Soroban - The art of calculating with Japanese abacus


Some imagine that the 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 are going to talk about the famous Japanese abacus called soroban and the Japanese art of handling it.

Soroban (そろばん) 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 suanpan, and was taken to Japan around 1600.

The Soroban is a very simple device, consisting of rods and beads, attached to a frame. There are different types of abacuses, which date back 400 years before Christ. It was used extensively in Egypt, Rome, Greece, India and other ancient civilizations.

Soroban - the art of calculating with Japanese abacus

Over time, different improvements were made to this calculation tool made of stones and wood until it reached the soroban we are writing today.

The word soroban [算盤] is derived from the ideogram [算] which means to calculate, guess, numbers and probabilities, along with the ideogram [盤] which means tray, shallow bowl, platter, plate and the like. 

How is soroban used in Japan?

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

Using a soroban helps with math learning, memory and abstract logical reasoning, as well as being a fun device. You probably met an abacus as a child, but the soroban it's totally different. It has only five beads, 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. It is also possible to work with hours, minutes, seconds, conversion of weights and measures, 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 makes people acquire skills to make mental calculations with huge figures. Using soroban can get you skills faster than a calculator!

Champion Takeo Sasano entered the record books with a time of 1.83 seconds (not even two seconds!) Calculating 15 numbers of 3 digits each. Take the test: mark the time you spend calculating this on a calculator… so you will understand the power of Soroban!

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

Benefits of using the Japanese abacus

See other skills that are also noticed when using Soroban:

  • Improves concentration and memorization, especially for numbers;
  • Clear visualization and inspiration;
  • Closer observation;
  • Information processing faster;
  • Increased “hearing speed”;
  • Mental calculation;
  • It ends with stress and anxiety;
  • Logical reasoning;
  • Subject;
  • Agility;

Construction of the Japanese abacus - Soroban

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

At the top is an account (or piece) 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 beads, each meaning an numerical units and are called ichidama because ichi means an e lady means piece.

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

Soroban - what is a Japanese abacus?

When the upper pieces or beads are up, and the lower beads are down, the Soroban is "zeroed". When we move a stone from the bottom up, we will have 1, if we move one more, we will have the representation of 2 and so on.

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

Once you have mastered the technique called shuzan [珠算] you are much smarter than a calculator. 

Books to help you learn about SOROBAN

Below we will share some books to help you master the soroban technique:

Where to buy a soroban?

We recommend buying a soroban online through the ebay website, there you will find great prices:

You may be wondering what is the difference between the Chinese suanpan abacus and the Japanese soroban abacus. The Chinese abaco usually has five pieces at the bottom and two pieces at the top, two more pieces, a different way of calculating. 

Videos from Japanese abacus - Soroban

See some videos that show the great ability 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 short article. I appreciate the comments and shares. We also recommend reading:

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