Monday, August 25, 2014

Soroban: The Math Machine

A Japanese friend of mine on Facebook recently made a post that would have been a pretty good bullet point for my and Joe's discussion of Japan's interesting and often seemingly dualistic relationship with technology.

Photo courtesy of Ryoji Maruyama.

A soroban, as you may guess from the photo, is a Japanese abacus. The kanji are 算盤, literally meaning "calculating tray." 

I've got to be honest - my first thought at seeing his post was something along the lines of "whaaaaaa?" You see, here in the U.S., abaci are pretty much relegated to the covers of math and science textbooks, where they might hang out with beakers and protractors and other instruments of that ilk. You might see an abacus in the toy store, because babies and young children love to play with little colorful beads and parents love that these ones are locked onto sticks and thus cannot be swallowed.

Mmmm, abacus.

I hope you'll forgive my incredulity; I am a product of my environment, and we Americans have little use for counting beads. Not when advanced digital devices are readily available, not only to solve all your mathematical needs but in some cases to play Snake or Mario with, as well. Somewhat bewildered, I decided to do some research. Ok, by "do some research" I mean read the relevant Wikipedia entries.

"How quick and difficult can this be?" I wondered. Apparently pretty damn. As you may have guessed from my friend's Facebook post, using a soroban is no mean feat. There are associated books and courses and certifications. I tried to read a webpage explaining how one multiplies and divides with a soroban, and came away with the simple conclusion that it is mystical Eastern sorcery. 

There's a story on the Wikipedia page about how in 1946 the soroban was pitted against an electronic calculator in a contest of speed and accuracy. Now this is a story an American should be able to appreciate, what with our tales of folk heroes like John Henry the Steel Driving Man. The soroban, manned by some guy, was able to beat the calculator 4 to 1.

Given how much calculators and computing have progressed since 1946, I find it difficult to believe the soroban would still triumph today. Still, I had no idea such a rudimentary calculating tool could be so fast in the right hands. And come the zombie/EMP/plague apocalypse, when electricity is no more, the soroban will be undisputed king. 


  1. I don't know much about it, but my friends who send their kids to soroban classes say that it improves your mental arithmetic skills. Allegedly if you're good with the soroban you should be able to calculate longer and more complicated sums more quickly in your minds eye. I can see how that could work for visual learners, but it still freaks me out when the old guy at my corner store breaks out his abacus to calculate my change!

  2. At least in my school in Germany, we learned basic abaus skills at one point during the math lessons. I think it did not do any harm. ;)