Language | WELL SAID

Figuring out how to count objects in Japanese? There are numerous ways

by Akemi Tanahashi and Hitomi Tashiro

Contributing Writers

Kōhī futatsu to kōcha hitotsu, sorekara tomato pasuta o mittsu onegaishimasu. Two coffees, one tea and three tomato pastas, please.

 

Situation 1: Ms. Gray is ordering for her friends at a cafe.

グレイ: コーヒー2つと紅茶1つ、それからトマトパスタを3つお願いします。

ウェイトレス: かしこまりました。

Gurei: Kōhī futatsu to kōcha hitotsu, sorekara tomato-pasuta o mittsu onegaishimasu.

Ueitoresu: Kashikomarimashita.

Gray: Two coffees, one tea and three tomato pastas, please.

Waitress: Understood.

There are lots of different ways to count things in Japanese, it just depends on what you’re counting. For example, the suffix ~人 (~にん) is used when counting people (though one person and two people are pronounced ひとり and ふたり, respectively). ~本 (~ほん) is used for slender and cylindrical things, and ~台 (~だい) is used for large objects, like cars.

When you don’t know which counter is correct, use the standard Japanese counting system from one to nine, which ends in a “つ”: 一つ (ひとつ, one), 二つ (ふたつ, two), 三つ (みっつ, three), 四つ (よっつ, four), 五つ (いつつ, five), 六つ (むっつ, six), 七つ (ななつ, seven), 八つ (やっつ, eight) and 九つ (ここのつ, nine). This system is used in particular for small objects like apples, eggs and short, round cups. It also tends to be used in restaurants instead of the technically correct ~杯 (~はい) for glasses or ~個 (~こ) for some food.

~つ is used in informal conversation to count age and age differences: 息子(むすこ)は五つになり、娘(むすめ)は二つ下(した)の三歳(さんさい)です。 (My son is now five years old and daughter is three, two years younger than him.)

It is also used to count abstract matters, such as 原因 (げんいん, causes), 可能性 (かのうせい, possibilities) or 問題 (もんだい, problems): この事故(じこ)には二つの原因があった。 (There were two causes of this accident.)

Situation 2: Mr. Sere and his girlfriend, Yuri, are preparing dinner at his apartment.

ゆり: ねえ、今、うちに野菜はどのくらいある?

セレ: ええと、じゃがいも3個とたまねぎ2個、にんじん1本、あと、ナスとトマトが1個ずつある。

Yuri: Nee, ima, uchi ni yasai wa dono kurai aru?

Sere: Eeto, jagaimo san-ko to tamanegi ni-ko, ninjin ippon, ato, nasu to tomato ga ikko zutsu aru.

Yuri: Hey, how many vegetables are there now?

Sere: Well, three potatoes, two onions, one carrot, one eggplant and one tomato.

In addition to the “つ” structure, X個 is used to count small objects such as ボール (balls) or キャンディ (candies). X個 is not used to count age or abstract things, but is often used to count differences in age in casual conversation:

兄(あに)は私(わたし)より2個(にこ)上(うえ)だ。 (My elder brother is two years old than me.)

Bonus Dialogue: Continued from Situation 2.

ゆり: 冷凍庫(れいとうこ)に肉(にく)があるね。うーん、そうしたら今晩(こんばん)はカレーかシチューか肉じゃがだなあ。この三つの中(なか)でどれが食(た)べたい?

セレ: そうだなあ。今日(きょう)はカレーがいいかな。ゆりは?

ゆり: 私もカレーがいいな。カレーにしよう。

セレ: でも、問題が一つある。うちにはカレーのルーがないんだ。

ゆり: 大丈夫(だいじょうぶ)。前(まえ)にスパイスをいろいろ買(か)ったでしょ? それを使(つか)えば本格的(ほんかくてき)なカレーができるよ。

セレ: あ、それはすごい。インド料理店(りょうりてん)のカレーみたいなのができるね。

ゆり: うん。さっそくネットでレシピを検索(けんさく)しよう。

セレ: じゃ、ぼくはご飯(はん)の準備(じゅんび)をするよ。

ゆり: ほんとに私たちって、食べることについては熱心(ねっしん)ね。

Yuri: There’s meat in the freezer, right? Hmm, we can eat curry, stew or nikujaga (simmered meat, potatoes and onion in a sweetened soy sauce). Out of these three, what do you want to eat?

Sere: I see. Curry would be good tonight. How about you, Yuri?

Yuri: I think curry is good, too. Let’s do curry.

Sere: But, there’s one problem. There’s no curry roux.

Yuri: That’s OK. We bought a bunch of spices earlier, right? If we use them, we can cook an authentic curry.

Sere: Oh, that’s great. We can cook a curry just like the ones at an Indian restaurant.

Yuri: Yeah. I’ll search for a recipe online right away.

Sere: Well then, I’ll prepare the rice.

Yuri: When it comes to eating, we really get enthusiastic!