Language | BILINGUAL

Counting the ways to talk about numbers in Japanese

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

I have begun to see myself as a speaker of a nascent dialect that deserves further study by linguistic scholars. This is the patois of long-term foreign residents of Japan, who, despite being native English speakers (as in my case), drop certain Japanese words into their conversations to make exchanges more comprehensible.

One example is when I discuss large Japanese numbers, whose counting system does not correspond well with English.

I give you this: “He paid me back the first four man (¥40,000) but still owes me 12 man (¥120,000).” Or, “If you pay more than 10 man (¥100,000) for a yuwakashi-ki (gas heater), you’re getting overcharged.”

(A warning to new learners: If you stay here long enough, you will probably also start speaking this way.)

Speaking of numbers, one of the delights of the Japanese language is the word play that goes on with numerics. Take the word 億ション (okushon), which the dictionary defines as a “luxury apartment.”

The first time I heard okushon, around 1985, I thought the speaker meant オークション (ōkushon, an auction). Fortunately, as a way of explanation, she added それは一億円以上で売れるマンション (Sore wa ichi-oku-en ijō de ureru manshon, That’s an apartment selling for more than ¥100 million).

The thinking behind okushon goes, if ordinary manshon (from “mansion”) are sold in multiples of 万 (man, 10,000) or 千万 (senman, 10 million), then a more costly residence can be referred to using the next counting unit, which is 億 (oku, 100 million). And thus what began as somebody’s clever play on words became established in the language.

One of several Japanese words for “number” is 番号 (bangō). In everyday speech, for instance, we regularly use words like 電話番号 (denwa bangō, telephone number) and 口座番号(kōza bangō, bank account number).

When separated, both ban and are applied as suffixes for numbers, but their usage differs.

Take 一番 (ichiban, No. 1), which may be among the first Japanese words foreign learners pick up, along with さようなら (sayōnara, goodbye) and 酒 (sake, alcohol). Many people are familiar with these words without ever having set foot in Japan.

Both 一番 (ichiban) and 一号 (ichigō) mean No. 1, but only the former is used as a modifier when referring to superlatives, e.g., 一番美味しい (ichiban oishii, the tastiest).

In general, when the suffix ban is attached to numbers, it tends to be used for hierarchies. , on the other hand, is more likely to be used for names or numbers in a series. For instance, someone giving directions might tell us 二番目の角で右へ曲がる (Niban-me no kado de migi e magaru, Turn right at the second corner).

typically works when used for classification, like 国道20号 (Kokudō Nijū-gō, National Highway No. 20) or 813号室 (happyaku jū-san gōshitsu, room 813). If you’re talking to an operator at a hotel 交換台 (kōkandai, switchboard), be sure to clearly enunciate the long vowel in or it will sound like you’re requesting room 8135 instead of 813.

also identifies numbers in a series, such as for a specific date of a publication. For instance, この記事はジャパンタイムズ10月16日の号に掲載されました (Kono kiji wa Japan Taimuzu jūgatsu jūroku-nichi no gō ni keisai saremashita, This article appeared in the Oct. 16 edition of The Japan Times). A newspaper’s extra edition is called a 号外 (gōgai), whereas a special edition is a 特号 (tokugō).

Both ban and appear in words unrelated to numbers. It appears that the root meaning of 番 (ban) was used for times or turns. In olden times, ban referred to guards, especially those who worked in shifts, hence 交番所 (kōbansho), shortened to交番 (kōban) and meaning a police substation. Another common usage is 電話当番 (denwa tōban, the employee assigned to answer the phone).

With , you’ll also find numerous words related to sounding off with loud noises. Newspapers described tennis pro Naomi Osaka’s first reaction to winning last month’s U.S. Open Grand Slam as 号泣 (gōkyu, to bawl or blubber). Another word is 怒号 (dogō, an angry roar). There’s also 号砲 (gōhō; a signal fired from a cannon, usually to announce the hour).

A third word related to numbers is 数 (kazu or ), such as in 数多く (kazu ōku, many). Unlike ban and , it also has a verb form, which is 数える (kazoeru, to count). You’ll typically find it in compound words like ローマ数字 (Rōma sūji, Roman numerals), 過半数 (kahansū, a number exceeding half, i.e., a majority) and 少数民族 (shōsū minzoku, a minority group). The words 奇数 (kisū, odd numbers), 偶数 (gūsū, even numbers) and 周波数 (shūhasū, the number of cycles, i.e., frequency) appear to be transliterations from Western languages.

When counting people, the word 人数 (ninzū, number of people) can be used in most cases, but it’s also common to hear 名 (mei, name) as a polite classifier. The greeter at a restaurant will usually ask you 何名さまでしょうか (Nan-mei-sama deshō ka; What is the number of honorable guests?), to which you might humbly reply, 五人です (Go-nin desu), and then he or she will confirm using the honorific form, はい、わかりました、じゃ、五名さまですね (Hai, wakarimashita, ja, go-mei-sama desu ne; Understood, it’s a party of five people).

English borrowings have also slipped in, in such terms as ラッキー・ナンバー (rakkii nanbā; lucky number, as when winning the lottery). Every vehicle on the road is required to have a ナンバー・プレート (nanbā purēto, number or license plate). And more recently, the bureaucrats have created a new system called マイ・ナンバー (Mai Nanbā, My Number), an ID number assigned to all citizens and foreign residents used for the national pension system, taxation and other purposes.