fbpx Skip to Content

4 & 7 in Japanese — And the Numerous Ways to Say Them

4 & 7 in Japanese — And the Numerous Ways to Say Them

Sharing is caring!

How do you choose between yon and shi for 4, or nana and shichi for 7 in Japanese. Why are there two different ways to say these numbers? Is there any significance?

Even people who aren’t fans of Japanese culture might have heard about the fact that in Japan the number 4 is bad luck.

They might even know it has something to do with death. But there’s more to it than that.

In fact, there’s a handful of Japanese number superstitions and quirks.

We’re going to talk about a bunch of different numbers, both the ones associated with bad luck, but also the ones for good luck.

With so many homophones in the Japanese language, they’ve gotten awfully creative, and we’re going to take a peek at a bunch of it.

But let’s start simple…


4 in Japanese

Yon is the typical reading of 4 in Japanese, except when counting months. When in doubt, use yon.


7 in Japanese

Nana is the most common reading of 7, however shichi is often acceptable, for example when naming months.


Why do Japanese numbers have different pronunciations?

We’ll start with a general question and then narrow down to 4 and 7.

Before we dive in too deep, I want to dispel you of the notion that it’s particularly strange that Japanese has different ways of reading its numbers. This is fairly common across languages. In fact, English has a very similar feature.

For example, to denote “1” in English, we can say either one or first.

This distinction refers to cardinal and ordinal numbers, respectively. Japanese has a very similar system, changing pronunciation to relate to the way we’re counting.

That doesn’t tell us much about “why,” though, does it? The simple reason is that some numbers are derived from the native Japanese pronunciation, known as kunyomi.

The other numbers’ pronunciations are drawn from the imported, ancient Chinese readings of kanji, known as onyomi.

In the old days, Japanese only had, one, maybe two, ways of saying each number.

But when Chinese arrived in Japan in the mid-first millennium, the ancient Japanese began to adopt different words into their language.

Furthermore, since Chinese at that time (similar to today) was not one unified language, but rather a cluster of subtly (and not-so-subtly) different dialects of one language.

Because of this, sometimes there are multiple different onyomi for a single word.


How do you choose the correct pronunciation?

For most of the Japanese language, there are some fairly useful guidelines on how and when to use kunyomi versus onyomi. However, those rules get tossed out for numbers a lot of the time.

Not only are there a lot of different pronunciations for the same concepts, there’s also a lot of superstition grafted on top of it, making it taboo to use certain pronunciations in certain situations. This complicates matters quite a bit.


What are the different pronunciations?

Let’s get the lay of the land, okay?

1hitoichi; itsu
2futani; ji
3misan; zo
4yon; yoshi
6muroku; riku
7nana; nanoshichi
8ya; yohachi
9kokonokyu; ku
10to; soju


4 in Japanese and 7 in Japanese

So, how do I count in Japanese??

Those of you familiar with the basics of counting in Japanese may be surprised to notice that when counting regularly, you switch between onyomi and kunyomi as you go.

The pattern is on, on, on, kun, on, on, kun, on, on, on.

All this is even more confusing when you think about the general rules for onyomi and kunyomi. What’s up with that?

And why is it just those two, 4 and 7?

Well, let’s take 7 first.



7 in Japanese — Difference between shichi and nana

When read on its own, seven is usually pronounced nana. The reason behind this is likely to avoid confusion. Shichi sounds too similar to (one of the pronunciations of) four.

By the way, seven is considered an auspicious number in Japanese, mostly due to its relationship to Buddhism.

There’s celebrations for the seventh day after a baby is born, and mourning seven days after a death.

There are the Seven Gods of Luck and the July 7th celebration known as Tanabata (seventh evening festival).

Let’s take a look at some words with 7 in them to get a feel for how it gets used.




7 o’clock


seven days; seventh day

dominant seventh (chord)

festival for 7, 5, and 3 year olds

Tanabata (festival—the etymology on this one is weird. It used to be called shichi-seki, but that changed over time).


4 in Japanese — Difference between yon and shi

This one has a pretty clear point of reasoning behind the discrepancy in usage between the kunyomi and onyomi. It turns out that the onyomi is shi and that is also how you pronounce the word for “death.” So, yeah, pretty unlucky.

In fact, this one is considered so unlucky that it functions similar to the number 13 in Western cultures.

Just like in the US you might see the 13th floor missing in some buildings, you’ll sometimes see the 4th floor missing in Japanese buildings.

If you give a gift in a set, never do it in packs of four. Stick with 3 or 5, to be safe (2, being written 二, can imply separation or division—not a good thing).

This issue with 4 leads to a whole host of interesting issues when paired with other numbers.

24 can imply 二死, or nishi meaning two deaths. This one’s to be avoided as well in baseball, as it refers to having two outs.

42 sounds like 死に, or shini which is an even more direct reference to death and dying.

43 sounds like 死産, or shizan, meaning stillbirth. You won’t find this number in the maternity ward at hospitals.

License plates have at least two numbers you’ll never see on a car.

The first is 42-19, which could be read shini-iku (死に行く), meaning “to go die.”

Then there’s 42-56, which could sound like shini-goro (死に頃), or “time to die.”

Finally, there’s 49, which wounds like shiku (敷く), meaning “to run over.” Definitely don’t want that one on your car.

Let’s look at a few words for some context.





Oh, and here’s a weird side note! When counting forward in Japanese, you’ll usually say, “ichi, ni, san, yon, go…” but if you count backwards people will often say, “go, shi, san, ni, ichi,” because it’s apparently easier to say that way.


9 in Japanese

There’s another very bad vibes number, and that’s 9.

9 can be read as ku (苦), which means “suffering and hardship.” So, once again, you’ll see this number avoided a lot, especially in this pronunciation.

If you pair this up with 4, you get 94, or kushi. You know what else is called kushi? A hair comb. So don’t gift anyone that!


Kansai Kwirks

The Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, and the surrounding cities) is well known for its unique Kansai-ben, aka Kansai dialect.

Unlike the rest of Japan, many people in Kansai will opt for the unconventional pronunciations of 4 and 7.

In fact, many of the roads are numbered in Kyoto and should be pronounced with the onyomi only.

However, many people who are not local to the area will pronounce it wrong. It’s such an issue that the city buses actually use the “wrong” pronunciation to let people know their stop!


8 in Japanese

One last one for you! 8 is a pretty auspicious number in Japanese, known for prosperity and growth. Why’s that? Well, just look at the kanji: 八. See how it spreads out from top to bottom? This implies growth and prosperity.