)
c. 五百九 (gohyakukyū)
d. 千九百四十五 (senkyūhyakuyonjūgo)
e. 二千十 (nisenjū)
f. 七万七千 (nanamannanasen)
g. 八十八万 (hachijūhachiman)
h. 四十二万千八百三十九 (yonjūnimansenhappyakusanjūkyū)
i. 百二十万 (hyakunijūman)
j. 四千七百万 (yonsennanahyakuman)
k. 三億九千万 (sanokukyūsenman)
l. 四兆 (yonchō)

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