There are a number of key factors contributing to the intelligence, philosophical and technological advancements of Japan. One of them is the quality of the Japanese education system. Mathematics is a fundamental subject in the Japanese school curriculum. The emphasis on mathematical education is due to the recognition of its crucial role in scientific development, especially in physics.
Japan understands the benefits of teaching students fundamental concepts and the learning process of (nearly) everything, including maths. The abacus is an example of how Japan has developed its superior educational system and how its people have come to master their numerical skills for hundreds of years.
The abacus is a simple tool invented by ancient civilisations to count and calculate large numbers. The Sumerian civilisation was one of the oldest civilisations in human history. It first started in southern Mesopotamia around 6,000 years ago. It is believed that Sumerians used a simple abacus to count while Babylonians used it to perform addition and subtraction.
The ancient Greeks also used an abacus. It was a table of wood or marble with small counters in wood or metal. Their abacus had been used in Persia, Etruscan civilisation, Rome and many Western countries until the French Revolution.
Ancient abacuses were also found in India, Russia and many other civilisations.
However, it was an abacus from China, invented during the Han Dynasty, that pretty much inspired the Japanese to later adopt this calculating tool.
The Chinese abacus, also called Suanpan, first appeared in 200 BC. It wasn’t until around 1600 AD when it made its way to Japan. With some modification and simplification, the new Japanese abacus, the Soroban (そろばん), was born.
Soroban – The Japanese Abacus
The Soroban is a rectangular shaped tool consisting of 23 vertical thin rods and beads attached to a frame.
While the Chinese abacus is commonly known for its round-shaped beads, the Japanese Soroban has diamond-shaped beads. This iconic shape is believed to make each bead more efficient to operate.
The Chinese abacus has 2 beads on the top part and 5 beads on the bottom per column. Earlier Japanese Soroban removed a bead from the top part of each column, and later removed a bead from the bottom part. So, in a modern configuration, a standard soroban has 1 bead on the top part and 4 beads on the bottom per column.
Improvements have been made over time to the Soroban. Nowadays, you may encounter Sorobans with different configurations as they are mainly built for décor rather than practical calculation. Numbers are counted by moving beads up and down the rods with your fingers. You can add, subtract, multiply, divide and even find the square root of large numbers with it. Japanese children who have already advanced their skills on the Soroban eventually find they can do quick mental calculations without getting their hands on a Soroban at all.
The Soroban has one top bead and 4 bottom beads.
Importance of Soroban in Japan
During the Meiji Era, The Soroban became a compulsory subject in elementary school from grades two to six. At the time, it is no wonder the majority of Japanese were highly proficient in maths and mental calculation.
Even though the Meiji Era is the period in which Japan met significant cultural, economic and educational challenges as a result of its rapid westernisation, the Soroban still remained essential in Japan: the new mathematical system with Arabic numerals might require a pencil and a paper to work with but the Japanese knew well that the Soroban was the best for speed calculation.
Nowadays, despite the impact of modern technology, the Japanese government ensures the Soroban’s significant role in the country’s culture and education. Japanese children are taught the Soroban at very young age. In many schools, students of the Soroban can be as young as 3 years old. Soroban circles are popular among seniors. Many companies are still looking for employees with a Soroban certificate.
It wasn’t until around 1600 AD when the Chinese abacus, Suanpan, made its way to Japan. With some modification and simplification, the new Japanese abacus, the Soroban (そろばん), was born.
Benefits of Learning Soroban
In the past, the Soroban was viewed as a mere calculating tool. Nowadays, not only is it proven to effectively enhance students’ mathematical skills, but also various cognitive skills. It is not unusual to see Japanese parents send their children to after-school or weekend soroban classes.
1. Better Mental Calculations
This benefit comes naturally for people who practice the Soroban, or other abacuses, on a regular basis. Apart from performing calculations with speed and accuracy, it helps them build a mental picture that later contributes to mental calculation ability.
2. Quick Information Processing
We already know that the Soroban is great for speed calculation. In the classroom, we mainly learn through listening and reading. The brain learns to efficiently gather input and process information through simultaneous activity. During the Soroban training, there is a part called Yomiageanzan, which greatly stimulates neural activity in the brain. Once a problem is read out aloud, students have to quickly process information and promptly give an accurate answer. This training certainly contributes to not only speedy information processing but also listening skill.
3. Better Concentration
The Soroban also improves concentration. Students learn to observe numbers attentively and monitor them carefully during the calculating process. Mistakes are not allowed. The bigger the numbers, the more concentration is required. I once read that a Soroban master and a world champion can do mental calculation with the numbers presented upside down while holding a conversation or even singing. That’s the power of a focused brain which has been trained by the Soroban since young age.
The Soroban is great for mathematical and cognitive training.
4. Better Memory
Through intensive and regular training, the Soroban is a powerful tool for numerical and spatial memory training.
You may think that performing maths or calculations requires more of the left brain. However, the Soroban actually stimulates both brain hemispheres. In short, the left hemisphere controls logic, verbal information and reasoning while the right hemisphere controls non-verbal and spatial skills.
In the Soroban technique of mental calculation, the right brain holds visual patterns of mental maths answers and stores them in the long-term memory as intuitive visuals. They can later utilise these visuals when the left brain works on problems.
5. Better Eye-Hand Coordination
The Soroban directly benefits the physical health of people of all ages. The use ofthe Soroban helps with eye-hand coordination. The hand movement process through the Soroban stimulates more synapse connection in the brain. The stronger connections in the brain, the more effective the learning.
For young children, it is an essential ability that facilitates many academic and kinaesthetic learning as well as life skills. For older adults, the finger and hand movements may help those who have arthritis and joint problems in their hands.
Interested in Soroban?
Calculating with abacuses like the Soroban is still being taught widely in primary schools across Asia. There are also growing online communities of abacus enthusiasts – whether it is people who love to collect, use, and build them – or simply enjoy watching experts solve mathematical problems with an abacus.
Growing up in a family of Chinese descent living aboard, I saw my grandparents use a Chinese abacus for counting and calculating their goods and sales in business since a very young age. However, with modern technology and cultural change, the skill gets lost through time. I didn’t get a chance to learn the Chinese abacus method as a child.
Luckily, as an adult, I managed to get myself a Soroban and learn the Japanese method, mainly for keeping my brain sharp. I’m also planning to teach my young nephew how to use it for simple calculations. Whether you’re thinking about acquiring a new skill or merely an interesting new pastime, I can tell you that an abacus is definitely well worth the time and effort.
If you’re interested in learning the Soroban abacus, it might be a good idea to contact a Japanese local community or school in your area. They sometimes offer a Soroban introductory class for children or beginners. Youtube tutorials or online classes are also convenient alternatives.
The Soroban can be learned at any age. It’s an effective and fun tool to enhance your cognitive, physical and numerical skills. The earlier you start, the better. However, remember that determination and consistent practice will make a real difference regardless of age.
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