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Is it possible, without any context, to tell whether 一二三 means "one, two, three" or "one hundred twenty-three"?

In English, this kind of ambiguity would be removed by adding spaces between each digit: "1 2 3".

Is this even an issue in Japanese?

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Just to add an example: 「徳川家康が江戸に幕府を開いた一六〇三年から、徳川慶喜が大政奉還を行なった一八六七年までの二六五年間の時代。」 「例えば、最初の十一けたは『さー安心得んと国元去った(三・**一四一五九二六五三五**)』というように、侍が全国の旅に出るという物語に仕立て上げた。」「[…]何度も‌​数えてみる//一二三四五」 –  blutorange Mar 24 at 18:05
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OP clearly says "without any context". –  l'électeur Mar 24 at 22:05
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Proof by counterexample. There exists a context for each interpretation. –  blutorange Mar 25 at 7:09

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Numbers written with Arabic numerals are usually positional. The place value of each digit depends on its position in the sequence:

1b2 + 2b1 + 3b0 = 123

Numbers written with kanji are typically non-positional. Although they usually appear in the same order, rather than use position alone to indicate their place value, they're generally combined with characters like 百 or 万, while zeroes are left unwritten. (Some numerals, like 十, 百, and 千 can appear as numbers without being preceded by 一.) So, as Tokyo Nagoya says, one hundred and twenty three would be written:

百二十三

This is interpreted as:

100 + 2×10 + 3 = 123

However, this is only typically true. There are a number of situations in which kanji are used as a positional numeral system. For example, you might find a receipt that says 一二三円, meaning "one hundred and twenty three yen". Or you might find a reference to page one hundred and twenty three in the index of a book written with kanji:

  Picture of index from a 漢和辞典 illustrating 一二三 meaning 123

In other contexts, the kanji 一二三 might be used to write the name 一二三{ひふみ}.

The truth is, you'll have to use your common sense to figure out what 一二三 means in a particular context. Is it a name, a listing like "one, two, three", or a number like "one hundred and twenty three"? Without context, it's impossible to say for sure—even if we can make a reasonable guess.

Let's talk about English for a moment. If I asked you what the word bear meant, you might think I was referring to a type of animal. But without context, you'd have no idea whether I was asking about the noun or the verb—and there's no way to pick one meaning or the other, even if a particular meaning is more likely or comes to mind first. In short, context is required.

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When the numbers are used positionally, is it usually just to save space (such as the example pictured)? –  MBCook Mar 25 at 20:03

When you only see 一二三, the context always matters. (As you may know, Japanese language generally rely very much on the context to decide the meaning.)

You use 百二十三 kind of way only when you want to specify that numbers are like "one hundred twenty-three". This kind of expressions however tends to be redundant (二億三千五百九十五万三千百四十五=235,953,445). So you usually write 一二三 or 二三五、九五三、四四五 especially these days.

For your information, These KANJI numbers generlly used when you write vertically and when you write horizontally you generally use degits.

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Japanese-speaker here.

"One hundred twenty-three" = 百二十三

"One, two, three" = 一二三 or 一、二、三

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Without context, I would say it's one hundred twenty three. "One, two, three" would probably look like 一・二・三, or some other common delimiter.

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