In the Japanese elementary school, Japanese teachers place emphasis on the conceptual in the classroom, and expect students to learn and practice calculating skills outside the classroom. You will find that by grade 3, teachers will be paying close attention to students’ arithmetic abilities, and sending home many drills and hyaku masu pages.

Hence, calculators are rarely relied on or used in the elementary school stage. Teachers believe that calculators are of little value in deepening the understanding of arithmetic, unlike the soroban which is seen as highly useful in developing calculating skills.

Soroban (the Japanese calculating or computing device using counting beads, derived from the Chinese abacus) as a method is not as popular as it used to be, partly because it takes considerable time at least a year before the benefits are noticeable. Also parents prefer the more comprehensive math tuition coverage given by afterschool tuition centers like Kumon. Nevertheless, they are still going strong and thrive in suburban neighborhoods.

So what is the history of the Soroban?

The soroban (そろばん) or Japanese calculating device is derived from the ancient abacus, and is the ancestor of the modern calculator.

The soroban gained universal use in the Middle Ages (about 13th century) as an indispensable tool for commerce not just in Europe, but throughout Europe and the Middle East. Nowadays, its role has diminished having been replaced by modern calculating machines and computers…and can still be seen in Asia mostly used by the elderly in Chinese and Arab mom-and-pop stores or goldsmiths and pawn shops.

The origin of the soroban invention  … see “The Invention of the Abacus or Soroban

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Teachers in Japan today still value the soroban not only as a historical mathematical instrument, but also as a tool for teaching general skills applicable to almost any field. Learning how to use the soroban helps develop logical thought processes and powers of concentration.

So how is the soroban used?

As you can only add up to 9 on one column rod, you need to use combinations which make ten (ie. 5+5, 1+9 etc.), and the combinations which make five (ie. 1+4, 2+3). Beginner students of soroban always start by practicing these combinations.

To calculate 2+4, however, you can not simply add four because there are only four 1-beads on a column rod and you are already using two 1-beads. In this case, add one 5-bead to the same column (which has already two), and subtract one 1-bead, giving you the answer of six. It is represented mathematically like this, (1+1)+(5-1).

Most students quickly come to understand the combinations that are necessary to do simple calculations such as 2+4 or 3+8. However, problems tend to arise when attempting more complicated calculations such as 6+7, which is made up of the combination (5+1) + (10-5+2).

Mastering the soroban requires diligence and practice. For greater details on using the soroban, go to Tomoe Soroban’s How to Use Soroban guide. You can learn advanced soroban techniques online from Advanced Abacus Techniques.

Benefits of learning soroban

The purpose of practicing the soroban is not just to arrive at the correct answer or mathematical result. But the training of one’s mind and the process of being able to arrive at or to obtain the answer is considered paramount.

The benefits of learning the soroban particularly for children are:

1) The use of both visual (on the soroban) and mental calculation helps children to quickly grasp the concepts of carrying and borrowing in arithmetic.
2) Motivates an active attitude toward study.

3) Generally develops your ability to do mental calculations.

(From recent research, the studies have drawn attention to the device as a means of keeping the elderly mentally agile and their fingers supple!)

If you are still interested, visit the Virtual Soroban Museum

Source: The Development and Implementation of Education Standards in Japan ; Wikipedia; Tomoe Soroban;

Hakamada’s newsletter; Soroban; Global Soroban Institute; Soroban in Various Number Systems