by Yuki Reed

For suburi – (practice swinging a weapon), some people count numbers in Japanese, whilst others count in their own language. It must be daunting for beginners to remember alien words as well as movements.

I hope this article helps you to get to grips with some Japanese terminologies. When I teach Japanese, one of the things which confuses students (and me) is there are two pronunciations for the numbers 4 (‘yon’ and ‘shi’) and 7 (‘nana’ and ‘shichi’). Why?

It’s because modern Japanese has been formed from ancient Japanese and ancient Chinese. The table below shows how to count in ancient Japanese (wago).

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
hi fu mi yo i(tsu) mu na(na) ya ko(ko) to

Not only do we still use them, but we also mix them up with the ancient Chinese (kango) way of counting. See below.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
ichi ni san shi go roku shichi hachi kyu ju

It’s natural for me to count up in the kango style, whereas I count down in the mixed style, i.e. 10 ‘ju’, 9 ‘kyu’, 8 ‘hachi’, 7 ‘nana’, 6 ‘roku’, 5 ‘go’, 4’yon’, 3 ‘san’, 2’ni’, 1 ’ichi’. How weird!!! Nowadays many children are taught to count in the mixed way at first, probably because ‘4 shi’ and ‘7 shichi’ are easily misheard and ‘yon’ and ‘nana’ are more practical in some ways. What’s more, the pronunciation of the number 4 ‘四shi’ is the same as the word ‘死death’, therefore superstitious Japanese shun it.

In Aikido terminologies, ‘yon’ is mainly used for phrases with the number 4, such as ‘yon-kyo’ (4th technique), ‘yon no suburi’ (4th suburi), ‘yon dan’ (4th dan grade). Whereas ‘shi’ is used for kango words, such as ‘shikaku’ (4 corners, i.e., square), ‘shihou-nage’ (4 direction throw)’. Also, most dojos count in the kango style for suburi. The stance ‘一重身hitoemi’ is a word using the wago ‘1 hi’, which means ‘one-line body.’ Moving the body in a line results in the smallest target to an opponent. Incidentally, ‘半han’ means ‘half,’ so the posture ‘半身hanmi’ literarily means ‘half body’.

Talking of numbers, Japanese traditional performing arts, such as martial arts, Go (board game), calligraphy etc., apply the ‘段dan-級kyu’ grade system (*’級kyu’ is, by chance, the same as the pronunciation of the number 9). The bigger the number of kyu, the lower the grade, so 1-kyu is top. Then
going higher, the bigger the number of dan, the higher the grade. Why?

The dan grade system was introduced by the master of a Go school when the official competitions flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868). The top was the Master with 9-dan, then the grades reduced from 9 to 1. 1-dan was called sho-dan (‘初sho’ literarily means ‘beginning’ ‘段dan’ means ‘a step of stairs’), so sho-dan means ‘the first step’. Kyu grades were added later to fit in a growing number of Go players. The current Go world has ranks from 30th kyu (!!!) for amateur players. Nowadays each art/association embraces a different grade system, however in common with sho-dan it doesn’t mean black-belt or expert, but the first step.

By the way, there is a Japanese word ’dandan’ which means gradually, as if going up step by step. You will remember how to count in Japanese ‘dandan’ if you count it loud with senpai (senior students) every time.