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Thousands of Japanese Kids Are Still Learning Math on the Abacus

Other countries have abandoned the ancient calculating tool but Japan still holds national math competitions with it.

by Meera Navlakha
23 August 2019, 5:43am

Image via Max Pixel.

A recent math competition in Japan included questions with numbers reaching trillions but the answers were found not on a computer or a calculator, but an abacus.

Yes, that ancient counting tool made up of beads. While most countries have done away with teaching them in schools, it’s still used in Japan where thousands of students are taught how to use them in abacus schools throughout the country.

According to the New York Times, students in Japan learned to use the abacus -- locally known as soroban -- in school until the early 1970s. Some still use the tool today, particularly old shopkeepers who use it to track sales.

While it is no longer officially part of the curriculum in public schools, about 43,000 students still take soroban lessons held at private schools. Many choose to take it as an elective or extracurricular activity.

The students who are particularly good at it even join national competitions. Yukako Kawaguchi, who runs one of the 6,500 schools dedicated to soroban in Japan, told the NY Times that the kids who have high grades are instantly recognised in their academic environments.

“They will be viewed as a smart kid in class, and that will give them confidence,” she said.

Some of her students have been learning the soroban since kindergarten, with classes lasting up to two and a half hours a day.

In 2013, the Japan Times reported that interest in the soroban was picking up throughout the nation. Some believe the tool improves calculation abilities and memorisation skills. In 2011, more than 210,000 people took the exam to attain a national soroban certification.

In Kyoto in July, more than 800 contestants came together to put their abacus skills to the test. The youngest competitor was 8, while the oldest was 69. Photographs of the event show parents, teachers, and siblings intently watching the participants, some even holding binoculars to get a closer look.

One of the winners, aged 20, added 15 three-digit numbers in 1.64 seconds, breaking his own Guinness World Record. Another winner, Kota Ginama, took home a prize for the individual category amongst elementary students. He is 11.

The champion, Daiki Kamino, is 16. He correctly calculated a 16-digit sum using the beads and mental math. Prior to this win, he spent three hours a day for the last eight years learning how to perform calculations on the soroban.

“I listen and move my fingers and repeat the numbers in my head. As soon as I hear the unit like trillion and billion, I start to move my fingers,” he said to the NY Times.

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