Learning to Count in Japanese, the Hard Way


In my last post, I mentioned a great comedy show in Japanese called めちゃ×2イケてるッ! (mecha mecha iketeru). This is a sketch comedy show that has remained popular over the years. Another popular sketch they did was to pretend to be bōsōzoku (暴走族), which are biker gangs in Japan. Bosozoku in Japan are known for their outrageous hair-styles and rough nature. Like biker gangs in the US, sometimes they’re related to organized crime though.

But also like bikers in the US, the image of bosozoku kind of brings a sense of nostalgia to people, so rock groups and comedy skits will sometimes dress up like them. In this sketch the characters often say yoroshiku. The phrase “yoroshiku” is often in used in Japanese when you meet someone. Like dōzo yoroshiku or more politely yoroshiku onegaishimasu literally means “please be kind to me”, but really it’s just the same as saying “nice to meet you” in English. So, when they introduce themselves at the beginning, that’s why they say “yoroshiku”.

In this episode, the guest is a well-known baseplayer who also played in the US, Shinjō Tsuyoshi.

Anyhow, there are two three reasons why I wanted to post this video. First, it’s pretty funny. 🙂 Second, it’s a good example of the “bosozoku” image in popular culture, and third, it’s a good example of counting in Japanese!

In this sketch, around 5:47, they play a kind of counting game. Let me explain.

Each person says an object, person, or anything that can be counted. The first person counts “one” of that object, then they say a different object (or the same one). The next person counts “two” of that object, and then says something else. And so it goes, one, two, three, etc. However, in Japanese,1 when you count you also have to use counting words. So, one book is issatsu (一冊) where satsu (冊) is just a counter word for books and such. One tree is ippon (一本) where hon (本) is a counter for long objects (bottles, trees, etc).

What makes this game so interesting is that each person has to correctly count the word the previous guy said, including the correct counting word. Some of them can be a little obscure, by the way, or it’s not always 100% clear what the right counting word is. If they get it wrong, the loser has to fight the “rival” sumo gang.2

So, in the first game above, the counting went:

Object English Count English
デート (deeto) A date 一回 (ikkai) One time
彼女 (kanojo) Girlfriend 二人 (futari) Two girlfriends
映画 (eiga) Movie 三本 (sanbon) Three movies
スターウォーズ Star Wars エピソード4 (Episōdo fo) Four episodes (?)
Repeat for 5 and 6
スターバックス Starbucks 七件 (nanaken) Seven buildings
スターバックス Starbucks 八件 (hakken) Eight buildings
マクドナルド McDonalds 九件 (kyūken) Nine buildings
マスク A mask 十枚 (jūmai) Ten masks
For 11 and 12, repeat for McDonald’s

Oops, after this, the game ends because someone guessed wrong and had to go fight the rival sumo gang. 🙂

In the second round, most of the objects are baseball teams so the counting word is chiimu (チーム), then people (人). The counting word for people is extra tricky because one person is hitori, two people is futari, but after that it’s always number + nin. Okamura tries to be sneaky and at 30 says gorubachofu shokichō (ゴルバチョフ書記長), which means General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. But even though it’s very long, Gorbachev still a person, so you have count him using 人.

In a different episode, there’s a Christmas-theme where they have things like:

  • Santa Claus – counted as a person (人)
  • Christmas Tree – counted with 本 (hon, bon, pon)
  • Christmas Song – counted with 曲 (kyoku) because it’s a song.
  • Reindeer – counted with 頭 (tō) because it’s a large, hoofed animal.
  • Christmas Song – counted with 夜 (ya) because it’s a night (get it? Christmas Night)

Anyhow, great show, great game. I always enjoy watching.

P.S. More information on counting in Japanese.

1 Counting words are also found in Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese. Possibly other languages, I’m not sure.

2 Usually they lose of course, expect one time the guest was a famous yokozuna sumo wrestler. I think it was Konishiki, I can’t remember. Anyhow, it was funny to see the tables turned for one. 😉


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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