The Japanese language uses counters to count different kinds of items, animals as well as people such as 一本 to count a long cylindric object or 二枚 two count flat objects (in thi case two flat objects). However, I have been wondering if this system is original to the Japanese language or if it was imported and adopted from Chinese.

  • Are you aware of the relationship of kanji to Chinese? The whole kanji system was borrowed. Or are you asking if there are counters that predate kanji? The native numbers can also be written with kanji, presumably you know some of them, like ひとり and ひとつ.
    – Leebo
    Jul 25, 2018 at 1:15
  • 2
    No, I'm asking if counters is a system the Japanese adopted from Chinese. I am asking if, for example, prior to having contact with the Chinese did the Japanese simply use their native numbers to count things (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, etc.) or counters (specific words/suffixes to count specific items) were always there in the Japanese language from the very beginning.
    – Grau C
    Jul 25, 2018 at 1:33
  • Okay, I still consider the native numbers to have functionality that would be called "counters" so that was confusing to me, but you want to know if there were native words that were completely replaced and fell out of usage entirely after kanji was imported.
    – Leebo
    Jul 25, 2018 at 1:36
  • @Leebo there are lots of native words (ひと ふた 。。。 included) to which kanji were attributed afterwards, there could thus very well be counters that are purely native to Japanese even though they might be written with kanji nowadays. Also there are counters without kanji, such as つ.
    – a20
    Jul 25, 2018 at 6:57
  • @bjorn, yeah I mentioned those above, so it's definitely possible for the system to exist without kanji. I'm having a hard time imagining what counters other than the native numbers would look like, because even something like 匹 or 羽, which are counter words that use kunyomi readings, are paired with the onyomi numbers, not the native ones. But I guess you could have paired them with the native ones first.
    – Leebo
    Jul 25, 2018 at 9:25

1 Answer 1


Japanese already had counters before Chinese contact, but only a few. After Chinese they increased a lot.

Old Japanese (Nara period, before the Sinification of the language) had a handful of true counters:

  • -pasira (modern hashira), used to count Deities and Emperors.

    pîmê kamï yö-pasira [四柱] nö sumê kamï
    the Princess Deities, the Four Imperial Deities… (2)

  • -tari/-ri, for counting people (still seen in 一人 hitori, 二人 futari, and in Old Japanese also mitari etc.)

  • The generic -tu (modern -tsu), used with most numerals (including 10000, yörö-du, but not all numerals; e.g. 100 momo, 10 töwö (> ) or 500 ipo (>io) were used directly). Maybe this began as a number suffix; but the contrast between e.g. ya-tu, never used for people, and ya-tari, only for people, means that by Old Japanese time it was starting to work as a very general classifier for anything non-human (animals included).

  • -ka for days, still visible in fossils like 二十日 hatsuka.

It had also had counter-style usage of words like:

  • -tuka 束 (modern tsuka), for a handful of grain (used in religious liturgies only).

  • -pê (modern -e), for layers, comparable to English -fold.

    ama nö yapê-kumô [八重雲] wo…
    the eightfold heavenly clouds…

  • -maki 巻, for volumes;

  • etc.

This system seems somewhat incipient and limited; yet it provided a syntax for true counters, of the same type seen in other counter-based languages (that is, for expressions of the form "three X of Ys", where X and Y are not the same word, and X is not a quantity measurement, as in 三人の人/三つのりんご). It's true that the system expanded explosively after Chinese contact: both the number and the usage of counters increased dramatically. But Chinese-style counters probably only took so well to Japanese because Japanese already had the infrastructure in place.


  • Downing, Numeral classifier systems: The case of Japanese.
  • Bentley, A Descriptive Grammar of Early Old Japanese Prose.

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