For those that have been taught arithmetic as a child using plastic blocks and mindless repetition of times tables, studying the soroban provides more than just a nimble-fingered challenge. You are required to essentially re-program your brain.
The soroban was first conceptualised as a calculating method some 5,000 years ago by the Babylonians. Lines were drawn in the sand and pebbles used as counters to visualise calculations. These basic concepts were developed by the Greeks and Romans and put to good use by traders and tax accountants in ancient Rome. Its usage spread along the great trading routes of the Silk Road all the way to China where it was perfected into a portable wooden device known as the suanpan in the 12th century.
The Japanese soroban is a direct descendent of the suanpan, a neat arrangement of 23 vertical rods encased in a wooden frame and bisected by a wooden bar – the ‘reckoning’ bar. Each rod represents a digit of the decimal system with five diamond-shaped beads attached to each rod. The four beads below the bar each have a value of ‘1’ (ichidama) and the single bead above has a value of ‘5’ (godama). By moving these beads up and down and carrying over to consecutive bars, you are able to perform fast, complex and accurate calculations – at least that’s the idea.
I am seated opposite my instructor at a narrow desk, together with a dozen or so other soroban trainees at the free (yes, free) soroban class offered at the Osaka Chamber of Commerce. I have been handed a brand-new soroban for the lesson, together with some photo-copied worksheets, and received some basic explanation of the various parts of the instrument. Without further ado I am directed to the first practice calculation on the worksheet.
Six plus one? Even I know this one. But now I have to prove it by visualising the calculation with the soroban. There is an order and protocol to follow, as one might expect. I must slide the beads down using the tip of my forefinger and up, using the tip of my thumb. For numbers six to nine I must pinch in both directions at once, sliding the godama down while sliding the ichidama beads upwards. This delicate finger pinching and flicking may be fiddly at first but is actually very therapeutic. I progress through the worksheets, learning to use two consecutive rods to calculate double figures and by the end of the session I am performing simple subtractions.
The soroban provides a visual method of calculation that really helps any learner of arithmetic to ‘see’ the numbers. Interestingly, the ultimate nirvana of any soroban student is the ability to not need the instrument at all. They become so comfortable using the tool that they are able to project a virtual soroban in the mind, and perform rapid and often complex calculations on the fly. You may have seen people on TV, staring intently at numbers (often 4, 5 or more digits) flashed in rapid succession on monitors. They are then instantaneously able to give the correct sum of those numbers with unerring accuracy. Amazing stuff. This skill is known as anzan and can take many years to master.
There are competitions and accolades to be won for the most proficient at anzan and qualifications to be obtained for the serious soroban student, but it is the applications in real life that have allowed the soroban to endure. It not only nurtures an intuitive understanding of numbers but also encourages concentration and patience – qualities highly regarded in Japanese society. So much so, that soroban study is compulsory in elementary schools in Japan in the third and fourth grades. With Japanese students repeatedly making the top five in global maths rankings (according to a major US study ‘Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study’ published in 2011) and out-performing their European and North American peers, there may be a case for reintroducing the abacus into western curriculums.
That is certainly what Ken Moritomo, Director of the Japan and Osaka Abacus Association, hopes. In between teaching children at his popular soroban juku, he has been organising free lessons for foreigners since 1986. “My master plan is to teach adults who can return to their countries and spread the soroban techniques they have learned.” He has so far had more than 1,000 people from some 92 countries attend the classes and is always welcoming new recruits, both young and old.
My two-hour soroban initiation is over and although I have just scratched the surface, I leave with a renewed respect for this humble mathematical tool and its black belt exponents. I shall return. But not before I do my homework.
Why study the soroban?
“I like soroban because it’s kind of amazing and fun! I want to be a soroban super master hero!”
— Ricky Arvidson, USA, 8
“The interest in the beginning was mostly out of curiosity for something totally unknown to me. I’ve been regularly attending the class for about a year (after a 10-year hiatus) and have been conscientiously practicing at home on a daily basis. The ultimate motivation that drives me at this point is reaching a level of proficiency that would enable me to swiftly and accurately do three-digit mental additions and subtractions through anzan. Apart from that goal, I can feel other ‘side-effects’ in the form of a heightened ability to focus intently on a task, and also, though hard to quantify, better memory skills. It’s, in any case, undoubtedly great training for the brain.”
— Yannic Piche, Canada, 37
“As I use a calculator a lot in my work, I gradually became too dependent on it. Sometimes, I even use a calculator for simple 2 digit additions! I was really impressed when I first attended the lessons in April this year. The teachers and students were able to calculate so fast without even using the abacus. It’s like having calculators in their brains.”
— Javen Yap, Singapore, 30
Join Ken and his band of volunteer soroban instructors on Saturdays from 10am–12pm at the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Honmachi. Instruction is one-on-one and either in English or Japanese. The classes are absolutely free and there is no commitment.
• Address:5F, Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry Bldg.