What are the essential Japanese counter words?

For example -dai for machines, -mai for papers and stuff like that.

  • What else to expect/know?

Thank you

  • 1
    Define essential? If you want absolutely essential then the basic 一つ、 二つ series will do fine. Do you mean a certain school grade or JLPT level? Or do you mean what a Japanese native adult would be expected to know? – Ali May 31 '11 at 19:39
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The article at Wikipedia covers the common ones as well as a decent number of extended ones, and lists the exceptions for days, people, etc. as well as rendaku and number word changes (e.g. 300->san*bya*ku, 4:00-> *yo*ji).

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There are entire dictionaries for this (数え方の辞典). Here's a link to a whole bunch. 個 (ko) is the most commonly used one. Japanese people use it often even with words that should have a special counter if it's a less-often used one. It can sometimes be annoying even for them to think of the proper 数詞! Here are most common ones I can think of:

  • 人 (nin) for people
  • 名(様)[mei sama] for people, used when referring to number of customers at restaurants, etc.
  • 本 (hon) for long skinny stuff (pencils, pillars)
  • 冊 (satu) for bound stuff (books, magazines)
  • 枚 (mai) for flat stuff (paper, cds、shirts)
  • 台 (dai) for machines like cars and computers
  • 匹 (hiki) for most animals (four legged, insects, fish, etc.)
    • For some other animals:
    • 頭 (tou) for cattle
    • 羽 (wa) for birds and sometimes rabbits
  • 回、度(kai, do) for number of times an action occurs
  • 隻 (sen) for big ships

Etc. The list goes on. I happened to live near a harbor so the last one was useful for me (though it was still often substituted with 個!). You can just learn the few most common ones and use 個 for everything else, learning the less common ones as you go.

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  • 5
    don't forget 羽 is for rabbits too! – Mark Hosang May 31 '11 at 23:42
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    羽 and 匹 can both be used – Nate Glenn May 31 '11 at 23:48
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    匹 is used alot by Japanese people, but it is not correct. 羽 is grammatically correct. – Mark Hosang May 31 '11 at 23:53
  • "+ 船 (sen) for ships". Really? Don't see this in the page you link to. Sure you don't mean 隻 or 艘? – dainichi Aug 18 '12 at 4:30
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    @MarkHosang who decides what is correct or not if not the people using the language? – dainichi Aug 18 '12 at 4:37

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