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When I tested for 2nd kyu, almost a year ago now I was required to demonstrate the 31 jo kata. The 31 jo kata is a flowing series of 31 techniques with the jo, a wooden weapon that looks essentially like a rake handle. There are strikes, thrusts, blocks, and parries. The kata is sort of a pantomime of one side of a hypothetical fight against someone else similarly equipped with a jo. It's a fairly long and complex weapons exercise. The idea of the exercise, which was created by Morihiro Saito Sensei, is to demonstrate proper form and energy throughout (that is, crisp technique, good posture, and relaxed-but-focused movement and breathing). To be successful we have to understand how to do each movement well, and also memorize the order of the whole thing.
As part of training for that I had to learn to count to 31 in Japanese. We count the numbers of the techniques out loud, in front of everyone, as we do each movement of the kata. For others who will be testing for 2nd kyu, I will share here how I learned to do the counting.
It's easy to find information on numbers in Japanese. The sounds of the words are easy to make, and the rules for combining the numbers above 10 are very straightforward. It's not even a little bit confusing to understand it. Anyone can look up "how to count in Japanese," and have that information in seconds.
But you may have noticed that I didn't call this "How to Count to 31 in Japanese." Instead, I called it "How to Learn to Count Out Loud to 31 in Japanese, Under Pressure, and with Distractions." There's a bit of a leap between "OK, I looked it up, and I understand how this counting thing works," and actually being able to do the counting, out loud, in front of people, while performing the 31 jo kata. It's a different thing altogether. There's a rhythm to the techniques, and you have to say the words on time. Everyone is watching. Pressure? Distraction? Heck yeah! In the spirit of "train like you fight, and fight like you train," I came up with a way to learn to do the counting that simulated that pressure, in a distracting environment.
Before we can do that real-life counting practice, though, we still need the basic info - the "How to Count" part. So let's start there. If you are already confident that you know how to count, you just don't feel comfortable doing it out loud under pressure, jumped down to the next section, "Now, Out Loud, Under Pressure, with Distractions."
Begin with Counting to 10
In Japanese, just like English, there are words for the numbers one through ten. To get through the teens, twenties, and thirties, we add a prefix of sorts. So it's very similar to saying "twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five" in English, but even easier because there are no weird exceptions, like "eleven, twelve, thirteen."
Here are the counting words for one through ten (spelling varies, and you can ask your dojo mates to help you with pronunciation):
1 ichi [ee-chee]
2 ni [nee]
3 san [sahn]
4 shi [shee] (note that yon is not used for counting)
5 go [goh]
6 roku [roh-koo]
7 shichi [shee-chee]
8 hachi [hah-chee]
9 kyu [kyoo]
10 ju [joo]
Since we will use these words for the first ten numbers over and over,, they are the ones we really need to have down cold. Memorizing them is the first step.
Begin by reading them out loud several times, in order, to get familiar with the sound of them:
Ichi, ni, san, chi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju. Again
Next, try to do a couple at a time from memory. So, look at a pair first, and then look away and say them both:
Now try bigger chunks:
Ichi, ni, san, chi.
Go, roku, shichi, hachi.
The sounds should start to feel familiar, like hearing a familiar song in another language, even if you don't understand all the words.
See if you can do all ten from memory. If you can't yet, that's OK, just back off and do smaller chunks again.
Ichi, ni, san, chi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.
Keep working on that until you can say all ten. Take your time. Keep practicing until you can reliably count to ten from memory. We'll wait here.
Got it? Great!
Counting Through the Teens and 20s
So far, so good. What you are probably experiencing now is that you can say all ten words, in order, but maybe you have some pauses where you have to stop and think about what's next, or if you get distracted you might get lost and have to start over. That's OK for now. You are in the right place to begin working on counting out loud, smoothly, under pressure, with distractions.
If you don't really have the first ten numbers down yet, go back and work on that a little more. You will use the same 10 numbers three times through, the first time, counting to 10, then through the teens, and again through the 20s. So you want to have them clearly in your mind. Don't worry about being fast or fluid yet.
We will be going out for a walk, with no notes, so you have to have this in your head first. (Well, you could take along a cheat sheet, but the idea is to be doing it without looking, as quickly as possible.)
Lucky for us, counting in Japanese is really simple and repetitive. To get the words for eleven through nineteen, we start with "ju" (ten), and add the same numbers above, like this:
11 ju-ichi [joo-eech] ten-one
12 ju-ni [joo-nee] ten-two
13 ju-san [joo-sahn] ten-three
14 ju-shi [joo-shee] ten-four
15 ju-go [joo-goh] ten-five
16 ju-roku [joo-roh-koo] ten-six
17 ju-shichi [joo-shee-chee] ten-seven
18 ju-hachi [joo-hah-chee] ten-eight
19 ju-kyu [joo-kyoo] ten-nine
Twenty through 29 follows the same pattern. For twenty we start with "ni-ju" (two-ten), like this:
So, now you have the words. Ready? Go! Oh wait, now we have to do the whole "learning how to count out loud, under pressure, with distractions" thing.
Now, Out Loud, Under Pressure, with Distractions
If we practice counting at a relaxed, random pace, in the comfort of our own homes, we might be unpleasantly surprised when our accounting skills fall apart on our exam. With this exercise we will simulate the real-life atmosphere of an exam situation, but starting in a very slow and easy way. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, we need to start with a rhythm slow enough that we can be successful. As we become more skillful, we can increase the rhythm a little at a time. We could use a metronome, like musicians do, but I have found it easier, more fun, and more relevant to the testing situation to use the body as a metronome. And how will we do that?
Let's go for a walk.
If you have a place already that you are comfortable walking, great. If it someplace you walk regularly every day, like walking to and from the bus, even better. Distractions are a good thing we don't want this to be too easy but don't let your practice distract you from being safe. Remember to keep an eye on your surroundings, look out for traffic, and so on.
Set out at a comfortable and steady pace. Notice the rhythm of your walk step, step, step, step right, left, right, left one, two, three, four. That's a good four beat rhythm for us to start with. Began counting, saying each number on the first of the four beats: "Ichi (step, step, step). Ni (step, step, step). San (step, step, step) " if you are musically inclined, you can think of this as "Ichi-2-3-4, Ni-2-3-4, San-2-3-4 "
Try counting to 10 at that pace several times. Once you are comfortable doing that, try continuing through the teens and 20s, and on to 31. You are bound to get stuck here and there, or find that there are a few places that are problems for you. If you find you are running into trouble in the same place over and over, start from two or three numbers before that, and just practice those few numbers until you feel more comfortable. Then go back and see if you can do all 31, keeping with the same slow pace, every fourth footstep.
Without tripping or running into mailboxes or other people, try to continue your counting even when there are distractions. There will surely be distractions during your exam, so you want to get comfortable dealing with them now.
Once you are able to count fairly reliably at that pace, without rushing, or making too many mistakes, try counting every three footsteps: "Ichi (step, step). Ni (step, step). San (step, step) " If this is too difficult to do smoothly, go back to every four footsteps for a while. As with our Aikido techniques, we don't want to rush. If we practice being hurried and sloppy, we will get good at being hurried and sloppy. Instead, we'd like to be good at being relaxed and smooth, so that's what we need to practice.
Don't increase the pace too quickly. This took me many days of walking during my lunch hours. Only go faster in your feeling very confident, even a little bored, at the slower pace.
If you are doing well counting in threes now, you can try twos saying the number on every other stepI either every right foot, or every left foot. That's getting pretty quick now. You can begin to imagine how you would count like this as you are doing the 31 jo kata.
When you are ready, try counting on every footstep. Realize that this is twice as fast as the previous step, so it's quite a leap. You can always go back to every other step if this is too quick for you at this point.
When you can count to 31 reliably, on the beat, with every footstep, walking around outdoors in a distracting environment, you will probably find it easy to count as you do the 31-count exercise you have been practicing. Congratulations, and I hope you do great on your exam!
More Counting Exercises
Here are a couple of other things you can try, which can make it easier to remember the Japanese numbers:
It can be easy to get in a rut of counting, almost as if the counting words were lyrics to a song in another language. We can recite them based on their sounds, but don't really have a clear understanding of what they mean. To get more familiar with the Japanese numbers, try the same exercise as above, but count only by the even numbers. And then try accounting by the odd numbers. If you're feeling really brave, try counting backward.
When you are learning the numbers 1 through 10, get in the habit of identifying any single digit you see by saying the number in Japanese. At the beginning, don't worry about saying the actual value, just recite each of the digits. For instance, if you see the number 739, you could say "seven three nine" in Japanese: "shichi san kyu." Realize, of course, that this is not the same as saying "seven-hundred-thirty-nine." You are just identifying each digit. This exercise turns ATM receipts, grocery store shelves, and road signs into flashcards, so you can practice everywhere you go.