5.4. Decimals and fractions

5.4.1. Decimals

The Chinese invented decimals thousands of years ago, and decimals have been commoner than fractions in East Asia for long time, while fractions had been more commonly used in the West since Mesopotamian Civilization.

The way to read decimals ( "syô") in Japanese is similar to English. The decimal delimeter in Japanese is a period (not Japanese period but European period). To read decimals in Japanese, read the integer part first. Then say "ten", which is the Japanese word for point, and say plain digit names after that. Omitting zero before a decimal point is not allowed in Japanese.

The euphonic change rule is applied for the word , so number 1.3 should be pronounced as "itten san".

There is a detailed rule to make pronunciation rhythmical. You can skip this part. The digit immediately before a decimal point is paired with the decimal point, and the digits after the decimal point are paired every two digits. In those pairs, the digit 2 is pronounced as not "ni" but "", and the digit 5 is pronounced as not "go" but "". These different phonemes guarantee that all digits have two morae, which means the same length of time for each digit, so you have a less chance to misunderstand.

For example, number 22.252 has two pronunciation pairs: '2.' and '25'. So its phoneme becomes "nizyû ten ni". The last digit 2 is not paired, so its phoneme is not affected.

Native Japanese speakers are not aware of the rule, even though they actually use it. The reason why they read decimals with the rule is that the Japanese language has a strong preference for four-beat rhythm. Making pairs of digits and pronouncing each of them in four morae satisfies the preference. Actually the rule is used not only for decimals but for all number sequences as well, such as phone numbers. In addition, most colloquial abbreviations of complex words also have four morae. Please remember each mora has the same length of time.

Eight-beat rhythm is preferred as well as four-beat rhythm. You may have heard of "haiku", a Japanese traditional poem style. A haiku contains three phrases, which have five, seven, and five syllables respectively, and one of which has a word related to a season. The first phrase is pronounced with three rests, the second is with one rest, and the third is also with three rests, so they make eight-beat rhythm.

5.4.2. Decimal units

Before the introduction of the English way of writing decimals with a decimal point, the Japanese used decimal units for numbers smaller than one, and some of the units still survive in modern Japanese. They are similar to percent in English. These are advanced vocabulary and you don't have to memorize them now.

UnitJapaneseEnglish
10-1
 wa ri
one tenth
10-2
 bu
one hundredth
10-3
 ri/TD> n
one thousandth

Units smaller than 10-3 are not in common use now. Digits before a decimal unit is always pronounced. Look at the examples below:

NumbersDigits and unitsDescription
0.1
 1 × 10-1 i ti wa ri
0.302
 3 × 10-1 + 0 × 10-2 + 2 × 10-3 sa n wa ri re i bu ni ri n
Even 0 is pronounced when a smaller part follows it.

The unit "wari" is a native Japanese word and the rest are Chinese-origin words. The latter originally meant ten times the current values; the unit "bu" meant one tenth, and so on. Later the Chinese-origin units were shifted one tenth smaller in order to avoid the conflict with , but they sometimes keep the original meaning in idioms, which may be confusing. For instance, the word "gobugobu" means fifty-fifty, because the decimal unit meant one tenth.

5.4.3. Fractions

Fractions ( "bun" in Japanese) are not so commonly used in East Asia as in the West, but it's good to learn how to read them in Japanese here because it's easy. Read the denominator first, then add the suffix "bunno", and read the numerator. In short, y x means x/y. "bun" means divide, and "no" is the genitive marker. For instance, 2/3 is read "sanbunno ni".