How can anyone remember 100,000 numbers?

by Tomoko Otake

Unless you’re a mathematician or an engineer, pi probably ranks high on the list of things that are of little or absolutely no use in your life.

In fact, so marginal is the perceived importance of pi — a number many remember from school only as “somewhere around 3.14, or roughly 22 divided by 7,” but which is actually the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter — that many schools in Japan even teach the value of pi as 3 to simplify the concept amid the plethora of math formulas, grammar rules and history facts that students must cram.

But for Akira Haraguchi, pi is more than just a vague figure or a mathematical concept — like zero — that proves itself vital to many calculations. In fact, he says the infinite series of numbers, which computers have calculated to more than 1 trillion digits without detecting any repetition or pattern, provides him with the source of epic novels and poems — and even the answers to his lifelong spiritual quest.

Otherwise, why would anyone want to try to set a world record in reciting 100,000 digits of pi? That, however, is exactly what this 61-year-old retired engineer from Chiba Prefecture set out to do — and accomplished — during a 16 1/2-hour event in Tokyo in October.

All but the second of the four records for the number of pi digits he has so far recited in the presence of witnesses — 54,000 in Sept. 2004, 68,000 in Dec. 2004, 83,431 in July 2005 and the 100,000 digits in October — have been submitted for accreditation with the British-based Guinness World Records organization. To date, though, Guinness has neither confirmed nor denied his requests, he said.

The friendly, down-to-earth Haraguchi — who peppers his speech with non-stop, rapid-fire (and, frankly speaking, marginally funny) jokes and puns (e.g.: “We need to learn kotsu [tricks] in our lives. . . . You know why? Because we are full of kotsu [bones]! But many of us have kekkan [faults] . . . because our body is full of kekkan [blood vessels]!) — says he has always found pi fascinating.

“I had always felt that it was divine somehow,” Haraguchi said recently at his home in Chiba. “In fact I was secretly chanting pi numbers at funerals, as if I were chanting a Buddhist sutra.”

Quest for eternal truth

Interestingly, Haraguchi says his interest in pi has a lot to do with his lifelong quest for eternal truth. Since childhood, he has always wondered why some people — especially those with physical and mental disabilities — suffer. He consulted religion and philosophy books for answers, but in vain. Then he turned to nature, and realized, he said, that nothing in nature — be it leaves, trees or mountain scenery — is linear or square. “I realized that nature is not made of straight lines. . . . And I realized that all things in the universe . . . rotate. Rotation became a key concept for me.”

So when he learned that pi is an endless series of numbers with no pattern or repetition, it made perfect sense to him to take it as a symbol of life, he says — adding that he now calls pi memorization “the religion of the universe.”

So how does he do it? He has come up with his own way of assigning kana characters to each number. The number 0, for example, can be read as o, ra, ri, ru, re, ro, wo, on or oh; 1 can be a, i, u, e, hi, bi, pi, an, ah, hy, hyan, bya, or byan. The list goes on up to 9.

Combining these characters, he has created a myriad of stories and poems, including a story about the legendary 12th-century hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his sidekick Benkei, who was a Buddhist monk. In his January 2006 book titled “Bucchigiri Sekai Kiroku Hojisha no Kiokujutu (The Memorization Skills of a Whopping World-record Holder),” he explains that the first 15 digits of pi, which are 3.14159265358979, can be memorized as “saishi ikokuni mukosan kowakunaku” — which roughly translates as: “The wife and children have gone abroad; the husband is not scared.”

When he recites digits, he explains that he “simultaneously interprets” his linguistic creations back into numbers. Through years of practice at home, which he has done every night after dinner and a bit of sake, and which to him seems more like daydreaming than cramming, he has trained himself to recite up to five numbers per second, he said.

Surprisingly, despite his astounding memory, this father of a grownup son says he was neither a child prodigy nor a math genius in school. He even speaks of being given a “time out” by his teacher to stand to attention in the hallway as a punishment for failing so badly to memorize multiplication tables of one-digit numbers.

Occasional lapses

Likewise, contrary to popular belief, Haraguchi says people’s memory does not deteriorate with age.

“When you are young, you look at the sky and think it’s a nice day. Then you might think, ‘I might as well go driving.’ When you grow older, however, you start observing the sunlight and its reflection on leaves. You develop the ability to imagine more, which helps you associate things. . . . A whole new different way of memorizing things becomes available when you get older.”

But that does not spare Haraguchi himself from occasional lapses on such important occasions as his wife’s birthday. “I remember her birthday very well — except on the very day. Once I completely forgot about it, and wondered why we were going out to this expensive yakiniku (grilled beef) restaurant for dinner,” he said with a laugh. But nevertheless, his memory has definitely improved since he started memorizing pi in 2001, he says. Before that, there were times when, just like some ordinary people, he would be watching a TV program and decide to look up something in a dictionary and go to another room to get it. But then, he says, by the time he got to the other room, he’d have forgotten what he was doing there. Such days, however, are long gone.

Now that he has set a record nobody will likely break for months or years — if ever — Haraguchi is shifting his focus to his other areas of interest, including language studies. He said he would like to master English, then Spanish and Italian and Chinese. All he needs to accomplish that, he says, is his brain — and an English conversation textbook and a CD he picked up in a 100 yen shop.

“It’s easy,” he said with a smile, perusing a 2,667-page Japanese-language dictionary he also happens to be reading.

Indeed, for a man who has made a mind-boggling effort to memorize a math construct that most pay no attention to, having conversations with fellow human beings — in whatever language — should be easy as pie.