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Why are there 2 words for 4 in Japanese?


Japanese is a fascinating language with unique features that distinguish it from other languages. One of the most interesting aspects of the Japanese language is the existence of two words for the number four: “shi” and “yon”. In this article, we will explore the historical and cultural reasons why this phenomenon exists in the Japanese language.

The Origin of the Words for Four

The words “shi” and “yon” both mean “four” in Japanese, but they are not interchangeable. The word “shi” is associated with death and bad luck, while “yon” is considered to be a more neutral term. The origin of this distinction can be traced back to ancient China, which had a similar belief that the number four was unlucky because it sounded like the word for death in Chinese.

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The Influence of Chinese Culture

Japanese culture has been heavily influenced by Chinese culture throughout its history. This influence is evident in many aspects of Japanese life, including language, art, and religion. The belief that the number four is unlucky is one such example of Chinese culture being adopted by Japan.

The Role of Superstition

Superstition has played a significant role in shaping Japanese culture and language. Many Japanese people are deeply superstitious and believe that certain numbers, colors, and objects can bring good or bad luck. This belief in luck and superstition is one reason why there are two words for four in Japanese.

The Evolution of Language

Languages evolve over time as they are influenced by cultural, social, and political changes. The existence of two words for four in Japanese is an example of how language can change over time to reflect cultural beliefs and superstitions.

The Importance of Homophones

Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. In Japanese, homophones are particularly important because they allow for puns and wordplay. The existence of two words for four in Japanese creates opportunities for clever wordplay.

The Role of Kanji

Kanji are characters borrowed from Chinese that are used in the Japanese writing system. The kanji character for “shi” (死) also means “death”, which reinforces the negative association with the number four. Understanding how kanji are used in Japanese helps explain why there are two words for four.

The Influence of Buddhism

Buddhism has been a major religion in Japan since it was introduced in the 6th century. Buddhist beliefs about death and reincarnation have influenced Japanese attitudes towards death and mourning. This influence is another factor that contributes to the negative association with the number four.

The Impact on Everyday Life

The existence of two words for four in Japanese has an impact on everyday life. For example, many buildings in Japan do not have a fourth floor or room number because it is considered unlucky. This practice is known as “yotsuashi”, or “skipping over four”.

The Use of Alternative Words

Because the word “shi” is associated with death and bad luck, alternative words are sometimes used instead. For example, some hospitals use the word “yon” instead of “shi” when referring to their fourth floor or room numbers.

The Importance of Cultural Understanding

Understanding cultural beliefs and superstitions is important when learning a new language or communicating with people from different cultures. Knowing why there are two words for four in Japanese can help non-native speakers avoid using the wrong word in certain situations.


The existence of two words for four in Japanese reflects deep-rooted cultural beliefs and superstitions about luck and death. It is an example of how language can evolve over time to reflect cultural changes and influences. By understanding why there are two words for four in Japanese, we can gain a greater appreciation for the unique features of this fascinating language.

Why are there two words for four and seven in Japanese?

The reason why Japanese has different words for the same number is partly due to superstition. For example, the word “shi” sounds like the Japanese word for death, and “ku” can mean suffering. Additionally, the word “shichi” can also refer to a “place of death.”

Why is 4 in Japanese Yon or Shi?

You’ll notice above that for the Japanese numbers 4 and 7, there are two different words. The first ones (“yon” and “nana”) are more commonly used because the word for “death” in Japanese is “shi.” Using “yon” instead will prevent other speakers from thinking you bring up death all the time in casual conversation.Aug 13, 2021

What is the correct way to say 4 in Japanese?

Here is a list of some Japanese numerals with their Sino-Japanese and native Japanese pronunciations: For example, the numeral 4 can be pronounced as “shi” or “yon” in Sino-Japanese and “yottsu” in native Japanese. Similarly, the numeral 5 can be pronounced as “go” in Sino-Japanese and “itsutsu” in native Japanese. The list goes on for 57 more numerals.

Why are there two ways to say numbers in Japanese?

The Japanese numeral system has two types of pronunciations, called the Sino-Japanese readings and the Native Japanese readings. The former is based on Chinese numerals, while the latter is based on Japanese native words.

Why is Nana instead of Shichi?

In the past, the Japanese developed the words yon, nana, and kyu as substitutes for numbers that sounded like words associated with death and suffering, such as shi, shichi, and ku. This was due to superstition surrounding these sounds.

Is it ku or kyuu?

In Japanese culture, the number 9 is represented by the character “ku,” which has a dual meaning of both “9” and “suffering.” This is shown through the use of the characters 九 and 苦.

The Future of the Words for Four

As Japan becomes more globalized, some people are questioning the continued use of two words for four. Some argue that it is an unnecessary superstition that holds Japan back from modernization. Others believe that it is an important part of Japanese culture that should be preserved.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to use the word “yon” exclusively when referring to the number four. This is seen as a way to modernize Japanese language and move away from old superstitions. However, changing deeply ingrained cultural beliefs and language habits can be challenging.

Ultimately, the continued use of two words for four in Japanese will depend on how Japanese society evolves in the future. Regardless of whether “shi” or “yon” is used, understanding the history and cultural significance of these words is important when communicating with Japanese people.

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