Soroban in Education and Modern Japanese Society

Throughout the Edo Period, Japan remained a closed, self-sustaining country. Its education system progressed and the teaching of soroban continued. However, Japan underwent a major change during the Meiji Period when the country was introduced to Western ideas. At that time, Japan experienced rapid modernization, economic progress, and its first change in the education system. Arabic numerals, which required calculations on paper, were introduced. Despite the new number system, soroban maintained its strong position in education. Students were required to learn soroban from grades two through six. During the Meiji Period, a majority of the population showed great skills in math and anzan, which is strictly mental calculation. The soroban requirements remained the same until World War II, after which Japan experienced yet another complete change.

 Around that time, soroban was being perfected to suit the need for speed in calculating. In 1944, the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry introduced the official soroban exam system, which is divided into four sections: multiplication, division, addition/subtraction, and denpyozan. An exam level is called a 'kyu'. A person becomes a qualified soroban teacher by passing the first (highest) kyu exam. Since the first official exam was administered, approximately 45 million people have taken it and about 11 million examinees have passed the third, second, and first kyu.

 In spite of that, the soroban requirements in school have gradually decreased. Why? This question is answered by the overwhelming trend towards modernization and computerization in the Japanese society. Today, new high-tech computers, household appliances and recreational items have created a fast-paced world with an increase in techno stress and a decrease in appreciation for human values as well as for the thinking process. With the use of high-tech machines and time saving devices, people have forgotten about the fundamental processes behind the work.

 Society is spending less and less time learning and understanding the basics of life such as philosophy, religion or art. At the same time, it no longer values the basics behind all the new technological devices such as the fundamental math skills of the soroban. Thus, five hundred years after its introduction, the teaching of soroban is facing some difficult problems such as:


  • How is soroban valued in the rapidly progressing computer age?
  • What position should be given to soroban in education?
  • Would it be possible to teach calculation skills using all three methods: paper calculation, soroban, and anzan?
  • Should parents make their children learn soroban?

These questions may never be directly answered, but a more positive trend shows hope. Society has realized the danger of losing valuable skills due to rapid modernization and is returning to teaching the basics in all areas, including the soroban. The Ministry of Education has recognized the value of the soroban techniques in teaching the basics of mathematics and, in 1989, the elementary school curriculum was revised to include soroban study not only in the third grade but also in the fourth grade.