How to Speak in Japanese Number Codes

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The first time I noticed that Japanese people are fans of number codes was on a rainy Saturday evening. I got a text message from my girlfriend asking me if we were going out. Being really tired, I wrote back that, honestly, I was going to spend the night at home with a book. Her reply? “221.”

Two-two-one? I remember looking at that message for a long time. What could it mean? I know, I thought, it must mean that before we were doing something together “2” and now we had gone from a couple “2” to two solos “1.”

Wait a second? Did that mean she wanted to split up with me?

In fact, she was using a Japanese code language of numbers. To decipher this language each number corresponds to a sound in the language.

  • 1 is い
  • 2 is に or じ
  • 3 is さ or み
  • 4 is し or よ
  • 5 is ご
  • 6 is ろ
  • 8 is はち, は or や
  • 9 is く

Therefore, her message should have been read as “じじい” (a slang phrase for an old man). She was calling me an old guy for not going out with her!

Hmmm, maybe I was happier when I thought she wanted to split up with me…

Seeing code

Once you understand this code, you start to see it everywhere. On YouTube, you will often see the number code “888” written. You can convert this into “はちはちはち” (the onomatopoeic sound of people clapping). In other words, the writer is giving the uploader of the video a round of applause.

A similar one is “555,” which is a number code that gamers will be familiar with. You will see it whenever someone is facing their ultimate rival in the game. It’s transposed version (“ごごご”) may not look like Japanese… and that’s because it isn’t! The writer is recreating the “go, go, go” chanting you see in many American gaming videos in Japanese.

Of course, not all the number codes are so obscure. Often, it is simply a fun way to spell words such as “4649” (yo-ro-shi-ku , or please), “3341” (sa-mi-shi-i, or lonely) and “88919” (ha-ya-ku i-ku, or hurry up and get going!).

It’s worth looking around for these number codes as they pop up in some unexpected places. Even live feeds of serious topics can be covered with numbers trying to efficiently convey the viewers’ feelings. The next time you see a video and the numbers “555” float by instead of a comment, you’ll now have the inside track on what the writer is really trying to say.

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Grooving to Japan's rhythm.

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