Question regarding Japanese counters

After a visit to Tofugu I became completely overwhelmed by the number of counters that exist in Japanese. They’re listing 350 counters as being between absolutely necessary to know to less common and used. But, the real number is actually 500 counters!

After scrolling down the list, I kind of noticed something: many counters are actually just the nouns converted to a counter. For example, to count institutions you use the kanji for institution, 院, to count songs, you’ll use the kanji for song, 曲, for counting stones, use the kanji stone, 石.

Not all counters seem to follow that pattern, BUT, they did seem to be a not insignificant number of them.

Those of you who’ve gotten a bit further with your Japanese learning, can anyone confirm that it really is that simple, that when in doubt, you might be able to guess the counter to use, since it’s likely the noun of the thing you want to count!

It would certainly make it easier to understand how there can be 500 counters, making them ridiculously narrow in their span of objects that they can count.

Source: 350 Japanese Counters Grouped by How Useful They Are

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Not necessarily. The counter for books, for example is 冊, not 本. 本 is the counter for long cylindrical objects.
If you’re not sure what to use, it’s probably best to stick to 一つ、二つ, etc.


Yeah, most things you’re ever going to count will fall into the “Absolutely Must-Know Counters” group and the “Must-Know Counters” group. If in doubt, stick with つ or 個.

How many times were you planning on counting institutions?


Unless something falls into the very most basic counter word categories, you can almost always safely use つ or 個, as mentioned above. Especially if you are speaking, and not writing.

You will still be understood if you use those with the basic categories too, but those will feel a bit more unnatural.

For example, ひき, for small animals, is one that would sound unnatural if you replaced it with つ, but you’d be understood. It’s a must-know in that sense. The counter for institutions is not one.


Thanks for all those answers.

I do realize that the must-know counters つ or 個 are the ones to keep track on and fall back on in a conversation. But, just the fact that there are so many counters, begs the question of how Japanese people make use of them all? Surely, they both recognize and make use of them, or they wouldn’t exist?

I was hoping of finding some kind of pattern in how ordinary Japanese words, are in fact doubling up in roles of counters.

It did seem to be the case, though there was also the matter of using the correct reading for a kanji. But, maybe I’m just hoping for a miracle to make Japanese simpler than it is! :sweat_smile:

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There are usually historical reasons for counters to be used, like the fact that 一斤 for one loaf of bread comes for the historical weight of a loaf of bread (斤 used to be a unit of weight), or how 柱 is the counter for gods because… they are on top of pillars? I don’t remember that one actually but meh. So no pattern for you, sadly.

At the end of the day, people have exposure to all those counters because they are surrounded by them 24/7. They will be more familiar with those that they use regularly and use つ and 個 when in doubt, like everyone.


It comes from the association of trees being a host of spirits, IIRC.


Oh, that would make sense, since that counter can also be used to count ghosts or spirits.

Also, OP, half unrelated, but I just had the realization that English has weird counters too, in the form of collective nouns. Good luck guessing a school of fish, an army of frogs and a murder of crows.


it might help to recognize the ways that english has similar patterns. for example, 一斤: one loaf of bread. in english, “loaf” is the counter. we don’t use “loaf” for anything else, really – we have an entire word that exists to measure bread.


also cats

one loaf of cat

If anyone was curious how to say “catloaf” in Japanese, see this article.


You’ve got me thinking now. Two planes of glass would be a counter too.

this makes me wonder if japanese also has jokes based on humorous (mis)use of counters, like the phrase “loaf of cat” in english, or referring to a group of web servers as a “herd”, and so on


I guess the big question becomes how to remember the most common ones, to make my Japanese sound more natural. To get the feel for these counters.

Sounds like more reading is needed - to see the counters in action - perhaps. :thinking:

Any good tips on how you people learned them? Or, do you even use them or just default to つ and 個?

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I studied the basic ones (つ、個、ひき、日、etc.) when I was first starting, and then I’ve picked up a few other ones as I’ve experienced more Japanese. For example I learned the 冊 counter before it came up in WK because of a “How many?” lesson where the kids kept using it to reply instead of using English. And I picked up 杯 from trying to work through Japanese recipes in the manual that came with my convection oven. So I guess just learn the ones that become relevant to the material you want to work with?


That actually sounds doable. Because lists like the one on tofugu scares me! :sweat_smile: I have a hard time to make information like that stick. I think I’ll follow your example and try out some Japanese cooking instead! ^^ Perhaps, the other counters will simply become part of my Japanese diet as I continue reading it.


Yeah I can’t really learn these kinds of things from lists either :joy: And Japanese cooking has been really fun! I would highly recommend it to anyone just trying to work through language used in measurements and instructions (also you get to eat stuff at the end, which is a plus).


Nah, English counter words are more like “ten head of cattle”, “six pieces of paper”, “forty-two pairs of pants”.


Though the words for groups of animals are legitimately weird, even if it’s a different concept.


Whenever animals gather in groups, they are formally called:

Apes: a shrewdness.
Badgers: a cete.
Bats: a colony, cloud or camp.
Bears: a sloth or sleuth.
Bees: a swarm.
Buffalo: a gang or obstinacy.
Camels: a caravan.
Cats: a clowder or glaring; Kittens: a litter or kindle; Wild cats: a destruction

(source: google: english words for animals in groups)

“Wild cats: a destruction”. I had no idea about this being a thing in English. It completely went under my radar. :joy:

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Many of them are just a novelty, and aren’t actually used much except to draw attention to the strangeness of them. But others are more common.