The Difficulty of Grasping Japanese Numbers

I came across this blog entry from a fellow Japanese learner in my Twitter adventures a while back, and am finally getting around to blogging it now. Better late than never.

In this “The Numbers Racket” post, Seahorse-ily relates how numbers, especially big numbers, seem to be much harder to get a handle on than other aspects of Japanese.

When talking about groking big numbers, Seahorse-ily explains…

In English, we group our numbers in thousands once they start to get big. I’m sure you’re familiar with this:

Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions.

We even reflect that in how we write our numbers: 1,000,000.

In Japan, numbers are grouped in ten thousands. It looks like this:

Ones, tens, hundreds, thousands, ten thousand, tens of ten thousands, hundreds of ten thousands, thousands of ten thousands, billions.

Faced with this unaccustomed grouping system, I have to sit there in a meeting and convert 234,410 to “Uh, Two hundred ten thousands, um, sorry, drop a zero… twenty three ten thousands, forty-four, sorry (again), four thousand, four hundred and, uh, ten?”. I’m ashamed to say that yes, I sometimes count off zeros on my fingers.

So, I try to shoot for projects involving smaller numbers to avoid embarrassment. For example, “How many of you would like coffee?”.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced times like this. I have studied Japanese for more than… yikes… I’m old… let’s just say more than 10 years, and I can tell you that I still have to stop and think when I need to convert a number bigger than 1,000,000 back into English.

I couldn’t really find many YouTube videos teaching how to count large numbers in Japanese, everything seems to stop at 10 or 20 or so and call it a day… Which is unfortunate because in Japan when you’re dealing with numbers they’ll almost always at least be in the hundreds… You can’t buy much for less than 100 yen! You’ll most frequently encounter numbers when buying things in Japan and dealing with money.

Here’s one video that gets at the methodology behind the numbers so that you can work in the 10,000s.

Maybe in theory it’s quite easy… but when faced with something like…

ichi man go sen sanbyaku yon juu hachi yen!

[Audio is from our Japanese 101: Numbers iPhone iPhone App]

Many people will have to think twice. It gets even more difficult when numbers are in the 100 thousands, or millions. Practice and lots of exposure is the only way!

Our Japanese 101: Numbers App attempts to get people used to hearing and recognizing big numbers through repetition. If you can relate to this post maybe our app can help you get used to hearing big numbers. The entire Japanese 101: Numbers App is built around the context of money, because if you go to Japan most of the time you will hear numbers in the context of yen. Check it out if you want to sharpen up your Numbers listening comprehension skills!

Anyway, happy number crunching!

If you have any tips on how people can get used to big numbers in Japanese faster, please let us know in the comments! Or, if you just want to complain about how annoying numbers are in Japanese… you can do that too.

Until next time!

– Harvey