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Struggling with big numbers in Japanese? This trick never fails

Instantly remember big numbers in Asian Languages. Works the other way around too!

For ‘Asian Languages’, I’m referring to languages that use words for numbers with four instead of three zeros. Instead of ‘ten thousand’, it’s ‘one ten thousand’. Instead of ‘one hundred million’, it’s ‘one one hundred million’. Chinese and Japanese immediately come to mind.

Learning an Asian language such as Japanese or Chinese is really fun. I love how the languages sound, not to mention the culture and history behind them. Plus, it simply feels good when you can finally get people to understand you.

However, if you’re not used to it, as simple a thing as numbers can be really tough to remember. Especially in the spur of the moment, say when you’re interpreting or wanting to impress someone.

And not even that big a number either.

From ten thousand, the way we say numbers is completely different. For example, the term for 10,000 yen, or about $100, is ‘one ten thousand’, ichi-man (then add ‘en’ for yen). Then for 100,000 yen, about $1,000, it’s ‘ten ten thousands’, Ju-man.

Simple. Right?

But what about larger numbers? What about populations of countries, like China for example? What about millions, or even billions of dollars?

If you can remember the terms interchangeably straight off the bat, well done to you.

But for the rest of us…

Here’s the trick

The trick is: memorise how to say large numbers that have some sort of meaning to you.

For example, the population of my hometown in New Zealand is about 100,000. I remember the scale of the city, and how to say it. Ju-man, just like before with $1,000.

Million is easy. New Zealand’s population is about 5 million. Go-hyaku-man. Therefore by recalling the population of NZ in Japanese, I can instantly remember the word for ‘million’, hyaku-man.

Tens of million is a bit trickier. I usually stick to the population of England for some odd reason, Go-sen-go-hyaku-man. I guess it’s because the number is more stable than the number of sheep in New Zealand, ni-sen-nana-hyaku-man. Sen-hyaku-man.

100 million is easy too. The population of Japan; Ichi-oku-ni-sen-nana-hyaku-man. Although I’m pretty sure it’s less than that now. Ichi-oku.

1 billion is getting out of hand a bit. Here we’re talking the populations of China, India, or perhaps easier to remember, the world; Hachi-ju-oku. Hence Ju-oku means billion.

How to remember terms for money in Asian languages

Interchanging between currencies gets a bit troublesome, but the trick still works. For Japanese yen, you need to remove two zeros. ¥1,000 is about $10. ¥1,000,000 is about $10,000.

Again, remember to associate each denomination with something personal.

Hyaku-man is about what you’d use for the cost of a car. Sen-man the cost of a house. Oku the amount in my bank account. Ju-oku my future income.

You get the point.

Pick a number at each scale that has a meaning to you. Then, memorize that and the corresponding numbers. After that, the next time you need to recall these numbers, think of the thing you memorized. All you have to do is replace the number you memorised with the number you need to say. Granted, it takes a little bit of effort and getting used to. But you aren’t relying on your fingers and toes anymore.




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Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

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Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan 


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