Japanese Numbers Through “Energy” by Kuroki Ryo

Learning to understand numbers in Japanese intuitively has not been easy for me. The biggest challenge is that the groups of place values are handled differently when talking about large numbers. In English the place values are grouped in threes, while in Japanese the place values are grouped in fours. You can see what I’m talking about in the tables below.

English Number Arabic Numerals
One thousand 1,000
One million 1,000,000
One billion 1,000,000,000
Japanese Number Arabic Numerals
一万 (ichi man) 10,000
一億 (ichi oku) 100,000,000
一兆 (icchou) 1,000,000,000,000

One way to get a sense for a number is to think about a real value that can give you a sense of scale. Remembering some populations in Japanese is one way to map some real values to Japanese numbers. I didn’t come up with the idea myself to use populations. It may have come from this article, but since I heard the idea, it has stuck in my mind.

Here is a list of a few populations. I found the world population at http://data.worldbank.org and the country and city populations at http://data.un.org, then I rounded them to 2 significant digits, to make them easier to remember.

Location Population in English Population in Japanese
World 7.5 billion 七十五億人 (nana jyuu go oku nin)
Japan 130 million 一億三千人 (ichi oku san zen nin)
Tokyo 10 million 千万人 (sen man nin)
Kyoto 1.5 million 百五十万人 (hyaku go jyuu man nin)
Fukushima 300 thousand 三十万人 (san jyuu man nin)

Mapping to populations will help with raw numbers, but one of the most common reasons you see large numbers in books or in the news is to represent the monetary value of something. In that case you need to deal with monetary conversion as well if you are not familiar with using yen. In my case, I would need to think about a value in US dollars to get a good sense of what it means until I get used to thinking about yen as-is.

If monetary values are in units of Yen, then the numbers can sound very large. You may, like me, have a good sense of what different orders of magnitude mean when referring to US dollars. Otherwise you can adapt this idea using the currency you’re most familiar with.  Even though it’s only a rough estimate, I think in terms of $1 = 100 yen. That gets you into the right order of magnitude, which is often fine for the purpose of understanding a story. If more granularity is needed, it’s easy to ask Google or Siri to convert if for you.

I find it helpful to remember the dollar equivalent to each Japanese place value group, and then work from there for numbers in between.

JPY Value Very Rough Equivalent USD Value
一兆円 (icchou en) $10 billion
一億円 (ichi oku en) $1 million
一万円 (ichi man en) $100

 

It seems like quite a challenge learning numbers in Japanese, but there is one thing the makes it a lot easier. You can think about numbers in the standard arabic based numerals, since these symbols transcend most languages. Translating verbal Japanese numbers into arabic numerals is not the same as translating into English, since writing using numbers with arabic numerals is as common in Japan as it is in English speaking countries. This means your previous familiarity with numbers is still useful when thinking in Japanese.

I found that a great way to get more familiar with Japanese numbers is to read a book that is filled with numbers. Kuroki Ryo writes these kind of books.

Energy, by Kuroki Ryo (エネルギー 黒木 亮)is a 1000+ page novel that follows three storylines relating to how the oil and gas supply chain works behind the scenes. There’s the story of Kanazawa, who works for a former Zaibatsu, and is working hard to secure natural gas supply to Japan through a massive new project in Sakhalin, Russia. Kameoka and Tomonji are striving to supply oil to Japan by developing a giant oil field in Iran, while the political situation between America and Iran is quite strained. Akidsuki is an energy derivatives trader in Singapore who is trying to take advantage of a young, ambitious, and overly confident Chinese businessman. All of these stories play out it real time from 1997 to 2007, and many major world events during that timeframe are woven into the story. Kuroki’s style is very realistic, and the numbers are included for the deals and negotiations, so this novel is great practice for reading large numbers.

One scene in this book highlights the challenge of the differences between Japanese and English when dealing with numbers. Tomonji is mocked throughout the book for being bad at English, so it’s not that it’s an excuse to make number mistakes when making international business deals, but it does highlight the difficulty of the different ways of grouping place values when you’re dealing with large numbers.

This is my translation of a scene where Tomonji is proposing a financing deal to Iranian officials, where the Japan Bank for International Cooperation will pay to develop oil fields in Iran and Iran will pay them back with oil.

Some of the dialog is in katakana to show English mixed in the dialog in the original Japanese. I left some of the words in my translation in Japanese, where I needed to express when they are switching languages.


Tomonji came back after forty minutes.

“Hey, it went well!”

Both Tomonji and his bag carrier’s faces were flushed.

“It went well?”

The two from Tonichi responded, smiling from ear to ear.

“Well, I can’t believe they were so happy! You know, it was like they were overjoyed with gratitude.”

“Really? I wouldn’t expect them to be that excited.”

“The three finger JBIC financing was effective after all. When I said 30 billion dollars, the four Iranians looked right at us with wide eyes. They really seemed moved.”

That moment, the smiles disappeared from the faces of the two men from Tonichi.

“Thirty billion dollars? …You said thirty billion dollars?”

Kameoka furrowed his brow.

“Huh? …Yeah that’s what I said… 三十億 (san jyuu oku) dollars isn’t it?”

“Thirty billion dollars is 三百億 (san byaku oku) dollars, right?

“Huh?!”

Tomonji’s face went pale. “Wasn’t one billion 一億 (ichi oku)?”

“No, one billion is 十億 (jyu oku).”

The stocky Tehran office chief’s face took on a look of despair and bewilderment.

“Ugh! what should we do now?”

Cold sweat began to pour from Tomonji’s forehead.

“Hurry up and go fix it! This is about to become a huge mess!” Kameoka screamed.

Tomonji ran out of the room, halfway in tears.

“Wait! Please, wait!”

You could hear the doppler effect on the wailing coming from the hall.

4 thoughts on “Japanese Numbers Through “Energy” by Kuroki Ryo”

  1. Haha, that’s a nice scene and I can imagine such thing happening in real life. 😀 Thank you for sharing.

    Anytime I was asked to assist in translations in my company (usually spoken), I would note down the number phonetically while the other side was speaking. Then I would write the numerals without any commas next to the phonetic transcribtion. When my turn to speak came, I would add the commas in my notes, grouping the digits either in threes or in fours (depending if I was translating to or from Japanese). Not a foolproof method, but it helped me a lot.

    1. Thanks for coming back! That’s neat that you have some actual experience with this kind of situation. Writing out the numbers and grouping the digits is the same method I used to double-check my numbers in this blog post.

      It hasn’t been easy to get used to hearing long numbers for me. A few years ago I tried practicing by writing down the numbers from the exchange rate and stock index report in the NHK news podcast. It was quite difficult at first but got easier with some practice. You have to be pretty solid with that skill to do interpretation for business.

  2. Good discussion on numbers. I admit to being weak in that area, though I can usually manage when it comes to money with numbers that aren’t too high.

    Did you finish reading “Energy” yet? 1000 pages is pretty long, I don’t think I’ve read a Japanese book of that size. If it’s a great book I’m sure its worth it, but personally I might prefer 2 (or 3) smaller sized books. If you did finish it, do you recommend it?

    Your translation is pretty good. If you don’t mind, I wanted to give a few comments questions:

    (If you prefer this type of stuff sent do your email directly, let me know)

    1) What is ‘three finger financing’?
    2) “Cold sweat began to pour from of Tomonji’s forehead” has an extra preposition in the middle
    3)This is about to be a huge mess => ‘become’ sounds more natural here to me, or you can use ‘This is about to get messy’ though it sounds a little cheesy.
    4) “was filling with despair” => I read this line a few times but the tense feels awkward. The tense of “had a furrowed brow” also feels weird. But maybe just my imagination…
    5) “Kameoka, screamed” => extra comma
    6) “Halfway to tears” => while there is an expression using ‘to’ (ex. ‘bored to tears’) I think ‘in’ fits better here.

    Sorry, I do so much editing of my own translations I couldn’t help myself (:

    1. I did finish reading “Energy”. I read the Kadokawa version, which has a 上 and a 下. The Kodansha version has a 上,中, and下. In that sense it kind of is two or three smaller books. Also, it is about three different stories that don’t overlap that much.

      I would recommend it for some people. I was interested in reading it because someone in my family used to work in the oil industry and I wanted to learn something about it. I wanted to know about the technical side, and it does dig into the technical side a bit, but only as needed for background in explaining the political and financial sides. If you are someone or know someone who works in the finance side of large international projects this may be interesting to you. One other thing nice thing about “Energy” is how it describes a lot of interesting locations, but this is probably only about 5%-10% of the text, so I wouldn’t read it for that alone.

      I wouldn’t recommend reading it if you are mainly looking for intriguing plot or complex characters. The characters didn’t have a lot of depth and their relationships weren’t very fleshed out or nuanced. Also, the plot isn’t particularly gripping like a typical mystery or suspense plot.

      Basically, you really have to want to know what it is like working on making large international energy deals happen to get into this book. If that’s what you’re looking for, then I can’t imagine a better book.

      Thanks for including the corrections. I’m happy for you to leave any suggestions and feedback in the comments. I’ll make the corrections in the post soon.

      To answer the question about “three finger financing”, I just translated it literally. The characters in the novel use the counter “本” for millions of dollars. I think this is a reference to that, but it’s applied to billions in this case.

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