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Counting: Japanese tally and gesture

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/20 Traditional Culture ,

The “Correct” counting method in Japan

How do you write when you count numbers of items?
I know tally marks which are used in many countries, but Japanese people don’t use them.

Western tally

Instead, a certain Kanji character is used.

Japanese tally five

The character means “correct”.
As you can see, this consists of five lines.
On counting, it goes like this;

Japanese tally one

This is the same as the Kanji for “one”.

Two to five are:

Japanese tally two

Japanese tally three

Japanese tally four

Japanese tally five

Why is this Kanji used among all the Kanji characters consisted of five strokes?
I can’t answer this question, and I have no idea since when it has been used for counting.
I heard Chinese people also use this character to count, but I’m not sure if Japanese simply adopted the Chinese idea because a different character was used in the Edo period.


– How to count in the Edo era –

In those days, people used this Kanji character;

Japanese old tally five

This means “ball”, and consists of four lines and one dot.
This one goes;

Japanese tally one


Japanese old tally two

This is the same as the Kanji for “two”.


Japanese old tally three
The Kanji for “three”, although it looks a little off.
(Usually the middle line is the shortest)


Japanese old tally four
The Kanji for “king”, again it looks a little off.


Japanese old tally five

This character seems more reasonable to me, for each stroke from one to three is almost identical to its Kanji number.
Some people say that this was replaced with the present one because it would be difficult to identify if the last dot is properly written or it’s just a splash of “sumi” (Japanese ink).


– Mark for count? –

Western tally

This mark is used as a tally in mainly Spanish-spoken area, according to Wikipedia.
In Japan, this mark reminds people of a sign for “masu”.

Masu sign

-Masu sign-

This sign is a symbol of “masu”, a square wooden box to measure liquid, crops, flour and so on.


-Dried soy beans in "masu"-
Photo from Sozaing

You might see this sign at restaurants or shops in Japan.
A Japanese word “arimasu” is a politer expression for “aru”, meaning “there is (are)”.
As both “masu” for this word and a wooden box have exactly the same pronunciation, the “masu” sign is sometimes used instead.


Top: arimasu
Bottom: arimasu with "masu" sign


Count with hand in Japan

I guess Western people count the same way when they count to themselves as they would when showing it to other people.
In Japan, it’s different.


– To myself –

When I count to myself with my hand, “one” should be this;

Counting Gesture One

Then, folding my index finger for two, middle for three.

Counting Gesture Two


I make a fist for five.

Counting Gesture Five

For six, stick up my little finger.
(You may realise it’s the same gesture as “four”)

If you show this “six” gesture to another person, it may imply “(your or another person’s) girlfriend”.
It depends on what you were talking about, and it’s usually used by men.
It may be already out-dated and I personally feel it’s not a very sophisticated gesture especially for women.

Counting Gesture Six


– To others –

If I show the count to others, “one” is;

Counting Gesture One

Then, open my middle for two like a peace sign.
Thumb is the last to open for five.

Counting Gesture Five

Six is this;

Counting Gesture Six

On counting to others, most people would face their palms outward, but it is possible they may turn them inward.
So, if you are British, please don’t feel offended when Japanese people do this gesture saying “Two!”

Counting Gesture Two

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A Japanese living in Okayama. A proud "Otaku"! Loves animals, snacks, manga, games (PC, iPad, Nintendo DS, PSP), foreign TV dramas, traveling and football (soccer).

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