Habit RPG for Japanese Learners – and the Kawaii Japanese Adventurers’ Guild

Habit RPG literally makes a game out of time management. This can be important for Japanese learners who have a problem managing their time and getting Japanese-related tasks done, as well as co-ordinating them with other tasks.

I have tried various ways to manage my time with very little success, but Habit RPG has really revolutionized the way I use my time and its effectiveness in working on Japanese. Partly that is because I understand games better than I understand practicalities. But also it is because with Habit RPG I am can be part of a group with Japanese Adventurer friends.

Kawaii Japanese has its own Guild (Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers) on Habit RPG. Everyone is welcome to join it and (optionally) take part in our Guild Challenges and talk about Japanese learning in Japanese. Don’t worry if your level is low. If you just want to pop in and say こんにちは you are more than welcome.

A thing one notices about the Internet is that it is full of Japanese learners blathering endlessly about Japanese in English. Now some things do need to be explained in English, but actually using Japanese, even at a low level, is crucial. Studying Japanese textbooks and even watching anime/playing games is of limited value if the minute you stop doing that you go straight back to “the real language” – English – for actually communicating and receiving communication. Japanese has to become the real language, at least for part of your life.

It is important to begin using – not just learning or practicing – Japanese as early as possible in your Japanese adventure.

This is the key to how we at Kawaii Japanese (and our guild on the game itself) use Habit RPG. The guild communicates only in Japanese (it is mostly quite simple and you can and should use Rikaichan as much as you need) and we encourage using the time management system to increase Japanese activity. Some of us actually have 不要な英語 – unnecessary English – as a bad habit that loses hit points.

So, let’s look at Habit RPG itself:

Habit RPG - making a game out of life
Habit RPG – making a game out of life

I am told by a friend who has considerable experience of task-managers that Habit RPG is one of the better ones even aside from the game aspect. It divides “tasks” into three kinds:

・Dailies (things you should do every day and lose hit-points if you don’t).

・Habits – things you should be trying to do, or not do, or do one way rather than another.

・To dos – a simple to do list.

You can also filter these – for example I have filters (tags) for articles and posts, mails and letters I should be writing etc. I am not well-organized and my system is pretty rudimentary as yet, but it does help even me to find things.

At the top you see your own avatar and those of your party. You earn gold and experience for completing tasks and lose hit points for not completing or for doing bad “habits” (unnecessary English, for example, or flipping peas across the dinner table).

There is much more to the game than this, and more and more gets unlocked as you level up. You can use your gold to buy equipment, pets and mounts become available, eggs hatch. There is a real sense of playing a game, especially with a party or Guild or both.

Here is a look at the Kawaii Japanese guild:

We are an open guild, so please join the fun!

The Guild issues challenges and is a place for chat, interaction, discussion and recommendations. Among other things it is a good place to practice using a little Japanese and a source of support and encouragement on your Japanese adventure.

If you sign up for Habit RPG you should then go to Social > Guilds and type in “kawaii” (or 日本語)and find us. Please don’t be shy or worried about your Japanese. We are all learning, and making mistakes is how one progresses. Using Japanese from an early stage is of great importance. It is a very different thing from just practicing Japanese. Actually communicating things (however small) that you actually want to communicate and learning things you want to learn. And it is good to have a friendly environment to try it in – as well as one that uses reasonably simple Japanese and is friendly and gentle.

It is also a place to discuss recommendations for Japanese games, books, anime and other “immersion materials” – i.e. the culture of our Japanese life.

There are only  a few things I would say have actually changed my life and Habit RPG is one of those few – largely because I am very poor at managing my time and have never gotten on at all well with “serious” time management software. I am definitely more productive both in Japanese and other areas as a result of Habit RPG. This is a lot to do with its game aspect and also its social aspect. It has allowed me to make my work into a game I share with Japanese-using, like-minded friends.

Cons: The two main cons about Habit RPG are:

• It does not handle monthly tasks well (it is fine with weeklies). That doesn’t affect me but is a drawback for some folks.

• It is not available in Japanese. There are several languages available and at the time of writing a Japanese translation is said to be 65% complete. We encourage people to enter tasks, tags etc in Japanese only, though of course that is up to you. If you do that and join the Guild you will be working in a largely-Japanese environment.

Neither of these is a major drawback (unless monthlies are super-important to you), and Habit RPG is well worth a try.

Wa vs Ga Particles: Japanese Mysteries Explained

Don't be shut out by confusing particles / All you have to do is read our articles!
Don’t be shut out by confusing particles  All you have to do is read our articles!

Knowing the full difference between wa and ga particles is tricky. The basics you can grasp in one lesson, but the subtleties take longer. In some ways they are equivalent to English “a” and “the”.

Nothing complicated about “a” and “the” you may say. You’d be surprised.

Even very advanced Japanese speakers of English sometimes say “a” when they should say “the” and vice versa. I have spent time trying to explain to Japanese speakers why they should be using one rather than the other on particular occasions – and when you actually try to codify the usages rather than just doing them by instinct you realize how extremely subtle and intricate they are.

The wa and ga particles are in some respects very similar to “a” and “the” and perform parallel functions in many cases.

Let’s look at a very simple song (which happens to be one of my favorites) and see how the wa and ga particles are used:

The song begins with two simple statements.

Anpan ni wa anko wa haitte(i)ru
There is anko in anpan

Melonpan ni wa melon ga haitte(i)nai.
There is no melon in melonpan.

The first question that might be asked is, why do we begin designating the two breads with wa?  It is often said that wa, being like “the”, should only be used for something that has already been introduced. As in:

Mukashi mukashi, chiisai onnanoko ga imashita.
Once upon a time there was a little girl.
Onnanoko wa kokoro-yasashii deshita.
The little girl was kind hearted.

In the first sentence the ga particle is used because the little girl is being introduced (equivalent to a girl) and in the second the wa particle is used because we already know who she is (equivalent to the girl).

So why are anpan and melonpan introduced with the wa particle?

Aside from the fact that the subject is what is in the breads (and you can’t use ni ga), more importantly for our purposes anpan and melonpan are things we already know about. They are not particulars but generalities.

If I say “the pencil is on the desk”  (equivalent to enpitsu wa tsukue no ue ni arimasu) completely out of context you will rightly say “what pencil?” If you don’t know any pencil I should have said “a pencil is on the desk” (equivalent to enpitsu ga tsukue no ue ni arimasu) – or more idiomatically “there is a pencil on the desk”. After this we can refer to the pencil with wa as it is a known pencil: “the pencil”.

However, if I say “pencils are useful” I am not referring to a particular pencil that you don’t know anything about. I am referring to pencils in general, which you do know about. In English we do not use either “a” or “the” for such things. We drop the article completely (often a point of confusion for Japanese people who frequently try to use “the” here).

In Japanese, the general is treated the same as the familiar so long as the general is familiar. So we can use wa with something that wasn’t introduced if we can assume the hearer knows about it.

This is what is happening here. Melonpan and anpan are general, known things, like pencils. They can take wa without an introduction.

Now there is a second wa-ga particle usage in this couplet:

Anpan ni wa anko wa haite[i]ru
There is anko in anpan

Melonpan ni wa melon ga haitte[i]nai.
There is no melon in melonpan.

Why is the wa particle used here? The usual, neutral usage is the one used in the second line. Melon is in a state of not having entered. It normally takes ga, as it does here. So why the wa particle in the first line?

If you read the two lines in English you will notice a slight awkwardness. You would expect the second line to say something like: “But there is no melon in melonpan”.  In other words to make some indication of the distinction between the situation with anpan vs melonpan, not simply to treat them as two completely unrelated sentences.

Well, that is what the first wa particle is doing. It is the wa of distinction. Often it would imply “Anko (as opposed to other things) is in it”. Here it means “Anko is (as opposed to other cases) in it. This may be a slightly loose use of the grammar – the song is quite childlike – but the meaning is clear enough.

Having established what is (or isn’t) in what bread, the singer tells us:

watashi ga ichiban suki na no wa melonpan [da/desu]
My favorite (bread) [is] melonpan

Now we have all learned to say watashi wa ocha ga suki desu. Tea is in the state of being liked. It takes ga. I am the liker so I take wa. Literally “In relation to me, tea is likeable”. Saying Arisu-san wa suki desu (for I like Alice) is a mistake as it will lead the hearer to wonder “what does Alice like?”

So why is it the other way around here?

Let’s look at how the sentence is structured. The wa-marked topic of this sentence is actually の no. It is used in the sense of “one” as in this rather textbooky interchange:

Dono enpitsu ga hoshii desuka?
“Which pencil do you want?”

Akai no ga hoshii desu.
“I want the red one“.

In the song the girl is referring to “my favorite one”, in this case meaning “favorite bread” or “favorite thing to eat”. This is the wa-marked topic of the sentence and everything that goes  before it qualifies that pronoun.

So ichiban suki na qualifies no and watashi ga qualifies ichiban suki na no. Then the entire noun-phrase, watashi ga ichiban suki na no, takes the wa-particle to mark it as the topic.

The sentence is actually of the very simple type everyone learned in her first lesson: A wa B [da/desu] -  as in watashi wa Amerikajin (desu) etc.

no is A and everything before it simply qualifies の and is therefore part of A.

B is “melonpan” with the da/desu left off.

You can never use wa in a noun-qualifying phrase. This is natural, since what is essentially only part of a noun (or noun-phrase) cannot be the topic. So anything that would normally be marked with the wa particle will be marked with the ga particle when it is in a subordinate clause like this.

The whole clause (including suki, which is here used adjectivally) adds up to a noun-phrase which is the topic of the sentence, so we use the wa particle and then say what it is equivalent to (in this case, melonpan), just as we did right at the beginning of learning Japanese.

In fact, we will usually find that even the most complicated sentences in Japanese can be boiled down to the three or four basic sentence-patterns we learned right at the beginning.

Like “a” and “the” for Japnese people, the wa and ga particles take time fully to understand, but I hope this gives you a clearer idea on some of the ways they work.

Do you need to write kanji?

is-it-necessary-to-write-kanjiIs it necessary to be able to write kanji? I mean, actually write it with one of those marky-sticks on the flat white stuff?

The conventional wisdom is that you have to write out each kanji by hand hundreds of times in order to actually learn them. Some people claim that with the proliferation of digital devices this is no longer necessary, while others say that without writing them you will never learn them. Which is true?

Let me start by saying that there is no way around knowing the kanji. If you don’t know them, you can neither read nor write them, even with digital devices. Actually reading them is more possible with things like Rikaichan, but your reading will be very slow and painful. Rikaichan is a good aid when needed, but it is no substitute for learning the kanji.

Writing will be next to impossible since while any decent digital device will automatically make the kanji for you, you have to know which kanji you mean. You can type K+I to get き, but did you mean 木 ,気 or 器?

The question is, can you know them without the physical act of writing them? There are arguments on both sides but let’s sum up the situation.

Writing kanji is not a magical key to knowing them. Some people complain about writing out kanji hundreds of times and still forgetting them quite quickly.

The old way of learning them, practised by Japanese schools and, following them, most Western teachers of Japanese, is simply to write them without analyzing them – pure rote- and muscle-memory. In my mind there is no doubt that this is a very bad way to learn kanji.

Also while Japanese children may not explicitly learn the parts of kanji and how they fit together, they are aware of radicals (you can’t use a kanji dictionary without being) and I cannot imagine that they are actually blind to the beauty, logic and poetry that goes into the structure of kanji.

Whether you are writing kanji by hand or not, you really must learn to identify their component radicals. Not doing so is like trying to learn the shapes of words without noticing their component letters (actually we do read both romaji words and kanji like this when we are very familiar with them, but whenever there is any uncertainty – and all the time during the learning process – we need to be able to identify the parts or we are making the job far more difficult than it needs to be).

One problem of not learning to write kanji is that you may never be fully aware of their exact structure. Confession time. Even kanji I know very well I could not, in most cases reproduce exactly. Not just because I haven’t practised writing them, but because I don’t know exactly how they look. I know them when I see them.

How bad is that? In practical terms, not very bad. Because the only time I need to know them is when I see them. I either see them in reading, or I see them on a list of possible kanji when I am typing them.

One objection to this is as follows: “Some kanji are very similar. If you only know them on a ‘facial recognition’ basis, you won’t be able to tell them apart”.

This is very true, and it is a serious objection if you are going to be taking Japanese language exams, where you will often be presented with out-of-context similar kanji side by side and asked which is which.

In real life, however, that does not happen. In real life you are either reading or writing. You have context. Even if you can’t tell the two kanji apart when you see them side by side, you actually know that “I kissed my ___” is more likely to be “mother” than “Andromeda galaxy” (no, those two things don’t actually have similar kanji. Just funnin’).

In cases where similar-looking kanji do mean similar or confusable things, the non-writing learner has to look at them together and clarify in her mind what distinguishes them. But she does not need to know the exact formation of every kanji she is familiar with – or even the confusable minority. She just needs to know enough to tell them apart in practice.

“But – you won’t be able to write. With a pen.” No, you won’t. How far is that a problem?

It depends how much you actually do write. Personally, I would say I write – actually by hand – in English maybe 200 words in a year. Truthfully I can’t even see how it would amount to 200, but I am being cautious. Other people write a lot more of course. So that depends on you.

“What about writing your name and things”. Silly. Of course you will be able to write your name. I am not suggesting anyone should not be able to write kana (though I confess I use them so little I am a bit hesitant). You will write your name in katakana usually. If you do by some chance have kanji for your name, of course you will learn to write those kanji. If you have a Japanese address you will very likely want to learn to write the kanji for that. This is not some “never write a kanji under any circumstances” game.

Some people are “tactile learners” and writing may really be the right way for them. However I suspect a lot of the people who say “you can’t know them without learning to write them by hand” are somewhat (and understandably) protective of the countless hours they themselves have invested in doing it.

If you are taking written exams you have to learn to write kanji.  If you are taking exams with tricky kanji-recognition elements, the best way of learning kanji that exactly may well be to learn to write them with the correct stroke-order. If you are a tactile learner, writing may be the right path for you.

If your main use of kanji is real-life usage (whether running a company or reading manga), you probably don’t need to write them. You do need to know them.

I find that knowing and making friends with kanji is vital to seeing how Japanese words fit together and why they mean what they mean. I love kanji. I gaze at them in admiration. I love the fact that the kanji of 枯れる (kareru, to wilt or wither) is “tree” plus “old”. I adore fun things like the fact that 望遠鏡 (telescope) means hope+distant+mirror – actually the mirror can, I think, be a speculum or seer’s crystal which makes it all the more mysterious and lovely.

But even with regular words I am very often thinking of them in terms of their kanji. “あぁ, 審査 ー 審判の審、調査の査ですね。”

But I blush to say I don’t write them. I only blush a little though. I don’t write English either.


Keeping it Kirei – Procon Latte Blocklist Update

'cause clean is better than dirty
‘Cause clean is better than dirty

For those of you following our recommendation to use Procon Latte to filter out non-kawaii crudity from your internet sanpo, we now have an update to the Kawaii Japanese official blocklist. The list has been extended to block more variations on kitanai kotoba, but continues the policy of not blocking standard English words that can be used in a bad way (unlike many filters).

The following is the report from the blocklist team:

This is the second version of the list from Kawaii Japanese. There have been several changes. More variants on vulgarity have been added (the original blacklist lets some really quite nasty things through), but we continue our policy of not adding words that have common legitimate uses, as this seems to us to do more harm than good.

Another issue arose from using it in practice. The word d–n was by default blocked. It is not a word we use here or especially approve of, but – we found a curious result of blocking it in practice. For example:

A discourse by a scientist in the 1950s used this word a several times in talking about particle physics. This is the informal speech-style of a reasonably-respectable 1950s male academic. The problem with having the word on the blacklist is that it made the article look much nastier than it actually was – as if the writer was using a stream of filthy language, which wasn’t really the case.

Consequently we have de-listed d–n. What do readers think?

On the other hand, a few words that are counted as “acceptable” by some current Western people are blacklisted by us (they weren’t by default). For example a word for the emission liquid waste often used to mean “annoyed”. Our feeling here was that whatever the intention, these words are very offensive to us and should be blocked.

If you have comments, don’t hesitate to pop them below.

Also, some  readers had trouble installing Procon Latte, so we have now included more complete instructions in the main article.

The Kawaii Japanese settings file contains not only the new blacklist, but our recommended settings – word filtering only (no site-blocking which is used by default otherwise) and other small tweaks. You can of course make your own changes to our settings and blocklist.

Get the new version of the Kawaii Japanese custom settings here.

See the full article and instructions on filtering here.

I Am Not an Eel! The Mysteries of Invisible Japanese Pronouns and the Real Meaing of the Wa-Particle

I-am-not-an-eelHere it is! Using the ancient koan of the eel and the diner, the mysteries of invisible Japanese pronouns and the wa-particle are about to be finally unveiled

Enlightenment commences in 3… 2…

Watashi wa unagi desu is a common joke among Japanese learners. It is a kind of expression Japanese people often use and the idea is that it literally means “I am an eel”.

After all, Watashi wa gakusei desu means “I am a student”, doesn’t it?

What Watashi wa unagi desu really means, of course, when said in context (probably in a restaurant) is “I will have eel”. The common Western impression is that the speaker has literally said “I am an eel” but by a sort of colloquial contraction, it is understood in context to mean “I will have eel”. Even the scholarly and usually excellent  Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar says that “I am an eel” is the literal meaning.

But it isn’t. And the idea that it is shows a quite deep failure in the average Western learner (and even “expert”) to feel how Japanese really works.

This takes us back to the famous “vagueness” of Japanese. Cure Tadashiku and I have written about Japanese ambiguity here and here and it is a real phenomenon, but not in the way that Western learners often think.

First of all, let’s look at the way nouns and pronouns are dropped (this is important to our eel as you’ll see in a minute). It is sometimes considered very obscure and confusing. It isn’t. It is really only doing what all languages do but in a slightly different way. Consider this English sentence:

As Mary was going upstairs, Mary heard a noise. Mary turned and came back down. At the bottom of the stairs, Mary saw a tiny kitten.

Is that grammatically correct? Of course it is. Just as correct as saying “watashi wa” all the time when it isn’t necessary. Would any native speaker ever say it? Of course not.

Why not? Because having established Mary as the topic we don’t keep using her name. We refer to her as “she”. Japanese refers to her as ” ” – that is, nothing, or the no-pronoun.

The absence of a visible pronoun is slightly startling to the Anglophone mind, but actually it is scarcely more ambiguous than English. The words she, he and it could refer respectively to any female person, any male person and any thing in the world. They only have any useful meaning from context. Once the thing or person is established, we no longer name it, but replace it with a catch-all marker that actually catches what context tells it to catch.

Japanese works almost exactly the same but without the marker, which is actually not semantically necessary. If a small child says:

Mary was going upstairs. Heard noise. Came back down. At bottom of stairs saw tiny kitten.

We are still in no doubt as to what she means. That is how Japanese works. Putting the unnecessary “she” marker in every fresh clause is actually a slight linguistic inefficiency.

What is the sound of no-pronoun?

But – and here is the very important point – there is a pronoun in Japanese. It is a no-pronoun. The vital point to understand is that the invisible no-pronoun works in very much the same way that English visible pronouns work.

If we don’t realize this, we will continue to think that “watashi wa unagi desu” means literally “I am an eel”.

However, in order to reach complete enlightenment on the unagi koan, we need one more piece of understanding. The particle wa.

In beginners’ texts it is often said that the wa-particle means “as for” or “speaking of”. And it literally does. The best translation is probably “as for” (which accounts for the differentiating function of wa too – but that is another question).

So: Watashi wa gakusei desu literally means “As for Hanako-chan, she is a student”.

Note that there is both a noun and a pronoun in that English sentence. The proper noun “Hanako-chan” and the pronoun “she”. It is the same in Japanese. Except, of course, that the pronoun is ” “.

Understand this and you will be a long way toward feeling how Japanese really works.

Here is the golden rule. Always remember it:

The wa-particle never marks the grammatical subject of a sentence.

Taking the wa-marked noun as the grammatical subject is what leads to the belief that the diner is calling herself an eel. It turns Japanese inside-out in our minds and makes it feel strange.

The grammatical subject of “As for Hanako-chan, she is a student” is not “Hanako-chan” – it is “she”. “As for Hanako-chan” merely defines who “she” is.

Similarly the grammatical subject of Hanako-chan wa gakusei desu is not Hanako-chan, it is ” “. Hanako-chan wa merely defies who ” ” is.

Understand this in simple sentences, and much more complex Japanese will begin to form a correct pattern in your mind.

One may think this is splitting hairs, since in this case (and in a large number of cases) the no-pronoun grammatical subject and the wa-marked topic happen to refer to the same thing, and indeed one defines the other. But that is not always the case. And that is the cause of the unagi confusion.

So let us finally return to the eel that has been so patiently awaiting us.

Watashi wa unagi desu is often spoken by a member of a party of (or at least two) diners. It means “As for me, it (=the thing I will have) is eel (as opposed to Hanako-chan who is having omuraisu)”. When spoken by a single diner it still means literally (if you want the literal meaning – which is certainly not “I am an eel”) “As for me (as opposed to any other customer) it (= the thing I will have) is  eel.

You see the desu does not refer to watashi, which, being marked with wa, cannot be the grammatical subject of the sentence. It refers to the actual subject of the sentence which is the no-pronoun ” “. The no-pronoun – just like English pronouns – is determined by context.

Literally the sentence means: Watashi wa, (” ” ga) unagi desu.

What we are talking about here is “what I will eat”. Therefore that is the “it”, the ” ” or no-pronoun, of this statement.

There is no doubt whatever about what “it” is since either it is the subject of an actual conversation (Hanako-chan has just ordered omuraisu or the waitress has asked “what will you have?”) or it is obvious from the fact that the waitress is a waitress and has approached your table. She has not come to ask you for a stock-market tip. Or if she has, she will say so. If she doesn’t it can be safely assumed that the unspoken question is “what will you have?” which determines the it of the reply. The watashi wa (which can very well be omitted, especially when the diner is not one of a party) is merely distinguishing the person (as distinct from other persons) to whom the it pertains.

It really is as simple as that.

Did you know what “it” was in the above sentence? Of course you did – even though it was quite abstract – “the gist of this article, the subject I am trying to explain”.

In Japanese I would have said

Hontou ni, anna ni kantan desu.

No written “it”, but just as clear.

NOTE: Watashi wa unagi desu is not a particularly polite way for a lone diner to order a dish. The main use of this common pattern is precisely when there are several diners in a party, and it is used to specify what “it” (the food one will have, which is the subject under discussion, and therefore the understood content of the no-pronoun) is in relation to a particular member (hence the use of watashi wa).

Japanese Counters for Dummies: they’re easier when you know how!

Ippiki, nihiki, sanbiki…

Japanese counters can seem very difficult at first. You can’t just say “two pencils”, “seven cats” or “ten sheets of paper” the way you can in most languages. You need to know the counter for long round things, small animals and thin flat things respectively.

Not only that, but the pronunciation of the counter changes depending on what number it is used with. The counter for small animals is called hiki but in fact:

1 cat is ippiki
2 cats are nihiki
3 cats are sanbiki
4 cats are yonhiki
5 cats are gohiki
6 cats are roppiki
7 cats are shichihiki or nanahiki
8 cats are happiki
9 cats are kyuuhiki
10 cats are juppiki

And then different counters have different patterns of sound-change.

How Counters’ Sound Patterns Transform

It looks crazy, but in fact it is a lot simpler than it seems. Once you learn how it works you will be able to figure out how nearly any counter sounds for any number.

Look at the sub-heading above and commit it to memory. Here, I’ll give it to you again:

How Counters’ Sound Patterns Transform

You need to remember this phrase. Why? Because actually there are only five types of transforming counter (only?… no don’t panic, I’m going to help you). They are counters that start with the consonantal sounds H, K, S, P and T. That is why you should remember that phrase – How Kounters’ Sound Patterns Transform.

Or, if it is easier, you can remember this way: it is the “hard”-consonant counters that transform, not the “soft”-consonant ones like mai, rin, wa and bu. This makes even more sense when you see how they work, since (with a single maverick exception) they always transform by sharpening or doubling the hard sound – you actually can’t double soft consonants in Japanese. You never see a small tsu before m, b, or w.

Now, once you know that, you will be pleased to learn that the transformations are very regular. What throws people, I think, is that single maverick we spoke of before. H-row sounds turn to the B-equivalent when paired with san (as in sanbiki)*. But actually that is the only major irregularity.

Other than that all the HKSPT counters modify in the same way. In a few cases the modification is optional, but you can always use it without fearing to make a mistake.

So, leaving out the H row for a moment, all the other mutating counters  (K,S,P,T) follow the same pattern:

1. They all keep their base value for all numbers other than one, six, eight and ten (jump from one to six, then every alternate number).

2. As for those four numbers, they all do the same thing:

They simply drop the second syllable of the number and double the first consonant of the counter. So ni-ko and san-ko but ikko rather than ichi-ko and jukko rather than juu-ko.

The only regular exception to this is that the S and T counters don’t mutate for 6 (roku) – i.e. no ross- or rott-.

The H-row is really less puzzling than it seems too. It only changes to the sounds that are made with the H-row by adding diacritical marks so, in the case of ひき hiki, it becomes びき bikki (for that maverick san only) and っぴき ppiki for the regular doubled-consonant numbers, one, six, eight and ten. Since you couldn’t actually have hhiki, that isn’t very hard to remember.

Now I won’t pretend there aren’t a few other irregularities with counters (hun, the counter for minutes, for example doesn’t mutate on 3, so it is sanpun rather than sanbun). But this pattern will guide you through most of the ones you are going to use. Even Japanese people mostly don’t use the more obscure counters.

The important thing to realize is that it is a pattern that works nearly all the time, not just a set of confusing random sound-changes. And if the counter does not begin with H,K,S,P or T, it will not have sound-changes at all.

Remember that you don’t need counters if you use the native Japanese counting system – hitotsu, futatsu mittsu. However you should know and use the basic counters like hon, hiki, hai, mai, ko, etc

If you work through the explanation on this page (it sounds a bit more complicated in text than it really is), the pattern of the sound changes should fall into place for you and the whole thing will feel much more intuitive.

* There is a sound-logic to the san-b transformation too, but for our practical purpose here it is simpler just to think of it as a maverick.