Soroban Training for Foreigners in Japan

You are cordially invited to Learn the Abacus (Soroban) 



Mixed in with the sounds of abacus beads, you'll hear Japanese, English and a combination of the two. Ten dollars... twelve dollars... You'll hear dollars instead of yen.

Soroban classes for non-Japanese are held every Saturday from 10 AM at the Osaka Abacus Association. Students gather here for one-on-one instruction with their soroban teachers. Students of all nationalities, ages and walks of life come to devote themselves, along with their teacher, in the study of the soroban. In doing so, they come to realize the same universal mathematical principles represented by the soroban.

At the 11 o'clock break of this lesson, on February 10 2001, the vice president of the association, Mr. Moritomo, introduces Amin Muhamad, a participant from Pakistan, and 2 visitors.Director Dobashi, of the Japan Abacus Association, who came for an interview, and Ms. Noriko Otani, who will soon go to Eritrea to work as a volunteer.

After the break, teachers begin class again. Students are given the problems out loud. Their correct answers are rewarded with praise. Regardless of seniority, the teachers take turns in this way. Through the study of soroban, Japanese and non-Japanese are involved in a cultural exchange.

"We certainly hope to see this activity throughout Japan."says vice president Moritomo. This June, the course will complete its 15th year. Over that period of time, 665 students from 61 countries will have studied here.

If you ask the students why they became interested in sorobam, you might get responses like these:

"I was having dinner in a restaurant and I just saw a soroban lying there on the counter. I wondered what it was and that curiosity has brought me here."

"I like the sound of the soroban beads."

"The sorban is an expression of Japanese culture."

"It's a unique computer that doesn't need electricity."

Hearing these words, it's clear that these foreign students have an approach different from Japanese who are accustomed to the soroban. They have a fresh perspective on the instrument.

Students from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, Brazil, New Zeeland, Germany, the Czech Republic and many other parts of the world come to Japan to study the soroban. Some are businessmen, others are researchers, language teachers or students on foreign exchange. At present, 25 students from 11 different countries are enrolled.

All 15 soroban teachers are volunteers and give one-on-one lessons. The students are assigned to them according to the level of language proficiency. The result is very precise, finely tuned instruction.

"The teacher patiently explaned it to me until I understood." said one student.

For 15 years, the Osaka office has been making soroban calculation accessible to non-Japanese. One German student is now writing a German language textbook for the soroban. He is not the only one.

Many of our students return to their countries and teach the soroban to their people. In this way, we hope that knowledge of this calculating tool will reach new horizons. This year, three non-Japanese students will take the second level soroban calculation prpficiency exam.


In June of 1986, we started teaching soroban to foreign students with the objective of expanding the recognition of the soroban, an instrument with a history of its own, as a valuable tool in the modern age. This program has been running for 15 years. In that time, 665 students from 61 countries have studied with us, some achieving a very high level of proficiency.

Although this course is taking place in our advanced technological age, real social contribution can be realized by the study of soroban. Computers may calculate for us but their use also has harmful side effects. The soroban, on the other hand, offers us the opportunity to brush up on the fundamentals of calculation. We acquire perseverance as we study the basis of mathematical education. In the process, we also lessen the harmful impact that dependency on computers and calculators can create.

Students from all over the world come to experience this aspect of Japanese culture. They come to realize that they are participating in both an international cultural exchange and in promoting goodwill and friendship between Japan and their own countries. Their sense of belonging to an international community is heightened little by little.

It is urgent that we allow the public to deepen their knowledge of the soroban and the advantages of learning to use it in today's computerized society. It is highly desirable that this knowledge penetrates as deeply into society as possible.

In the past 15 years, the mass media has also participated by informing the public about our courses. Below are some publications and sources where you can find information on our classes for foreign students:

The soroban is an ancient calculation tool and does not belong to Japan alone. Spreading knowledge of this instrument throughout the world will help to ensure that it will remain relevant and continue to be a pillar of education in the future.

With the help of the media, popular notions about the soroban are changing and people are beginning to appreciate the universal and modern principles that this instrument embodies.

The Osaka Abacus Association will continue to enthusiastically promote soroban among the public with the aim of bringing about a rebirth of interest in this ancient instrument. 

 The Soroban Experience by Yannic Piche

 I became acquainted with the Japanese abacus approximately a year ago. I immediately wanted to know more about this calculation method relying on mental activity rather than electronic means. It was not until six months ago that I had my first contact with it though. I had long been interested in numbers even though I was never very exceptional at mathematics. During those six months I have been practising, my idea about soroban has changed a lot.

 I was, at first, very impressed with the sorobans's simple way of calculating complex figures. I found it incredible that results could be achieved through moving little beads. I found it even more incredible that some people could do mental calculations (anzan) through visualisation of a soroban frame. With time, I acquired basic skills, and what was puzzling at first slowly became more natural. But even now, friends of mine who are not acquainted with soroban are very often mystified by the concept of anzan.

 During my first steps as a soroban student, I thought that it had to be a great way to develop mental capacities. Just like running is a good exercise for the body, I imagined that soroban had to be a great exercise for the mind. This is probably part of the reason why I took up soroban. The movement of beads also seemed to be a great way to directly and concretely relate to mathematical concepts and numbers, just like kids learning the first notions of numbers and quantities as a consequence of piling up little blocks.

 Slowly, I realised that the soroban skills were to be gained through hard work. But the more I practised, the more I had the impression I was falling in a routine of purely mechanical movements where my intellect was merely used. I felt a little disappointed as I was expecting the practice of soroban to be much more of a mental discipline. I then realised that the original purpose behind the use of soroban was not one of intellectual training.

 Without knowing much about the historical background of soroban, it seems only logical to think that this calculation method was created out of a need for a practical solution. As the saying goes: "Necessity is the mother of invention". Soroban, therefore, appeared as a tool-solution whose practical and ultimate objective is speed in obtaining accurate mathematical results. The way to best master this tool is through regular and repeated practice. In this pragmatic perspective, the use of the intellect is counter-productive as it slows down the process of getting to the answer; where thinking is involved, time is lost. The repetition required in the practice has for fundamental objective to eliminate any time spent thinking. 

 This is exactly what I feel when I am in the middle of performing soroban calculations. With concentration, the movement of my fingers is fast and natural. Numbers seen on a piece of paper trigger reflexes seemingly without the interference of the intellect. It is a direct link between the numbers and my fingers: a reflex that can only be acquired through long hours of training.

 With calculations becoming more natural, something seemed to elude the process. Something grew missing. I did not feel I was learning anymore, but rather tuning a fine skill. I remember struggling to comprehend the logic of basic soroban concepts during my first lessons. I now feel that this is when I learned the most, when I most experienced soroban.

 Soon after, I remember being told how to use the soroban, what order to follow in moving the beads, even how to hold my pencil over the soroban frame during calculations. It seemed I was sometimes asked not to try to understand the logic behind but just do it. I would have liked more freedom. I would have liked to discover a little more by myself. I would have liked more time to experiment. Following the rules quickly provided me with tangible results (which I was very happy with), but a bit of the experience had been lost. From this point, soroban had become a skill acquisition process, not a learning adventure anymore.

 From the experience I have in learning how to operate a soroban, I feel that the way it is taught is too systematic and not enough experimental. Soroban appeared as a practical tool but the needs it could once fulfil are now better handled with computers and electronic calculators which can do the job faster and with much less efforts. Considering that, I think soroban would reach far better educational payoffs in the modern society if the balance was changed a little more toward experimenting.

 I suggest that the main objective of soroban education be less practical and more creative. An approach that involves more thinking and experimenting for the student to discover how the soroban can be used to get results. This is not easy but it can certainly be achieved with a bit of help and guidance from the teacher. The learning process might take a little longer in the beginning but it would surely provide the student with a better grasp of the concepts behind soroban calculations.

 As a concrete example, I suggest not saying anything about the order used in moving beads at first and see how students naturally come up with their own sequence. I really believe that the official order is the most efficient one. But challenging what came up naturally, comparing it with the established one, and then explaining why it is more efficient would truly provide an environment propitious to learning.

 But even though the practice of soroban is not as much of a mental activity as I thought it would be, I still consider that it brings something very special to me. The level of concentration and the movement of the fingers remind me a lot of the years I spent practising the violin. I never became a very good player, but the hours I spent practising were great moments of mental peacefulness. The joy of seeing something taking shape before my very own eyes was also profound. The exact same thing happens with soroban. I gain a lot from a few moments of deep concentration in which everything is forgotten. It is mentally very relaxing. This intense activity helps me put the reality back into perspective sometimes. The joy of feeling improvement also provides me with a strong incentive to keep going.

 As a positive antithesis to the lack of freedom and creativity, the experience I had provided me with a close insight into the Japanese education style. This helped me better understand the Japanese culture and the Japanese people. Soroban is in this sense truly representative of the Japanese culture.

 After six months, this is where I stand. I feel I am far from having discovered all the potential of soroban, be it practical or educational. I have yet to gain mental calculation (anzan) skills. I intend to keep practising soroban as long as possible and I have no doubts that my opinion will keep evolving as I get more into this discipline. What drove me to start practising soroban was curiosity; the desire to experiment and truly understand will never leave me. I really hope for a bright future for the soroban discipline where this need for experimenting would really be satisfied.

The Soroban Experience II by Yannic Piche

 This article is meant to be a supplement to The Soroban Experience, an article I wrote about the Japanese abacus a little over a year ago, and six months after having started the practice of the soroban discipline. I here intend to complement the content of that first article by adding thoughts and opinions that came into view during the last year or so.

 The first six months following my encounter with soroban were of great intensity. During my first steps as an uninitiated student, I was completely amazed at the process behind calculating complex figures with the only use of a wooden tool. The idea was simple and marvellous. I was taken aback when presented with the idea of anzan, mental calculations effectuated through the visualization of the soroban frame. What made me start the practice of this discipline is, in short, very simple. A natural curiosity for something new presented to me but also, the idea that this discipline had to be a great way to develop new mental capacities.

 During that period of time, I achieved some level of proficiency getting to the 3rd level of kyu. This involved hard work and practice. With time though, the enthusiasm of the beginning faded away and even gave way to a bit of disappointment. I was expecting highly intensive mental challenge but instead, I was feeling my efforts were only spent developing manual skills. By only repeating the same steps again and again, I was acquiring speed and accuracy, but also a sort of void, a learning experience void. Without being able to see more than repetition to it, I was feeling that the discipline was lacking in flexibility. One other complaint I also had at the time was that the way soroban was taught to me was too rigid and systematic, and not enough experimental. It would have been very easy for me to quit at that point, but I persisted, somehow, hoping that uncovered aspects would eventually be revealed.

 The year or so that followed was to be a much more personal experience filled with discoveries. At the same time it also proved to be a little slower in terms of achievement and improvement. I never stopped practising on a regular basis (about once a week) which seemed to be just enough to maintain the level I had gained during the first six months. But that regular (though insufficient) practice allowed me not to lose the precious proficiency I had acquired.

 What I found out with time is that the soroban discipline was much more flexible than I had thought at first. In that second discovery phase, I realised that I had to find my own way into the discipline, find my own little tricks, compare different techniques, try out new ideas, etc. Slowly but steadily, new doors seemed to open to me. I was becoming more creative in the way I was using the tool. I was forging my own path. The lack of experimentation that I had found a little too present in the repetition of the same processes somehow gave place to a whole world of new ideas and possibilities. It seems that I became more of a free thinker in my discipline. The more I was getting into it, the more it seemed there was to discover.

 I now feel that the strict formation of the beginning is the reason this second phase of discovery happened. It allowed me to be more in possession of my discipline. The strictness of the formation eventually provided for a smoothness of thoughts. It was not strict in the full meaning of the word, but to my standards, it was stricter than I wanted. This is very similar to the case of a jazz musician. Formal years of strict training are needed before reaching a certain level where live and complex musical improvisations become possible.

 Having realised that, I am willing to sacrifice still many hours of arduous training to achieve an even greater level of freedom and elasticity of thoughts. I feel I am on the path of discovery again.

 This is all very theoretical so here are some practical examples of ideas I have been experimenting. After seeing someone inputting numbers using both left and right hands, I decided to try myself. What I found out is that for certain combinations, the use of the left hand feels somehow more natural. I was also taught, during low (three digits) level yomiagezan (dictation of a list of numbers) to input the numbers twice, once on the left part of the soroban, and then again on the right part to make it more of a challenge. What I started doing on my own was to input the numbers twice at the same location on the soroban, and then divide the result by two at the end. With speed improving, I tried doing the same exercise inputting the numbers three times. These might not be new ideas but I am happy I could discover and experiment again. This proves to me that I am the master of my thoughts and that I decide of the faith of the knowledge and skills I allow myself to acquire.

 It is sometimes difficult to balance the reality of daily obligations with the desire to dive more into a discipline. For this reason, the pace I have at this moment is not as fast as I wished it was, but the greed for improvement in results has now faded away and given place to a truer experience. I have decided to make of this discipline a real discovery experience and chosen not to be limited by the rigid frames that sometimes seem to be too present. The practical aspects might not be very obvious, but I am very enthusiastic about the genuine discovery approach I am now embracing.