In Japanese animate and inanimate objects are treated differently.

For people:

  • the verb exist いる is used

  • the generic counter (一{ひと}つ, 二{ふた}つ, 三{みっ}つ, ...) cannot be used

  • the specific counter (一{ひと}人{り}, 二{ふた}人{り}, 三{さん}人{にん}, ...) must be used

For animals:

  • the verb exist いる is used

  • there is a specific counter (一{いっ}匹{ぴき}, 二{に}匹{ひき}, 三{さん}匹{びき}, ...)

For inanimate objects:

  • the verb exist ある is used

  • there are specific counters but the generic counter (一{ひと}つ, 二{ふた}つ, 三{みっ}つ, ...) can be used

I understand that it is offensive to refer to people as inanimate objects but I wonder if there are exceptions to referring to “inanimate” objects as “animate”. Does Japanese have “personification” or “anthropomorphism” where inanimate objects (or animals) are treated as people?

Can animals be treated with the generic counter? There are many counters in Japanese and I find that it is otherwise acceptable to use generic counters as Japanese learners are not expected to know them all.

What is the boundary for treating something as if it were a person? For example, can company/city/team mascots, children’s toys, fictional non-human characters, robots be treated as humans with いる and counters? Does this work similarly to the use of “he/she/they” vs. “it” in English or it is different? Is it considered playful/childish or outright offensive (e.g., racist) to imply that a group people are animals or other objects in Japanese?

  • possible duplicate of japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/2228/… Jun 17, 2018 at 5:11
  • there are a few iru/aru animate/inanimate and personification discussions in StackExchange which might shed a little more light, but the one I linked might be the best of them. Jun 17, 2018 at 5:15
  • I’m aware of these other questions about ある/いる and have answered several of them. These don’t specifically address the examples given here or whether counters are treated the same. I would expect an answer to encompass the use of specific and generic counters.
    – Tom Kelly
    Jun 17, 2018 at 5:42
  • hmm, sorry, I see your point. I have only experienced a few specific examples. I can tell you that I have directly heard childrens' dolls, cartoon animals, cartoon non-humans, and city mascots referred to with "iru" and with both generic counters, animal counters, and in the case of mascots, human counters. Jun 17, 2018 at 7:21

1 Answer 1


First question: Yes, it's treated that way once personified.

Second question: No. For example, 2つのラクダ means "a camel with 2 humps". However, you could say ラクダ2つ if camels are commodity and you recognize them as a kind of vehicles. Counter for animals is enough with 匹.

Third question: Yes, and as for robots, you would use 体 as long as you recognize them as something close to dead bodies.

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