Japan is great...as long as you don't have to count anything...ever...
It's going to be a nice day today-actually, the whole weekend is looking great. It's going to be sunny with daytime highs around 20C or 21C. Then we'll get some rain on Tuesday and the mercury will plummet-Wed and Thu will see highs of around 14C or 15C. That's almost as cold as Canada is right now! I better dig out my turtleneck...
Japanese may have a lot of insanity to it, and one of the most insane parts for students of Japanese is the counter words. In English we have some counter words too (like an “ear” of corn or a “pair” of pants), but Japanese has counter words for everything: small animals, big animals, flat objects, machinery, and so, so much more.
Here are my 5 worst counters in Japan...maybe reading this will make them clearer, or maybe it will just make everything worse.
So let’s get to it! Starting off with…
#5. Why are these the same? “Hai”（杯）
One of the first counter words that I learned was hai. It’s used to count glasses of drinks and can be very useful for when you want to scream “another round of drinks!” (mō ippai!).
But then later I went on to find out that hai is also used to count… cephalopods. Yup, if you’re counting octopus, squids, or anything else that’s slimy, lives in the ocean, and has a bunch of tentacles, chances are it’s counted the same way as you would count glasses of drinks.
▼ Yes… I can, uh, totally see the resemblance there.
But hai isn’t the only counter that seems normal at first then bites you in the butt later. Take tō for example. It’s used to count big animals like cows, horses and whatnot.
“Great,” you think, “that makes sense.” Until you find out that it’s also used to count… butterflies. No other insects or small/medium-sized animals. Just… butterflies.
Oh and the counter wa, used to count birds, hey guess what… also used to count rabbits.
▼ Can you see the similarities?
#4. The one-legged weirdo “soku” （足）
Maybe this one is just me, but when I first learned the counter soku (“a pair of socks/shoes”), I just couldn’t make it click. It’s mostly because the kanji used for soku (足) means “leg/foot.” So when you put ichi (“one”) and soku (“foot”) together as issoku, it feels like it should mean “a sock/shoe for one foot,” not two.
In English we also have the awkward saying “a pair of pants,” even though no one in their right mind would ever wear a single “pant.” But if we changed it to “a leg of pants/socks” like in Japanese, then I think a lot of English-learners would imagine it only referred to a single pant/sock.
So which language is worse? Japanese that makes it feel like you only have half as many shoes as necessary, or English that makes it feel like you have twice as many pants?
Personally, I have no idea. I’m confused right now as it is.
#3. Oddly specific “zen” （膳）
So far we’ve seen counters for drinks (and cephalopods), big animals (and butterflies), birds (and bunnies), and even pairs of footwear. How much more specific could these counter words get?
A lot more specific, as it turns out. I have a non-Japanese friend who used to work at a Japanese grocery store, and when she sold sushi to customers she had to ask how many pairs of chopsticks they wanted. She used the generic counter when asking “how many” they wanted, until she was informed by her boss one day that chopsticks have their own special counter word: zen.
And the specific counter words don’t end there. There’s kin （斤）to count loaves of bread, kan （貫）to count nigiri sushi, kon （献）to count shots of a drink, and if you want to dig real deep, there’s fude （筆）which is used to count the number of times you write/draw something on a piece of paper without removing your brush/pencil.
#2. Flat and broad “mai” （枚）
Mai is another counter word that students learn early on that can be surprisingly confusing. It’s usually used to count flat, thin objects like pieces of paper and photographs.
Okay, that’s no problem… but then it’s also used to count plates. I mean I guess that makes sense… but wait, it’s also used to count shirts.
I mean there’s different counters for chopsticks, bread, and octopuses/drinks… but they couldn’t have a different counter for plates or clothes?
“But wait!” you might say. “Having so many things fall under the one mai umbrella makes it easier. You can count paper, shirts, mirrors and boards all with the same word.”
If only that were so. Don’t forget, you count mirrors, board games, screens, masks, walls, tennis courts and more with men （面） instead.
So is a Macbook thin enough to be a mai? Or is it a men because of the screen? Or it is a dai because it’s a machine? Eh screw it, just break out the generic tsu!
Oh. And then there’s chō （丁 and its alternative 挺）, which basically just counts random things: Tofu, sumo matches, guns, candles, ink, shamisen, tools, servings, rickshaws, barrels of sake and soy sauce… oh and scissors and violins too.
And the #1 most confusing Japanese counter word is…
1. Cylindrical insanity “hon” （本）
Okay, so you tell me if this makes any sense:
Hon is the counter for long cylindrical things, but it uses the kanji for book/origin （本） for some reason.
The counter for books is satsu （冊）which is completely different and has nothing to do with hon.
Anyway, so hon is used to count long cylindrical things, you know, like pencils, bottles, guitars (?) rivers (??), roads (???), and train tracks (Huh?!).
It’s also used to count other cylindrical things like home runs (!), articles on websites (!!), phone calls (!!!), and games in a match – but not the rounds themselves, those are counted with kai （回） of course.
Oh and ties, like the ones you wear around your neck? Yup, those aren’t counted with the flat-counter mai used for shirts and stuff. Nope, they use hon instead.
And that’s not even getting into the mess that happens when hon is actually paired with numbers and starts changing sounds all over the place. One hon is ippon, three hon is sanbon, six and eight hon are roppon and happon, and a thousand hon is senbon. Of course, hon isn’t alone in these phonetic changes, but it really does feel like the icing on the confusing cake.
So there you have it, the top five most confusing counter words in Japanese...
Have a great day!