You will never guess what I've been doing the past two weeks. I, an Ivy League graduate, at the ripe age of 44, have been learning my times tables. That's right, multiplication. Now, before you write me off as a failure of American higher education, let me stress that I've been doing this in Japanese. I'm memorizing the kuku, Japan's distinctly rhythmic way of chanting the times tables.

You see, my 8-year-old started multiplication in school this month. Like every other second-grader in Japan, he is expected to learn his times tables so thoroughly that recall is automatic and reflexive. He'll get lots of practice at school, but parents are expected to drill at home. It won't do him much good if I drill him in English, so I'm trying to learn the Japanese way.

I figure the kuku method must work, since Japanese children do so well in international comparisons of mathematical ability. Curious about its history, I discovered the kuku was brought to Japan from China more than 1,000 years ago. In those days, they started with the largest numbers and moved down, the opposite of how the kuku is recited today. The first fact, 9×9, was chanted as "ku ku," which is why the times tables came to be called kuku in Japanese.