Column #102 Kanji Clinic, The Japan Times, March 17, 2010
"You can count on the tales behind number-kanji"


When giving talks on Japan in elementary classrooms in the United States, I chalk the kanji , , and, O on the blackboard and ask the children to guess their meanings. gOne, two, three!h they shout, easily intuiting three kanji introduced to Japanese schoolchildren in the first grade. Japanese students go on to master more than a dozen other kanji representing numerals--in addition to Arabic numerals--and to learn to count high numbers in a way alien to their American counterparts.

Numeral kanji, like other Sino-Japanese characters, have undergone major modifications in shape since they were first created in China four millennia ago. Divergent theories on the origins of numeral kanji often reference hand signals used for counting. (ICHI, one) depicts a single extended forefinger; in (NI, two), a middle finger appears below it. O (SAN, three) likely represents a thumb and the first two fingers: Japanese and Chinese have traditionally begun with the thumb when counting from one to five, and still do so today.

Because , , and Ocan easily be altered with a stroke or two by unscrupulous people, more graphically complex gformal numbersh (厚, daiji, big/letters) are used on financial and legal documents. Look for (ICHI, one) on the front of 10,000 bills (떜~, ichimanen, one/10,000/yen) and (NI, two) on 2,000 bills (~, nisenen, two/1,000/yen). Q (SAN, three), with three hairs-like stroke at the bottom, is the formal form of O.
@
l (SHI/yon, four), originally written with four parallel lines, is an approximation of the four fingers of a fist held palm side down. (GO, five) pictures the spool that replaced the five fingers for winding yarn. Z (ROKU, six), a variation of a kanji meaning groof,h was pronounced the same way as a multistroked character meaning gclenched fisth--an old way of showing six--and thus was used as an easier-to-write substitute.

(SHICHI/nana, seven) resembles a bent finger under a fist, which signaled seven in ancient China, and (HACHI, eight) pictures the three middle fingers folded with thumb and little finger extended. The gesture symbolized the numeral 8 long before it was popularized as the gshakah sign used today as a greeting among Hawaiians and surfers.

(KYUU/KU, nine) depicts a bent elbow, used in ancient times to indicate nine when only one arm was free. The precursor of \ (JUU/tou, 10) was E, comprised of an abbreviated ghandh () and gjoin togetherh () (i.e., 10 fingers on two hands joined together). Today, E is used as the formal character for \, and also means gpick uph (hiro-u).

In modern Japan, a thumbs-up gesture signifies ggood,h but in ancient China it indicated g100.h S (HYAKU, 100) comprises (goneh) and , which now means gwhiteh but once pictured an upturned thumbnail. The stroke at the top represents a filed fingernail.

(SEN, 1000) comprises gpersonh () and goneh (): The body symbolized 1,000 in ancient China. (MAN, 10,000) may be a variant of the ancient Buddhist swastika, and its formal character, , derives from a pictograph of a scorpion, swarms of which likely tormented this characterfs creators. has the related meaning of gcountlessh (e.g., , banzai, countless/years, gHurrah!h or gLong live [someone/something]!h).

Japanese counts higher numbers in units of 10,000, as opposed to Western 1000s (e.g., 30,000 is gthree ten-thousands [sanman],h not gthirty thousandh). There is no kanji for gmillionh: 1,000,000 is g100 10,000s (hyakuman).h @(OKU, 100 million) and (CHOU, a trillion) round out the general-use kanji for high numbers.

At the other end of the spectrum, (REI, zero) features rain (J) at the top (i.e., tiny raindrops are essentially non-existent). The Arabic numeral 0 (pronounced gzeh-rohh in Japanese) often appears in lieu of in a series of numeral kanji, and can also be read gmaruh (gcircleh) when individual digits of a number are read in order (e.g., 502, ggo-maru-nih). Arabic numbers are generally used in horizontal writing, and kanji in vertical.

The Japanese counting system can be daunting to uninitiated Westerners, but there is nothing like earning your paychecks in yen to inspire you to fully master it.

QUIZ
Write the following Arabic numbers in kanji and try saying them aloud. Pronunciations are provided below.
A) 22
B) 433
C) 509
D) 1945
E) 2010
F) 77,000
G) 880,000
H) 421,839
I) 1,200,000
J) 47,000,000
K) 390,000,000
L) 4,000,000,000,000

Answers:
A) \ nijuuni
B) lSO\O yonhyakusanjuusan
C) ܕS gohyakukyuu
D) Sl\ senkyuuhyakuyonjuugo
E) \ nisenjuu
F) nanamannanasen
G) \ hachijuuhachiman
H) l\񖜐甪SO\ yonjuunimansenhappyakusanjuukyuu
I) S\ hyakunijuuman
J) l玵S yonsennanahyakuman
K) O疜 sanokukyuusenman
L) l yonchou

For more practice check out this nifty Arabic/kanji number converter: http://convert.sljfaq.org/kanjinumbers.cgi
New to KanjiClinic.com? Start reading archived columns here. (Column #1, "Don't despair--you can put an end to kanji chaos")

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