The Japanese Soroban (): A Brief History and
Comments on its Educational Role
The Japanese soroban (or abacus) is the descendent of ancient counting devices and has been evolved over centuries to provide the most advanced computations possible on a manual device. The soroban also provides advantages in mathematical education both from theoretical principals and through anecdotal experience especially in Japan. This document will discuss the history of the soroban as well as describe the beneficial role it can play in educational settings.
Pre-dating any modern tabulating or computing devices were the clay tablets for counting in Sumer in the 4000 BC period. A thousand years later the abacus was invented and developed in Babylonia [CYBE07]. The soroban traces its origins to these Babylonian devices and to later Egyptian counting devices from around 3,000 BC. These early devices were essentially sand boxes within which pebbles or stones were maneuvered to represent sums. Eventually, these numerical markers were fastened to wires to make their use more efficient. Over long periods of time these counting tools spread and were optimized by other cultures most notably the Chinese. The perfected form of the abacus spread throughout Asia where it is still in use today even side by side with modern calculators and computers.
The timeline below reflecting the evolution of the abacus to the soroban from the early Salamis counting tablet provides some perspective on its long history:
The early counting boards of the Greeks and Romans provided the basis for the Chinese abacus and later the Japanese soroban.
An excellent history of the abacus and the soroban is provided by Takashi Kojima in his 1963 volume “Advanced Abacus: Japanese Theory and Practice” [TAKA63].
A large gap in time extended from these early devices to the Seventeenth century when new innovations in mechanical devices led to the creation of calculating devices. There were numerous forerunners to the first computing machines dating back to this period. These were mostly calculating machines of various types like Schickard’s in 1623 and Pascal’s in 1642. A major invention in this period was that of binary notation by Leibniz in 1679 [DAVI00]. This invention laid the path for modern computing devices some 260 years later. He also showed true vision for what computers could be for mankind by stating that “… the labor of calculation … could safely be relegated to … machines…” [GOLD72]. The emergence of mechanical calculators and eventually automated tabulation machines in the 19th century, most notably by IBM, would eventually make the abacus obsolete in the 20th century. However, the abacus and in Japan the Soroban continue to be used and in fact play an unsung role in the rise of the math based engineering society of modern Japan.
At least several types of abacus are still found in use today. The Chinese style abacus is by far the most widely used and disseminated through much of South East Asia. This usage was witnessed during recent journeys in more than a dozen countries in the region. The devices were commonly in use by local merchants of both large and small size.
During a visit to Moscow a variant of the abacus was seen in use. This device had a large frame with curved wires holding large beads for counting. This device appeared to be much closer to what earlier Mediterranean devices may have looked like and did not resemble the common Asian devices nearly as much.
The Chinese style abacus has a thick frame, two beads above the bar, and six beads below the bar. Operation of the device is similar to the Japanese soroban but is unable to perform some of the more advanced calculations like the square root. Nevertheless, this style of device is extremely popular and is the direct forerunner of the Japanese soroban.
The Chinese Style Abacus
The abacus as we know it today, appeared (was chronicled) circa 1200 A.D. in China; in Chinese, it is called suan-pan. On each rod, this classic Chinese abacus has 2 beads on the upper deck and 5 on the lower deck; such an abacus is also referred to as a 2/5 abacus. The 2/5 style survived unchanged until about 1850 at which time the 1/5 (one bead on the top deck and five beads on the bottom deck) abacus appeared.
Circa 1600 A.D., use and evolution of the Chinese 1/5 abacus was begun by the Japanese via Korea. In Japanese, the abacus is called soroban. The 1/4 abacus, a style preferred and still manufactured in Japan today, appeared circa 1930. The 1/5 models are rare today and 2/5 models are rare outside of China (excepting Chinese communities in North America and elsewhere). [FERN07]
The Japanese islands were settled by ancestors of the current inhabitants at least before the New Stone Age (10,000 years ago) [SELE09]. The Japanese imported many technologies as well as language elements, religion, and philosophy, from both Korea and China over many centuries. On a cultural basis Japan imported Confucianism from Korea in 285 AD and Buddhism from both Korea and China in the 6th century AD. Around the 8th century marks the arrival of the modern Chinese writing system. During this time Japanese culture was strongly influence by imported concepts, art, technology, and approaches from nearby Korea and from mainland China. It is understood that the soroban arrived in Japan at least by the 17th century AD.
Roughly 450 years ago, during the Azuchi Momoyama era, the soroban spread to Japan from China. The original soroban consisted of two top beads and five bottom beads. During the Edo era the two top beads were reduced to just one bead, and in 1938 the bottom five beads were reduced to four beads. The slimness was obtained because of the need for speed. This new form of the soroban contributed to the mathematics. [GLOB09]
The Japanese Soroban
Usage of the Soroban in Japan, while much higher in earlier years, remains widespread [MORI09]. The introduction of electronic calculators and computers reduced the usage rate during the post war period but practical usage of the Sorobarn remains at about 20 million people in Japan or about 15% of the population.
In terms of student enrollment there is a population of about 700,000 students enrolled in Jukus (Gakushū juku or 学習塾) which are “cram” schools for special subjects like math, science, and entrance exam preparation. This represents about 11.7% of elementary school students in Japan. These students are contributing to the continuation of the Soroban culture and capability for a new generation.
These students take certification exams and the rate of examination has been increasing 10% per year since 2005. This is a reliable measure of Soroban training and initial skill level.
Within Japan soroban education continues broadly while mandates for use have declined. The demonstrable superiority of math scores for Japanese students relative to their US counterparts are hard to overstate. Any US primary or secondary teacher will note the struggle many children have to master even basic math let alone more advanced levels.
U.S. students placed below average in math and science. In math, U.S. high schoolers were in the bottom quarter of the countries that participated, trailing countries including [Japan]. But while other countries have improved, the United States has remained stagnant. [HOLL09]
Japanese students typically score among the highest in the world on standardized mathematics tests. Interestingly, many Japanese students attend soroban Jukus (study schools) after their regular school day. While correlation may not mean causation, the link seems to be significant.
While this must be attributed to many factors it is clear that Japanese students with exposure and training to the soroban, especially in early education, are not harmed by this training and in fact one can find a correlation between soroban achievement and math skills.
Basic educational theory holds that the more human senses that are engaged in a learning activity the better able the mind is to make impressions and develop reflex memory around the learning target. While classroom math training certainly will engage multiple senses it is the active and engrossing nature of soroban drills. The use of a soroban provides visual, tactile, and auditory input in a highly interactive fashion. Students can see the beads moving, hear the click of progress, and feel the beads as they position them.
Going beyond mechanical use, experts in the soroban can attain mental skills of computation even without the physical soroban thus expanding their intellectual capabilities:
Many soroban experts are also proficient in mental calculation, known as anzan (暗算?, "blind calculation") in Japanese and as ànsuàn in Mandarin Chinese. They do this by mentally visualizing the soroban (or any other abacus) and working out the problem without trying to figure out the answer beforehand. This is one reason why, despite the advent of handheld calculators, some parents send their children to private tutors to learn the soroban. Proficiency in soroban calculation can be easily converted to mental arithmetic at a highly advanced level. [WIKI09]
Furthermore, according to Japanese education community sources [EDUC09]:
1) The use of both visual (with the soroban) and mental calculation helps children to quickly grasp the concepts of carrying and borrowing in arithmetic.
2) Use motivates an active engagement attitude toward study.
3) The soroban generally develops an ability to do mental calculations.
Moreover, the soroban may help keep mental abilities agile especially for the elderly. It also helps maintain flexibility and motor skills.
1) [CYBE07] Cybenko, Martin, The Computing History Timeline, Computer, www.computer.org/portal/cms_docs_ieeecs/ieeecs/about/history/timeline.pdf, viewed 3/3/07.
2) [DAVI00] Davis, Martin, Engines of Logic: Mathematicians and the Origin of the Computer, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000.
3) [EDUC09] Education in Japan Community Blog, http://educationinjapan.wordpress.com/of-methods-philosophies/saluting-the-soroban-j-abacus/, 2009.
4) [FERN07] Fernandes, Luis, A Brief History of the Abacus, http://www.ee.ryerson.ca:8080/~elf/abacus/history.html.
5) [GLOB09] Global Soroban Institute, http://www.globalsoroban.org/english.html, 2009.
6) [GOLD72] Goldstine, Herman, The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersy,1972.
7) [HOLL09] Holland, Sally, US Students Behind in Math, CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/08/25/students.science.math/index.html, 2009.
8) [MORI09] Moritomo, Ken, E-mail correspondence with author, November 2009.
9) [SELE09] Selected Science News, Modern Human Settlement In East Asia Earlier Than Thought, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Thursday, 27 November 2008, http://www.scitechnews.com/ssn/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=679:modern-human-settlement-in-east-asia-earlier-than-thought&catid=35:archaeology&Itemid=55.
10) [TAKA63] Kojima, Takashi, Advanced Abacus: Japanese Theory and Practice, Charles E. Tutle Company, Tokyo, 1963.
11) [WIKI09] Wikipedia, Soroban, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soroban, 2009.