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Japanese is awesome

December 22, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Nearly every day I am in Japan I learn one more thing that further solidifies my love for the Japanese language.

Counters, a foreign concept to most English speaking people, refer to the way the Japanese (and Chinese) count things. You cannot simply say: “One duck” in Japanese, you have to qualify it with a specific character that describes what kind of object it is. “One duck” in Japanese would be: “鴨を一匹”, which reads: “kamo oh ippiki.” It literally says: “Duck, one small animal.” ひき(hiki)、びき(biki)、and ぴき(piki) depending on what number you are counting (yes, the pronunciations change depending on whether you are saying one, two or three) refers to small animals, and small animals only. Dogs, cats, mice, fish, hamsters and pigs are all considered small animals and thus counted as “ひき.” Anything larger than a pig, however, surely cannot be counted as a small animal. It’s a large animal, and so needs its own counter. Horses, elephants, godzillas, cows, etc. are classified as “頭” (read: tou, or sometimes dou.) This kanji means “head,” but in this case is used to count large animals. So, “One head of cow,” “two heads of godzilla,” etc. That’s not really how you translate it, but it’s fun to do so. Other than these two, there is a counter for long cylindrical objects “本” (hon, bon, pon) which originally is the character for “book,” but do not get confused, because books have their own counter that has nothing to do with the character for book: “冊.” (satsu.) 枚 (mai) refers to flat, thin objects, 人 (nin) is people, though one person and two people are pronounced ひとり (hitori) and ふたり, (futari) respectively. I’m not going to get into why THAT is this time. Perhaps another time if you guys find this as interesting as I do.

Now, you may be thinking: “OH MY GOD MY BRAIN ASPLODE!” which is quite justifiable. This is probably the bane of 99% of Japanese students as they begin learning Japanese, and even Japanese people don’t get these right 100% of the time. There are two more “general” counters, つ(tsu) and こ(ko) which can be used in place of just about any other counter if you are not certain. Though it sounds a bit off, the meaning is understood, and native speakers use these quite often as well. I just happen to really enjoy the varied and at times reasonless world that is counters, especially when we get to talking about the odd ones, and the exceptions. Extremely important things in Japan have their own personal counters. Chopsticks (already awesome because they are one of the few inanimate objects in Japanese that receive the honorific “お”(o) in front of their name (おはし, ohashi) ) are counted by “膳”(zen), which unfortunately is not related to the “zen” state of mind. Piles of clothes (I am not making this up, I swear) also have their own personal counter, though I cannot remember exactly what they are, and have no idea why they are so special. (Upon checking, it is “重ね”, the kanji meaning “heavy.” One piece of clothing, however, a T-shirt for example, is a thin, flat object and thus counted as?

quiz answer: 枚(mai!) very good!

The real reason I am writing this, however, is because of rabbits.

Did you know rabbits were not, in fact, small animals, but in fact fowl? I was unaware of this up until today when for some reason counting rabbits came up in discussion during lunch. Now, any “sane” person would count a rabbit as a small animal, call it “ひき” and be done with it. But no! Japan has an awesome reason for not considering it a small animal: They wanted to eat it.

Confused? Allow me to blow your mind. Back when Buddhism was still a major influence, Japanese people were not allowed to eat red meat. Birds, however, seemed to be OK from the explanation I heard. Birds, by the way, are classified by “羽” (wa), which means wing or feather. In any case, the Buddhists REALLY wanted to eat rabbit. So much so, they literally stripped it of its animal-hood, and made it a bird, despite the fact that it lacks wings, feathers, a beak, etc. “Shut up!” I hear you protest. “They did not.” Oh but they did, my friends. they claimed that the rabbit’s way of hopping likened it more to a bird (it always had two feet on the ground at the same time) and they further duly noted that the rabbits ears were not just ears, they were also just really crappy, unusable wings. To this day, though many people don’t know or use it correctly, a rabbit’s linguistically correct counter is not 一匹 (ippiki) but 一羽(ichiwa.)

Disregarding any and all science in the area (though to be fair it was a simpler time…) the Japanese MADE the rabbit a bird, just so they could get around their religion’s ban against eating small animals, and enjoy its delicious flesh. I can’t really blame them either, rabbit is quite tasty.

I hope you enjoyed this little Japanese lesson, I certainly enjoyed recounting it! I am off on a flight back to the US tomorrow for winter break, so wish me luck!


Categories: Pre-Japan
  1. December 22, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Well, thanks for that lesson in Japanese history/culture.

  2. Rachel
    December 23, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Ah, now I know why chicken is a vegetable!

    I love how socks are counted in ‘ashi’. But is one ashi one sock or two? A foot of socks or a feet of sock??

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