Japanese numero-mnemonics

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In "Remember the First 100 Digits of Pi Using This Basic Technique" (mental_floss, 12/11/15), Caitlin Schneider describes a "memory palace" in which one can use letters to recall long strings of numbers.

The second commenter, Helvetica Baskin Robbins, describes a Japanese mnemonic system by means of which one can use numbers to recall sequences of numbers.

You can do this with Chinese too, as described in this Language Log post, linking to this Wikipedia article.

Helvetica Baskin Robbins points out that Japanese numero-mnemonics has an advantage in that the numbers have different readings, thus allowing for more flexibility in coming up with zany ("quasi-nonsense"), memorable phrases to assist in recalling sequences:

0 = rei, zero. "O" is also used in mnemonics. Sometimes "wa" for ring is mapped to 0, but this can be confused with 8.
1 = ichi, hito.
2 = ni, futa. "Ji" is also used in mnemonics.
3 = san, mi.
4 = shi, yon.
5 = go, itsu.
6 = roku, mu.
7 = shichi, nana.
8 = ya, hachi. Sometimes "wa", similar to "ha" in "hachi" is mapped to 8, but this can be confused with 0.
9 = ku, kono.

While we're talking about Chinese and Japanese numero-mnemonics, I cannot help but mention a most intriguing chapter (number 5) in J. Marshall Unger, Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning (University of Hawai'i Press, 2004):  "How would a magician memorize Chinese characters?"  Highly recommended, if you're interested in the sheer memorization of characters.

[h.t. Ben Zimmer]


  1. leoboiko said,

    December 18, 2015 @ 10:26 am

    These days when English words pop up as furigana glosses for kanji, it's also common to ascribe English-derived readings for the digits, as shown by Wikipedia. So 1 can also be wan, 2 tsū, 3 su(ri), etc., giving even more possibilities for mnemonics. 1039 could be ten san koko or "Heavenly-mountain-here", pivoting from three different language families!

    Speaking of English furigana: When foreign kanji learners are studying kanji, we talk about the "readings" and "meanings" of a character; but from a linguist's point of view, the "meaning" is just an English translation ascribed to a kanji, i.e. a new, ad-hoc "reading". The thing is, that operation is exactly how kanji got "kun readings" in the first place: as translation glosses by learners of a foreign language. Recently I've noticed a phenomenon where native Japanese speakers will orally describe a kanji in terms of an English translation – e.g. "it's sen as in batoru [<battle]" (=戦). English furigana is now easily spotted in popular media such as manga; if this trend continue, and kanji continue in use, I wonder if gairaigo (non-Chinese loans) will settle as another category of conventional "readings" for kanji, making the script even more polyvalent.

  2. John Chew said,

    December 18, 2015 @ 10:41 am

    The first mora of the yamatokotoba (traditional) counting numbers are also unique, and widely used not only in mnemonics, but rapid counting: hi, fu, mi, yo, i, mu, na, ya, ko.

  3. John Chew said,

    December 18, 2015 @ 10:42 am

    (*is* also unique)

  4. rdb said,

    December 18, 2015 @ 11:27 am

    I think that "9 = ku, kono" should be "9 = ku, kokono".

  5. AG said,

    December 18, 2015 @ 12:44 pm

    Everybody already knew this, I'm sure, but Japanese number-word gambling slang is supposedly the origin of "yakuza", from three numbers ya, ku, za…

    …and I think I remember reading something about Portuguese sailors' "oito" still being used for 8 in Japanese card games.

  6. SWS said,

    December 18, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

    There's a whole phenomenon of number/word play in Japanese called "goroawase" (語呂合わせ). It's quite used to make phone numbers, history dates, and mathematical constants more memorable – and they can be very creative, especially in advertising.

    Here is a fun generator. Try your PIN, birthday, or phone extension! http://seoi.net/goro/

  7. Jamie said,

    December 18, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

    It is nearly 30 years since I was in Japan but I can still remember most of the digits of the telephone number of a restaurant I used to see advertised on the tube [subway]. They used furigana to to turn the number into a slogan that included oishii oniku (0141029).

  8. unekdoud said,

    December 19, 2015 @ 11:23 am

    I tried today's (or yesterday's) date in that generator: http://seoi.net/goro/?n=20151219 , which gave me プレイ隠語陰部ピンク (Google Translate: Play jargon genital pink). Now that's one way to make things memorable!

    More on-topic: It's difficult to assign a metric to how number-punnable a language is, but are there languages in which number sound-based mnemonics are difficult? (It should be easy enough to work around the limitations of number readings by cleverly assigning syllables to numerals, which is what the English mnemonic methods try to do anyway)

  9. Ron said,

    December 19, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    I play around with mnemonics and it always annoys me how people doing intros to mnemonics seem dead set on cramming the memory palace technique in right at the beginning. It's like starting an introductory music lesson with complicated bits of theory– sure, it's important, but someone just starting out wants to play "Mary had a Little Lamb" or something else they recognize! On top of that, introducing the major system with pi instead of phone numbers is both cruel and takes away the main advantage of the major system.

    To me the primary advantage of the Japanese system isn't flexibility at all but the use of readings and associations that native speakers are already familiar with. There isn't a lot of extra work required to learn them for a literate, educated speaker. Regular usage (or at least encountering it in the world) is going to make up for any minor difference in flexibility. The only people that learn the major system in English speaking countries are those interested in memory work, and you have to go out of your way to learn it.

    The major system takes A LOT more work to become intuitive and doesn't "share" very well. Hitting random buttons on a number pad, I got: 651390. In the major system, you just have a block of consonants: Sh-L-T-M-P/B-S. Might be "Sheltie Mops" for me and "Shell-Tome Peas" or "Shale Team Pays" or "Sheol-Tomb-Bees" for someone else; we could each be baffled by the choices of others. The benefit would be that coming up with the image yourself makes it stick better.

    Every phone number I've bothered to memorize with the major system is a number I've never forgotten and can instantly recall… which would be great if I was a salesman in the 50s but doesn't seem worth doing in the modern era. All the numbers I've actually memorized with the major system are numbers I memorized while explaining the major system! And now I'm stuck with Sheltie Mops for the rest of my life, which isn't even a real phone number… so yeah, maybe just learn Japanese.

    This just reminds me that I'd really like to read an English translation of Ricci's 西國記法 if you know of one.

  10. DWalker said,

    December 22, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

    Years ago, I read about a technique to associate numbers with famous people or situations, and then make up a story that includes those people and situations. I find that in practice, I can't remember whether (in my story) I encountered Marilyn Monroe and then John Wayne, or vice versa. How are you supposed to remember that? And was it a papaya or a banana that John Wayne was eating?

    For me, translating numbers to arbitrary symbols, words, people, or things doesn't help me remember a long string of numbers. It just replaces one memorization problem with another.

    As a kid, I memorized Pi to about 40 decimal places, I can remember the first 15 of them now. Which is not a useful thing to know, really.

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