Whenever foreign language students complain about learning Japanese, counters are usually one of the first things they moan about. While English has its difficult counters too (Ask any Japanese person about tubes of ~, boxes of ~ etc.), Japanese seems to take it to an extreme.
Some of the most interesting ones in Japanese are the animal counters. At first, learners are taught the simple rule that 匹 (Hiki) is used for small animals and 頭 (Tou) is used for larger animals. Seems simple, right? Of course, learners soon discover that there is a lot more going on here. The counters tell learners about how the Japanese see their relationship with animals.
For a start, the 匹 counter is often intentionally used in a ‘wrong’ way. If you listen to Japanese people complaining, the meaning can often be used in the way English speakers might call a whining teenager a ‘little baby’ (When, of course, they are neither a ‘baby’ nor ‘little’).
This can be taken to extreme. Dr. Yamane in the Godzilla movies can even be heard using the 匹 counter to intentionally bad-mouth the titular monster. Take that diss, Godzilla! Even the terrifying 鬼 (Oni- Ogre/ demon) in folklore stories is often referred to as 匹.
匹 also allows the Japanese to playfully insult each other. The word can often be heard at baseball games between Hanshin Tigers and their rivals Yomiuri Giants. When the final batter is about to go out, you will often hear the crowd trying to put them off by shouting あと一匹だ at them (Ato ippiki da- Only one more small animal to go!).
Despite these insulting uses, 匹 can also be used as a term of endearment. The clothing brand Mongobess has a popular range called 二匹のぞうさん (Nihiki no zou-san – Two Mr. Elephants). In this case 匹 is being used instead of 頭 as a way to show the designer’s affection for the animal. Whales, giraffes and even dinosaurs can all be 匹 if a cute image is required. In this case the meaning is similar to ‘that cute, little guy’.
As a nation of historical farmers, Japanese also see their animals in terms of their usefulness on the farm. The counter for horses is a good example of this as it sometimes changes depending on whether the horse is being ‘used’ or not. You will occasionally see the 騎 (ki) kanji used when the horse is being ridden and 頭 (tou) used when the horse is riderless.
One of the more interesting examples of this are rabbits. Learners who want to describe their beloved pet are usually surprised to discover that rabbits are counted using the counter for birds, 羽 (Wa).
The most likely reason for this anomaly is the way rabbits were hunted. After they had been killed, they were often carried in bundles bound by their ears. The counter for ‘bundle’ (把) is also pronounced ‘wa’ and because the animals had ears that looked like wings, they were counted with the same counter as birds.
Although this is probably the correct reason, it lacks the charm of some of the more interesting explanations. My personal favorite story is that monks used the 羽 so they could add rabbits to the dinner table. After all, if it is counted as 羽, it must be a bird, right?
At first this seems like a humorous joke, but it is at least partly based in truth. The emperor Saga did indeed decree that meat from birds and fish were the only exceptions to the religious no-meat rule. It is not unthinkable that some people might have wanted to make an exception for bunnies which could provide not only food but precious fur as well.
Others also claim that the word ウサギ (Usagi- rabbit) sounds like it could have been made up of the kanji 鵜 and 鷺. These kanji mean a cormorant and a heron, respectively, but when put together, they could be read as usagi. As both these kanji are used for birds, the Japanese may have started using the ‘wa’ counter as a kind of nationwide in-joke.
From jokes to statements about the animals themselves, the kanji that are used tell us a lot about the way the Japanese interact with the natural world. While the constantly changing counters may seem interesting, it works both ways.
In the movie Planet of the Apes, the simian overlords count humans as 匹. In this case, it is because us puny humans are the hunted instead of the hunters. So, while we may laugh at this complicated formality, we should be so cocky. After all, we are only a simian-uprising away from becoming 匹 ourselves!