In “Beyond いち, に, さん” we examined the numbers 0 through 10 in Japanese, with the multiple kanji characters and meanings that map to each number. Now, we’ll look at larger numbers, starting at 20 and declaring a truce at a Buddhist number called "inexpressible" or "impossible", that has more than one hundred thousand trillion trillion digits. (In other words, approximately 101029.)
As before, we'll sidestep lucky and unlucky numbers, a large topic on their own; and special numbers for certain birthdays, which will be a future article.
Twenty has a few special readings to memorize: 二十日 for the 20th day of the month, and 二十歳 for 20 years old, the traditional age of reaching adulthood.
There are several ways to write 20 as well: "20" and "二十" are the most common. For some financial and legal documents, to prevent written "二十" from being easily tampered with, the 大字 characters 弐拾 are used instead. "二〇" represents the place value of 2 and 0 compared to the 2 times 10 shown in "二十". ("二零" is almost never used.)
Two special kanji for 20 exist: 廿 has a kun reading of にじゅう, but also can be read as はたち, as the special "20 years old" reading. 卄, an ideogram of two upraised hands, also appears as 廾, the "twenty" or "H" radical in a few common kanji like 弁.
Thirty has an obsolete reading (みそ) that seems fine to ignore; and a 大字 written form (参拾) that follows from 20. The alternate kanji follow a nice pattern starting with 20, dating from the Suzhou numeral system, an old shorthand version of the Chinese Hanzi numerals. They do not show up as radicals like 廾 does.
In Chinese, 丗 is a variant form of 世. which you've seen before in 世界, "the world". 世 is a pictogram of 3 leaves on a branch, and also a compound of 3 times ten (十). 30 years is a generation, leading to its meaning in Chinese as “generation”. 世 is also related to 葉 (leaf), where successive foliage on a tree implies generations.
Forty also has an obsolete reading (よそ), as does 50 (いそ), 60 (むそ), 70 (ななそ), and 80 (やそ), based on the kun readings of the tens digits. At 80, these readings end (according to Jisho) and 卌 is the last of the alternate kanji for multiples of ten.
陌 and 佰 are 大字 characters for 百.
三百代言 is a Yojijukugo meaning shyster or a sophist, as historically 300 銭 (3 yen) exemplified a small amount of money.
Numbers 1000 and higher start to take the meaning of "many" in some compounds; 千里 (1000 ri) means "long distance".
万 also appears in some metaphorical compounds like 万一 (emergency; 1 in 10,000 event) and 万年筆 (fountain pen; literally "10,000 year pen"). Another fun one: 万引き (shoplifter; literally "10,000 pulls").
The word for "pedometer" is 歩数計 ("step count measure"), but another term dating back to 1965 is 万歩計 ("10,000 step measure"), a pedometer sold in Japan at the time. The magic 10,000 step goal, still a standard today, seems to arise mainly from the auspicious number 万, and possibly how the kanji resembles the lower half of a person walking.
Many Western countries group powers of 10 by 103; thousand, million, billion, and so on. But that's not universal. India uses lakh (105) and crore (107). Japan groups them by 104, so that one million maps to 百万. The steps up to 1048 each have an assigned kanji character:
|Kanji||Other common meanings?|
|1028||穣||good crops, prosperity|
|1044||載||get on board, ride|
Numerals 1048 and higher come from older Buddhist texts. 恒河沙 ("always, river, sand") is 1052 or 1056, or “innumerable”. Its meaning arises from the notional amount of sand in the Ganges River. 阿僧祇 ("uncountable"), from Sanskrit "asamkhya" is 1056 or 1064. The variation in each number arises from some early transcription errors leading to both values being used.
The largest number I've seen a Japanese term for is 不可説不可説転 , which very loosely translates into "the ineffable ineffable revolution", as in a very long cycle or orbit. Its value is precise though uncountable: 107 * 2122. It has 1029 digits, and (doing a little math) a stack of paper with the number printed out would have a mass about 1/10 that of the Earth.
Where would such a number come from? It's smaller than a googolplex; but a googolplex is simply 1010100. Why the 7 and the 122 in 不可説不可説転?
The answer is in the Avatamsaka Sutra, of which we will skim over the tiniest portion. The Mind King Bodhisattva asked the Buddha to enlighten him on the topic of large numbers, and the Buddha obliged, saying: "Good man, a hundred lakṣa [lakh, or 105] is a koṭi [today's crore, or 107]. A koṭi times a koṭi is an ayuta. An ayuta times an ayuta is a nayuta..." The Buddha continued squaring these large numbers until: "A nirabhilapya nirabhilapya times a nirabhilapya nirabhilapya is a nirabhilapya nirabhilapya parivarta." Nirabhilapya means inexpressible, and parivarta is a beat of time, or a revolution, or a cycle.
Starting at 107, the Buddha squared the number 122 times, leading to 107 * 2122. Each of the intervening powers of 107 have names we will not list here.
Special numbers arise in other contexts that we'll explore later: ages and birthdays. 而立, アラフォー, 米寿, and more. See you next time!