Learning history is fun. But what’s more important in the stories that we read about inventions and inventors is the element of surprise they have. Have you experienced it while reading about an invention? This thought struck us, as we started writing about the Japanese abacus in Thej Academy valuable blog list.
Humans grew and evolved with time. Firstly, they needed food, shelter, and clothes. With time, they started to trade stuff using the Barter system. Finally, numbers came into play. People counted by drawing on sand, using sticks and stones.
However, somehow on the way, humans invented a device that was capable of not only saving time and also calculating effectively. They called it the Abacus. With time, tradition, and evolution, the abacus has taken different forms.
Different types of abacus existed in different dynasties. Some had an upgrade, some were simplified versions of the same. Every new and modified version of the Abacus comes with its pros and cons. But, despite its shortcomings, people keep using it in their day to day lives for two reasons.
- For counting purposes, arithmetics, and for the benefits of learning abacus.
- Clearly, to not let go of the tradition.
Table of Contents
- Soroban Abacus
- The Japanese Abacus Design
- How to Calculate Using a Japanese Abacus
- Learning to Use the Japanese Abacus
- The Simplicity of This Device
- Japanese Abacus Versus Chinese Abacus
- Why Is the Japanese Abacus Famous
- Do the Japanese Still Use Abacus?
- A Form of Art
Soroban means counting Tray. The Soroban abacus was invented in Japan in the 14th century. The Japanese abacus is a heavily influenced version of the Chinese abacus. Cheng Da Wei- the inventor is worshiped as the God of Arithmetics till date in Japan. Though the Japanese abacus influences the Chinese abacus design, the number of beads on the lower deck is similar to that of the Roman abacus.
Until the 17th century, the Soroban abacus was not widely used. It was the Japanese merchants who made it famous. The main reason for the widespread usage, fame, and popularity of the Soroban abacus is Trade.
The Japanese Abacus Design
The Japanese abacus had a 4:1 design. It had 4 beads in the lower deck with the value of 1 each. The upper deck had one bead with a value of 5. The lower deck is the Ichi-dama and the upper deck is the Go-dama. These beads go separated by a Central bar, which is the Reckoning bar. The Soroban abacus had 13 rods in total.
However, the other influenced versions of the Soroban abacus had larger or lesser numbers of rods in them. But they were always odd numbers and never less than seven.
The other versions of the Soroban abacus had 21, 23, 27, or 31 rods.
The Japanese abacus was mostly made of
- Rattan or
The beads were bi-conical in shape. (shaped like 2 cones inverted). Similarly, the beads were made of
- Marble or
How to Calculate Using a Japanese Abacus
Learning the place values and counting using the Japanese abacus is easier than it sounds. As mentioned earlier, the Japanese abacus had beads in 2 sections.
The beads on the above deck are called the 5-unit counters.
Secondly, the beads on the below deck are called the 1-unit counters.
In this abacus kit, the placement of these vertical bars holding these beads determines the place value of the numbers. The place values are given from the right-hand side, as
- Ones (1)
- Tens (10)
- Hundreds (100)
- And so on
- Moving up one bead on the lower deck of the one’s bar represents 1.
- Two beads moved on the lower deck of the tens bar represent 20.
- Moving up three beads on the lower deck of the hundreds bar represents 300.
- Moving down one bead on the upper deck of the one’s bar represents 5.
- One bead moved down on the upper deck of the tens bar represents 50.
- Moving down one bead on the upper deck of the hundreds bar represents 500.
Learning to Use the Japanese Abacus
The first and foremost thing to learn about the Japanese abacus is the Place values. When the place value is clear, counting and calculating becomes easier. Here’s how you can learn to calculate using the Soroban abacus.
Two beads from the lower deck are moved upwards. So, this abacus represents 2 (see the Step 1 from the image below).
Step 2 (from the image) represents 6.
- It has one bead from the lower deck towards the reckoning bar.
- One bead from the upper deck moved towards the reckoning bar.
Let’s look at a larger number as example, 576.
- One bead pushed down on the upper deck of the hundreds column. (500)
- One bead pushed down on the upper deck of the tens bar. In addition, two beads were pushed up on the lower deck of the tens column. (50 + 10 + 10)
- Finally, one bead pushed down on the upper deck of the one’s column. One bead pushed up on the lower deck of the one’s bar. (5 + 1)
- Therefore, the number we read is 576
This abacus has
- One bead pushed up on the lower deck of the thousands column. (1000)
- Two beads pushed up on the lower deck of the hundreds column. (200)
- One bead was pushed down on the upper deck of the tens column and one bead was pushed up on the lower deck of the tens column. (5 + 1 = 6)
- Four beads pushed up on the lower deck of one column. (4)
- Hence, the total value is 1264.
The Japanese abacus is by far the easiest to learn device. In addition, there is no cluttering of beads, rows, and columns.
The Simplicity of This Device
The simplicity of this device makes it the most effective one when it comes to calculations. This device makes mental math easier as well. Memorizing the number of beads along with their placements makes mental calculations much smoother, using this device.
This abacus can be learned and practiced easily by children and adults. Owing to its simpler design, the Japanese abacus has a lot of benefits for people who practice it. It helps to increase their concentration, focus and sharpens their memory skills. Remembering the exact position of the beads helps in the mid-brain activation as well.
Japanese Abacus Versus Chinese Abacus
The Japanese abacus is an influenced version of the Chinese SuanPan abacus. But there are a few striking differences between them both.
The Chinese abacus is the Suan-Pan. The Japanese abacus is the Soroban Abacus.
The Japanese abacus has only one bead on the upper deck. The Chinese abacus has two beads on the upper deck. The Japanese abacus has 4 beads on the lower deck while the Chinese abacus has 5 beads on the lower deck.
Place Value Denotation
The Japanese abacus has a small white dot present every three columns once. These dots are the Unit Rods and they represent the last digit of the whole number part of the answer. (of that particular calculation). Unit rods to the left of the designated ones also aided in place values by denoting the groups in the number, such as thousands, millions, etc.
This feature was missing in the Chinese Suanpan abacus, which made the calculations in the Chinese abacus a bit complicated.
Owing to its simple design, the Japanese abacus was easy to work with, in terms of visual calculations. But in the case of the Chinese abacus, it was almost impossible.
Practice till Date
The Japanese abacus is still being actively taught in schools and practiced all over the world. But the Chinese Soroban abacus has almost become extinct, due to its complex structure and not-so-user friendly operation. Therefore, it is not actively in use.
Why Is the Japanese Abacus Famous
Above all, as a tool used for calculation, the Soroban abacus gives life to numbers. Because of its simple and efficient design, it is easy to memorize the position of the beads for mental math. The definitive place values of this abacus make it easier to visualize the abacus in the mind. This also helps to manipulate numbers easily. This abacus helps in
- Calculating decimals and Fractions
- Calculating Square roots and practicing them at grand levels.
without much complications.
This abacus has earned its fame definitely because of its
- Simple design
- Efficient calculation methods
- Well planned place values
- Definitive and not clumsy number of beads on the upper and lower deck
- Easy to memorize – Perfect for mental math
Do the Japanese Still Use Abacus?
Many schools teach this Soroban Abacus an integral part of their curriculum and even conduct abacus competitions. Shopkeepers in rural areas of Japan still use the Soroban abacus for their business calculations. Yes, few people still rely on the abacus for their calculation needs. But the advent of calculators has replaced the active usage of the abacus as the main mode of calculation.
When taught in schools and other private institutions, the Soroban abacus has 6 levels of mastery. One needs to complete 6 levels to obtain a ‘Course completed’ certificate. In conclusion, each level covered the introduction and manipulation of even bigger numbers and different manipulation methods.
A Form of Art
Not only in Japan, but the Soroban abacus is also widely taught in schools across the world, as it forms the foundation of learning numbers and mental math.
The abacus is still manufactured in Japan even with the proliferation, practicality, and affordability of pocket electronic calculators. Using visual imagery of a soroban, one can arrive at the answer at the same time as, or even faster than, is possible with a physical instrument, like a calculator. The Japanese abacus had been practiced for over 500 years now and it is respected as a form of art, then as a mode of calculation.
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