Soroban – The art of calculating with Japanese abacus


Some imagine that abacus is an instrument for children, but did you know that the Japanese use this tool in a practical way even in place of the calculator? Today we will talk about the famous Japanese abacus called soroban and about Japanese art handling it.

Soroban is the name given to the Japanese abacus, which consists of an instrument for professional and practical calculation. It was invented in China where it was called snpan, and was taken to Japan around 1600.

Soroban is a fairly simple device, consisting of rods and beads, trapped in a frame. There are different types of abacus, dating back 400 years before Christ. It was used a lot in Egypt, Rome, Greece, India and other ancient civilizations.

Soroban - the art of calculating with japanese abacus

Over time, different improvements were made in this calculation tool made of stones and wood until we arrive at the soroban we are writing today.

The word soroban [算盤] is derived from the ideogram [算] which means calculating, guessing, numbers and probabilities, next to the ideogram [盤] meaning tray, shallow bowl, platter, plate and similar things. 

How is soroban used in Japan?

In Japan, he is taught in schools for children from the age of 3. They are usually used even in companies. So much so that some office jobs require a soroban certificate.

Using a soroban helps in learning mathematics, memory and abstract logical reasoning, as well as being a fun device. You probably met an abacus when you were a kid, but the soroban is totally different. It has only five bills, or pebbles in each numerical order.

It is often used in an improved way capable of generating extremely fast techniques to perform any calculation, be it addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. You can also work with hours, minutes, seconds, conversion of weights and measurements, integers, decimals, negatives, square and cubic roots.

Soroban - what is a japanese abacus?

Using soroban, some were able to learn how to do mental calculations. Gradually the Japanese abacus causes people to acquire skills to do mental calculations with huge numerals. Using soroban can make you have skills faster than a calculator!

Champion Takeo Sasano entered the record book with a time of 1.83 seconds (not even two seconds!) calculating 15 3-digit numbers each. Take the test: mark the time you spend to calculate this in a calculator… So you will understand the power of Soroban!

Soroban is not just a toy, it is a tool that many devote years of practice in order to achieve the ability called anzan soroban or me[暗算そろばん]ntal soroban allowing the person to do gigantic calculations without the instrument.

Benefits of using Japanese abacus

Here are other skills that are also perceived in the use of Soroban:

  • Improves concentration and memorization, especially for numbers;
  • Accurate visualization and inspiration;
  • More attentive observation;
  • Information processing faster;
  • Increased “auditory speed”;
  • Mental calculus;
  • Ends with stress and anxiety;
  • Logical reasoning;
  • Discipline;
  • Agility;

Construction of japanese abacus – Soroban

Soroban is composed of several columns, each representing a unit, tens, hundred and etc. Each column, in turn, is debt in two, where one side meets one piece and the other four pieces. The soroban reading is done from left to right.

At the top is one account (or part) per column. Each account means five numerical units, and these accounts are called godama because go means five and lady piece.

At the bottom of each column, there are four accounts, each meaning a numerical unit and are called ichidama because ichi means one and lady means piece.

The soroban frame is called waku, while the dividing bar separating the godama from ichidama is called hari. Keta is the name of the bamboo stem where the dimensions (tama) slide.

Soroban - what is a japanese abacus?

When the top parts or beads are up, and the lower beads are down, soroban is “zeroed out”. When we move a rock from the bottom up, we’ll have the 1, move one more, we’ll have the representation of 2 and so on.

To represent the 5, just move the top stone, from the chosen numerical house as with each of the units, upwards. Although it seems simple to make calculations with this instrument, it is necessary to learn techniques.

Once dominated the technique called shuzan [珠算] you get much smarter than a calculator. 

Videos of the Japanese abacus – Soroban

Here are some vídeos that show the great skill and use of soroban:

Soroban contest:

How does it feel to see this bunch of kids doing huge calculations using a simple tool? It seems to be super complicated. I hope you enjoyed this little article. I appreciate the comments and shares. We recommend reading also:

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