Here’s Why the Number “39” Means “Thank You” in Japan

And "29" means "meat." What is going on?

Thirty-nineHappy Stock Photo/ShutterstockIn Japan, slurping your food is considered polite, most of the island’s stoplights are blue instead of green, and you can get sushi delivered via robot. Nothing out of the ordinary here. But why is it that when somebody texts you “39,” it’s considered a sign of great gratitude? The answer is a centuries-old trick of wordplay that’s infiltrated the digital age, and we hope by the end of this post you’ll be cheering “39” for it.

Japan’s Kanji language evolved out of traditional Chinese writing, naturally transforming over the centuries to suit Japanese grammar and inflection. As a result, each character in Kanji can be read multiple ways depending on which of several different reading systems you use. The Kanji character for the number “1,” for example, has at least six different possible pronunciations (hitotsu, hito, hi, ichi, i, or wan) in three different reading systems. Fortunately for the international community of word nerds, more word sounds means more wordplay—and that’s where 39 comes in.

One of the most popular forms of Japanese wordplay is numeric substitution—writing numerals in place of words or letters with the same phonetic value. We do this in English all the time, coming up with half-numeric sentences like “You are 2 dang 1derful,” or “it’s been 4ever since I last 8 a 2na fish.” Kanji can be manipulated the same way, only with six times as many opportunities for linguistic mischief. In the common on’yomi reading system, for example, the number 3 can be pronounced san, while the number 9 can be kyu. So if someone texts you “39” or “3 9,” you can read it “san kyu”… a.k.a., “sankyu,” a Japanese-inflected version of the English, “thank you.” (You’re welcome.)

“39” has become common texting shorthand for gratitude in Japan, but it’s only the tip of the numeric wordplay iceberg. Here are a few other choice phrases to ponder on your next visit to Kyoto:

  • 23 can be read as “ni san.” Cleverly, the Nissan car company likes to enter cars numbered 23 into many motorsport events.
  • 29 can be read as “niku,” meaning “meat.” Some restaurants and grocers offer special meat promotions on the 29th day of each month.
  • 573 can be read as “ko-na-mi.” Video game manufacturer Konami likes to use this number in high scores and other Easter eggs sprinkled throughout their games.
  • 893 can be read “ya-ku-za.” The famous Yakuza organized crime syndicate takes its name from this number, which produces a losing hand in the traditional Japanese card game Oicho-Kabu. Today, with the crime syndicate better known than the card game, 893 is just considered an unlucky number.
  • Need to remember the first nine digit of pi? 3.14159265 can be read “san-i-shi-i-ko-ku-ni-mu-kou,” essentially meaning, “An obstetrician faces toward a foreign country.” (That’s much easier to remember, yes?)

Now that we’ve got our phonemic photon cannons properly firing, see if you can guess which three-letter English word has 645 different meanings. 39 for reading, friends! 39 very much.