Before we go much further let’s go through the Japanese number system, starting with 1-10.

Note that the pronunciations for “four” and “seven” can change, although the pronunciations in bold in the table are the most commonly used.

The numbering system in Japanese is “mathematical” in the sense that you talk in terms of multiples and additions. For the “teens” we talk in terms of addition only. For example, to say 13 you just say “10 3” (10 + 3).

Beyond 19 we start talking in terms of multiples and additions. For example, to say 28 we say “2 10 8” (2 x 10 + 8). Using this logic we can get all the way to 99. A few examples:

Now you might be thinking 100 is simply “10 10”, but this would quickly get cumbersome as the numbers got larger. Instead additional words to signify larger milestone numbers are used.

The logical, however, does not change. 229 is “2 100 2 10 9”.

229 = (2 x 100) + (2 x 10) + 9

Another example:

2,488 = (2 x 1,000) + (4 x 100) + (8 x 10) + 8

As you can see from the hiragana in bold in the table below, the readings can change depending on the combination. This is true for 100 and 1,000 multiples of 1, 3, 6, and 8.

As a general rule (not only applicable for numbers), when joining two kanji results in the following combinations a bridging っ replaces the last syllable of the preceding kanji, and sometimes a dakuten or handakuten is added to the first syllable of the succeeding character.

• う + は
• つ + し
• ち + ひ
• く + か
• く + こ
• ん + a-ending syllable (only dakuten or handakuten added)

Take the word “school”, for example. Individually, the two kanji that make up the word for school have the following readings:

But when put together the reading becomes:

Indeed, this is actually a lot easier to pronounce (try repeating がくこう at any speed).

This bridging っ is called a sokuon (促音) and the process of changing the pronunciation of the following syllable is called rendaku (連濁). The rules for the rendaku are somewhat complex such that beginners are better off making themselves aware of the basic rules above and picking up the exceptions along the way.

Back to our number system. Beyond 9,999 things start to change. The logical of multiples and additions still applies—the issue is that different numerical groupings are used. In Japanese there is no specific word for “million” or “billion”; instead you count things in terms of tens of thousands and one-hundred millions. Whenever I’m weighing up the cost of bigger things (televisions, flights, hotels, etc.) I think of the price in terms how many tens of thousands of yen in exactly the same way as if I was back in the UK I would think about the price of car in terms of thousands of pounds. You will come across the counter for 10,000 (万, man) every day in Japan, and after a while you’ll be so used to it that if someone tells you (in English) that something costs ¥110,000 you’ll find yourself converting that back into the Japanese way of counting (¥11,0000 in your head).

Admittedly, at first at least, this is a bit confusing because as English speakers we instinctively want to say “10 1,000” for 10,000. So following this Japanese logic, the number 689,614 breaks down as follows.

689,614 = (68 x 10,000) + (9 x 1,000) + (6 x 100) + 10 + 4

It may help to move the comma one place to the left when thinking about larger numbers, e.g. 689,614 = 68,9614.

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