Japanese seems to have multiple ways of enumerating sequences. The basic one is ordinal numbers:

  • Arabic (Indian) numbers like in English: 1,2,3
  • classic Chinese numbers: 一、二、三 etc.
  • special legal numerals: 壱、弍、参 etc.
  • special version of “one”/“first” can be used初号、初版

The “letters”:

  • Latin alphabet (a, b, c, etc.).
  • goujon order (AFAIK usually katakana vowels: ア、イ、ウ、エ、オ); I’ve seen this used in some dictionaries and scientific papers.
  • iroha order (いろはにほへと) - not sure if actually used

Then there are some specialized ones:

  • two-volume book: 上巻、下巻
  • three-volume book: 上巻、中巻、下巻
  • three sizes (S,M,L): 小、中、大 

And something I discovered today:

  • Four-item sequence (ABCD): 甲乙丙丁, apparently originating from the Chinese sexagenary year cycle

Are there any others? What are the situations you would use one over the other?

  • Do we have to include 小中大 in this list? It's never used in place of "one, two, three". To me, it's just a group of kanji like 陸海空, 紅白 or 日月火水木金土. And you're not interested in "ranking" methods like 金銀銅, right?
    – naruto
    Nov 10, 2020 at 0:41
  • @naruto I guess we could remove 小中大, it just came to mind because it’s a set of three. Maybe I should make a separate post about rankings... Nov 10, 2020 at 7:00
  • Don't forget the いろは ordering. Nov 10, 2020 at 21:16
  • @EiríkrÚtlendi I do mention it, but not sure I've ever seen it used Nov 10, 2020 at 21:18
  • @IgorSkochinsky: Derp, somehow missed that in your post! Re: usage, I've seen it most as the marker in itemized lists, like 『イ)最初のこと...ロ)次のこと...ハ)その続き...』. Especially in any kind of deeper nested numbering, different symbols get used. Consider in English documents, such as "Section 2.a.iii" Nov 10, 2020 at 21:22

1 Answer 1


I think you have already listed all of the common and not-so-common ones.

  • あ い う
  • ア イ ウ
  • 一 二 三
  • イ ロ ハ (usually katakana)
  • 甲 乙 丙 (explained here)
  • 1 2 3 / A B C / a b c / I II III / i ii iii

These letters are often enclosed in parentheses or circles.

イロハ is still widely used in legal documents, dictionaries and such. It's at least much more common than 甲乙丙. You can check this "pathological" example of イロハ順; they used up all the katakana and started to use イイ, イロ and so on!

上(中)下 is only for two- or three-volume books. 天地(人) can be used in a similar manner (example), but it's very rare.

  • Brilliant linked example, that elicited a chuckle from me! :D Nov 11, 2020 at 19:52

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