We have:

  • 一羽 いちわ
  • 二羽 にわ

but it seems the pronunciations of the counter for 3 and 4 are irregular. In each case, are both pronunciations acceptable, or we must use the former?

  • 三羽 さんば、さんわ
  • 四羽 よんば、よんわ

Similarly, the counts for 6, 8, and 10 also seem to be irregular.

Should we memorize these by rote? Or is there a rule/pattern that can help us memorize these?

  • Where did you find these readings?
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 8:55
  • 2
    I have heard both. I think 三羽{さんば} and 四羽{よんわ} are the most common.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 9:05
  • @Earthliŋ -- I've seen different treatments from Windows IME, Quizlet's Japanese pronunciations, and my notes. For the latter, I later tracked down that I copied from this page, which is quite useful: tofugu.com/japanese/japanese-counter-wa
    – leeyuiwah
    Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 10:34

2 Answers 2


As a non-Japanese-teacher, I think neither form is immediately wrong, or I can rather say that it mostly depends on personal preferences (disclaimer: I don't know if JLPT says otherwise :P).

Etymologically, the counter 羽【わ】 was は in its older form, obviously cognate with 羽【はね】 "wing". Unlike most counters, this short piece of word was easily affected by the phonological change that also impacted the pronunciation of topic particle は. Therefore, there is a disagreement among today's speakers on whether the base form of the counter is わ or は.

count always わ "weakened" は
一羽 いちわ いっぱ (rare)
二羽 にわ にわ
三羽 さんわ さんば
四羽 よんわ / よわ (rare) よんわ / よんば
五羽 ごわ ごわ
六羽 ろくわ ろっぱ
七羽 ななわ ななわ
八羽 はちわ はっぱ
九羽 きゅうわ きゅうわ
十羽 じゅうわ じっぱ / じゅっぱ

Speakers can freely choose either series, or even mix them as they like, and it does not hinder communication.

Similarly we have another counter 把【わ】 "bundle of" in the exactly same situation, where NHKアクセント新辞典 only lists ~わ except 十把 じっぱ/じゅっぱ for some reason, so this seems really a matter of discretion.

† よん + h- usually does not trigger rendaku, because よん is originally a replacement of native よ- or on'yomi し. So this is actually irregular.
‡ Japanese teachers may not be pleased.

  • My vague sense is that younger speakers tend to go with the more regular left column, does that seem right to you? Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 8:47
  • @DariusJahandarie I'm not very sure since speakers around me all seem in somewhere between the two extremes. Myself is: いちわ、にわ、さんば、よんわ、ごわ、ろくわ、ななわ、はっぱ、きゅうわ、じゅっぱ Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 8:58

(I am posting an answer to my own question here. Please correct me if I am wrong.)

According to this page (羽: COUNTING BIRDS, BATS, and BUN-BUNS), both pronunciations can be used.

  • 3 BIRDS: さんわ VS さんば:
    • Both さんわ and さんば are common. In the case of the idiom 三羽烏 (さんばがらす), meaning a "distinguished trio," the reading is always ば.
  • 4 BIRDS: よわ VS よんわ VS よんば
    • While よんわ is the most common pronunciation, よんば is listed as the preferred reading in the NHK Accent Dictionary. It's unlikely you'll run into よわ, which is becoming archaic.
  • 2
    The latest version of NHK only lists よんわ, it doesn’t even mention よんば as a secondary option. Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 5:54

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