One of the first kanji most Japanese students learn is 本. It’s nice and non-intimidating, with only 5 strokes. Plus, you need it to write “Japan” and “Japanese”, so you’ll need it for getting fancy and titling your notebook 日本語 or letting everybody know that you’re 日本語を勉強しています. While it has a bunch of meanings, you easily remember that one of them is “book”
because books are made of trees and this kanji is only one stroke away from the one for “tree”, plus it means “origin” too and books originate from trees, and everything is nice and logical and you’ve totally got a great grasp on this whole situation.
Now you, hypothetical strawman reader, have advanced in your studies. You’ve just discovered the complexity of Japanese counters. Instead of everything being “one thing, two things”, there are all these different suffixes you gotta learn depending on the thing you’re counting. One flat object, two small animals, three big animals (yup, big and small animals have different counters. It’s America’s fault, I think I’ll write about that next). Skimming the list of counters, you finally see one you recognise. 本! Of course, this must be how you count books! After all, it does mean book!
本, hon, is the counter for “long, cylindrical objects”. You know what’s neither long nor cylindrical? That’s right, books. The correct way to count books is 冊 satsu. And speaking of kanji pronounced “satsu”, there’s also 札 which means bill (as in 千円札, 1000 yen bill). I just tried to look up whether bills would be counted with 札, or with 枚 (the counter usually used for paper and other flat objects like pizza), but googling 千円札 数え方 just gave me video demonstrations of how to do that fancy bill flicking counting thing they do in stores here. My old manager tried to teach me once, but gave up upon realising I’m cripplingly left-handed. Digressions aside, let’s think about long cylindrical objects.
Oh, I know! You naïvely exclaim, dear strawman, how about chopsticks! Those are long and cylindrical, right? Next time your Japanese friends act amazed that you managed to transfer a whole piece of food all the way from your plate into your mouthhole without incident, you can further blow their minds with some amazingly accurate counting skills, and count the chopsticks with 本 hon.
Oh my sweet summer child.
No? Not hon? Oh of course, chopsticks come in pairs. They must use soku 足, the counter for pairs! Wrong again. Just like books are important enough to get their own special counter (bet you didn’t think my digressions would come full circle), chopsticks also get their own words. If you wanna sound really impressive, count them with 膳 zen, that’s 一膳 ichizen per pair.
Finally, let me leave you with a story about counting pairs. You may have recognised the counter for pairs as the kanji for foot, when read ashi. In Japanese class, we learned this meaning much earlier than we learned it as a counter. My classmate once saw a pair of shoes for sale. The price tag stated the price per 足. As we were not yet aware of the “pairs” meaning, she assumed that price per 足 = price per foot, i.e. the sign was listing the price per shoe and the pair would cost twice as much. I do love the idea of going to the store to buy a single shoe.