I've heard someone say that "一匹{いっぴき}" was used at the end of the original Godzilla movie, with Dr. Yamane saying that Godzilla wasn't the last one of "them".

Why did he use that, as opposed to "一頭{いっとう}"? Do Japanese speakers sometimes use the wrong counter to be ironic, or is there another reason?

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    The counter 「匹」is also used for counting giants in the anime 進撃の巨人, which I find also curious
    – waldrumpus
    Aug 3, 2014 at 10:01
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    I think people who don't know the story might count those giants "~匹", "~頭", "~体" or even "~人", and whichever sounds pretty reasonable. But knowing the story, "~人" is way too sympathetic :)
    – naruto
    Aug 4, 2014 at 8:02
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    Related: Counter for 熊 (bears): ひき or 頭?. Godzilla is an animal that humans do not have a relationship with, and thus 頭 would be inappropriate.
    – Questioner
    Aug 4, 2014 at 11:25
  • he's part horse...? ;)
    – Mou某
    Aug 5, 2014 at 5:01
  • @user3306356 ゴジラって、「ゴリラ+クジラ」で作ったって聞いたことがあります・・・
    – user1016
    Aug 6, 2014 at 6:11

3 Answers 3


There is certainly a reason for that. In this case, it is for expressing Yamane's (or the human kind's) derogatory feelings toward Godzilla.

The counter 「[頭]{とう}」 simply does not carry that derogatory connotation among us Japanese-speakers; It can only be neutral. In case this is what you are wondering about, the size of Gozilla does not matter as Godzilla is way too large to begin with. The general real-life rule of "匹 for smaller animals and 頭 for larger animals" does not apply here.

「[一匹]{いっぴき}」, however, does just the job when used in the right context. With it, you can "say" out loud "little f*****" without actually saying it.

Believe it or not, 匹 can even be used to refer to humans if they are your enemies. In sports, excited fans often use it to refer to the opponents. You will hear people say something like 「さあ, あと一匹だっ!」 at the bottom of the 9th inning with two outs in baseball.

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    Also children: うちにはちび・がき・わんぱく坊主が2匹おる
    – Brandon
    Aug 3, 2014 at 12:34

Googling the two terms in Japanese, there are a great deal of discussions among the Japanese about when to use which as clearly ambiguous to them as much as it is to you. One of such quoted the definitions from Dictionary of How to Count (『数え方の辞典』) written by Asako Iida (飯田朝子).





More or less the definition of "小型の爬虫類、両棲類" for 匹 seems suited for this case. One may say it is an expression of belittlement. But also it can be taken as an expression of endearment by the diminutive expression.

One of the discussions said NHK does not have clear definitions in use of the two terms and neither for average native Japanese speakers. Some says, 頭 is used for any animals large or small in zoology. Some suggested that there is some historical legacy in native speakers count in some unit the way they do (e.g. rabbits counted as 羽 so that Buddhists who was forbidden to eat 4 legged animals can eat it as birds). Some says 匹 is used for hunting, distancing hunters from respecting the games.

All in all, we can read in a lot and try to see meanings behind it. But I am not sure if the authorial intent can be clarified in a clear cut manner here. I, as an average native Japanese speaker, certainly can't.


This answer is supplementary, but using the counter 匹 for large animals is not so unnatural in daily conversations.

For example, Google returns roughly the same number of results for "2匹の象" and "2頭の象". I haven't checked out each of the results, but it's very unlikely that all those people using 2匹の象 are elephant haters.

If explicitly asked "what is the correct counter for 象 in Japanese?", many people will answer "頭".

But in practice, we often unconsciously use 匹 for all kinds of animals, including elephants, whales or dinosaurs. Basically, don't think using 匹 for huge animals is always ironic or derogatory.

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    "2匹の象" の実際のヒット数は、このページ(Page 22 of 219 results)で終わりです。"2頭の象"はここまで(Page 53 of about 129,000 results)表示されます。
    – user1016
    Aug 4, 2014 at 14:54
  • およ。今自分がやってみたら、「2匹の象」は「128 件中 13 ページ目」、「2頭の象」も「263 件中 27 ページ目」と表示されて打ち止めになりました。どっちも幾らなんでもそこまで少ないわけがないので、なんかそれは検索エンジンの都合による別の原因のような気がします。
    – naruto
    Aug 4, 2014 at 15:04
  • えとね、いったん打ち止めになったら、一番下の「In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 128 already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.」のところの、you can repeat the search with the omitted results included をクリックしていただければ。もう一回1ページ目からやり直しで、めんどくさいですけどね。。。
    – user1016
    Aug 4, 2014 at 15:06
  • Chokoさんの状況は再現できました。これ「ドラクエ」とか「戦国武将」とかでやっても50~80ページ目辺りで打ち切られちゃうので、「2頭の象」が実際にどこまで出るかは不明ですね。流石に「219対13万」という程の差が実際にあるとは思えないし、個人的には素直に最初に出てくる数で比べてもいいのかなという気も…。(本来はn-gramとかで調べればいいんだろうけど)
    – naruto
    Aug 4, 2014 at 15:26
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    This kind of search is not reliable at all because it's highly contextual, yet you searched for the exact phrases with quotes. There are certainly different ways to phrase "2 elephants", and there are certainly different numbers of "elephants" that people may be talking about. Apr 6, 2019 at 13:57

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