Calculated move: Interest in ‘soroban’ picks up

by Satoshi Toi

Kyodo

The “soroban,” Japan’s traditional abacus, is drawing renewed interest as a tool to promote the development of children’s mental capacities and to help fight dementia in the elderly.

At a soroban class in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward, early elementary school children practice a mental calculation technique known as “anzan,” or blind calculation. Students are taught to visualize a soroban in their heads to perform calculations with the help of a computer that prompts them with instructions and shows numbers and a scaled-down five-bead abacus on its screen.

“The soroban helps children improve not only their calculation ability but also their ability to concentrate and memorize because it requires them to use their eyes, ears and fingertips at the same time,” said Kazuo Kayama, who teaches soroban classes.

One nonprofit organization, I.M. Soroban, is promoting the tool with the aim of enabling children to improve their ability to calculate and think on their feet.

They teach students to use the soroban for converting measurements or currencies and to solve written puzzles about speed, time and distance.

The NPO has worked out a certification examination adopted by 11 soroban schools nationwide.

According to Hiroya Araki, a leader of the organization, which is promoting soroban both at home and abroad, lessons merely designed to improve calculating ability are becoming “less attractive due to the widespread use of computers.”

The soroban has “returned to the mainstream of education, where it was in the Edo Period (1603-1868), to enable children to think on their own and find solutions to their problems,” he added.

Otona no Gakkou (literally “schools for adults”), a day-service provider for the aged, offers soroban lessons, along with Japanese, arithmetic and other classes, to prevent elderly people from developing dementia.

Sachiko Suzuki, 88, who goes three times a week to a school run by the firm in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, used a soroban there for the first time in nearly 80 years. “My fingers moved naturally,” she said happily.

“Elderly people used the soroban in the past and so accept it without hesitation,” said Tomoe Fujimoto, president of Tomoe Soroban Co., an abacus maker that conducts soroban classes on behalf of Otona no Gakkou. “They feel the pleasure of learning because it stimulates their motivation.”

According to the League of Japan Abacus Associations, the number of applicants for the national soroban certification examination has been rising moderately in recent years, with more than 210,000 people taking the exam in 2011.

Still, the number remains about 10 percent off the peak mark that was hit in the early 1980s, suggesting that people are paying attention to the soroban because of its usefulness rather than the pursuit of certificates.