How to count fish in Japanese

Various Japanese fish counters

You see many sea animals everywhere in Japan. They can be encountered at supermarkets, fish markets, travel advertisements, and TV shows.

As you know, Japanese people love eating sea animals like fish, octopus, and squid because sea animals have been essential food for Japanese people since the old era.

Japanese has so many ways to count fish that Japanese people sometimes make mistakes on which counter to use. We will introduce eight ways to count fish in this article.

The first fish counter you should remember is 匹 (hiki).

A basic Japanese counter for fish “匹 (hiki)”

You can count any fish with the 匹 (hiki) counter.

It is also used for smaller animals than humans. We shared more about the 匹 counter in how to count animals in Japanese. Check it out if you haven't read it yet!

sakana ga sanbiki oyoideiru
Three fish are swimming.

kyo wa sakana ga jyuppiki mo tsureta!
I could catch 10 fish today!

Fun facts!

There is another common Japanese counter that you can use for fish. It is the 尾 (bi) counter.
尾 (bi) means tail in Japanese. It indicates the tail fin on a fish.
The 尾 (bi) counter is only used for fish that already got caught and is used for cuisine.
So if you want to order fish in supermarket, you can count fish with the 匹 counter and the 尾 counter.
Although there are other animals with tails, only fish are able to be counted with the 尾 counter.

It is totally fine to count fish with just the 匹 counter, but there are other proper ways to count fish in Japanese.

Various counters for different-sized and shaped fish

The 本 (hon) counter for big and long fish

Small fish are counted with the 匹 counter. So how about big fish?

Big or long fish like tuna, yellowtail, mackerel, and Pacific saury are counted with the 本 (hon) counter.

When they are alive in the ocean, they are counted with the 匹 counter but they are counted with the 本 counter at the fish market.

maguro ippon o hyakuman-en de kau
Buy a tuna with a million yen.

katsuo o sanbon tsutta
I caught three skipjacks.

The 頭 counter for giant sea animals

Giant fish like sharks and sunfish are counted with the 頭 counter.

頭 means head in Japanese. Fish bigger than a human are counted with 頭.

Dolphins, orcas, and whales are also counted with the 頭 counter.

kujira ga jyuttou de tabi wo shiteiru
Ten whales are traveling.

nihikino iruka ga asondeiru
Two dolphins are playing.

Squid and octopus are cups?

You usually count squid and octopus with the 匹 counter in Japanese.

But in the fish market, you can also count them with the 杯 (hai) counter. 杯 (hai) means cup in Japanese.

It’s said that the Japanese use the 杯 counter for squid and octopus because when their head part is upside down it looks like a cup.

tako o sanbai kudasai
Three octopuses, please.

hako ni ika ga jyuppai haitteiru
There are ten squids in a box.

The 枚 counter for thin fish

Thin fish like flatfish are counted with the 枚 (mai) counter when fished. The 枚 counter is usually used for counting papers and thin things.

There is a Japanese food called ajino-hiraki (アジの開き), a horse mackerel cut open and dried. It is also counted with the 枚 counter because it is flat and thin.

It's really good with white rice. Please try it if you get the opportunity!

hirame o ichimai tsukatte ryouri o suru
Use one flat fish for one dish.

aji no hiraki o sanmai mo tabechatta!
I have had three ajino-hiraki!

Fun facts!

The 枚 (mai) counter is also used for clams like scallops and oysters in restaurants when those are served opened. It is because their shell is thin and paper-like.

The 個 (ko) counter for clams

So how about clams that are not opened or univalve ones?

In that case, 個 (ko) is the right counter. 個 is usually used when you count them as food, not when they're in the wild.

Uni o hyakko totta
I got one hundred urchins.

kaki o sanjyukko tabetara, onaka o kowashita
I had thirty oysters and then got a stomache.

How to count sashimi (刺身)?

Sashimi (刺身) is sliced fish meat, one of the main Japanese traditional foods. Tuna, salmon, sea bream, squid, and octopus are some of the most eaten types.

You count sashimi with 切れ (kire) which means slice in Japanese.

kyoudai to saigono sashimi hitokire o toriau
Fight brother for the last slice of sashimi

Remember by shape and size

So how was it? You might feel it's a little tough to remember all of the counters.

That's okay! It will make it easier to count fish to first associate the counter with the fish's shape and size.

When they are alive, they can mostly be counted with the 匹 (hiki) counter. When they are served, they are counted with their respective counters to the shape and size.


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