First Calculator


         Soroban, commonly called the abacus in English, is considered the first calculator and has played a significant role in the cultural and educational development in Japan. Strong believers in the soroban even claim that soroban techniques are an essential element of Japan's culture. This thought raises many questions: What is a soroban? Where did it come from? What role has it played in our changing modern society, more specifically, Japan's? Why has Japan placed such a high value on it? Where is it going?


         A soroban is a rectangular wooden instrument used to do calculations based on the decimal system. The frame is 33 by 6 centimeters. It has vertical rods with sliding beads and a fixed bar across the rods. The standard Japanese soroban used today has 23 rods with 5 beads each -1 above the bar and 4 below.


         The soroban did not always exist in its present form. Soroban concepts date back 5,000 years to the Babylonians. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks adopted the concepts and made a primitive soroban by spreading sand on a board and making grooves in the sand with their finger. About 500 years later, the Romans adopted and improved it. The roots of the Japanese soroban are seen in the Roman instrument. The Romans inscribed grooves on a metal plate and put buttons in the grooves. There was a bar across the grooves with one button above the bar and four below.

         The Roman soroban was brought into China during the Han Era by way of the Silk Road. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Chinese transformed the plate with grooves and buttons into a wooden frame with rods, a horizontal bar, and sliding oval beads. The Chinese changed the system slightly by adding a bead above the bar and another below. This new soroban became widely used throughout China after the 13th century.

         The Chinese soroban was brought into Japan during the 15th and 16th centuries, but the Japanese removed the two added beads. The use of the soroban spread most rapidly during the 17th century, or Edo Period, and it greatly contributed to the education of the general public. The rulers and people realized the value of the soroban techniques; it was an excellent way to develop math skills and to calculate accurately and quickly. A majority of the population had developed a great sense for numbers, and strong soroban advocates believe that the rapid economic development during the Edo Period is a result of the spread of soroban techniques at that time.


         Throughout the Edo Period, Japan remained a closed, self-sustaining country. Its education system progressed, and the teaching of soroban continued. Japan underwent a major change, however, during the Meiji Period when the country was introduced to Western ideas. At this time, Japan experienced rapid modernization, economic progress, and its first change in the education system. In math education, Arabic numbers were introduced which required calculations on paper. Despite the new number system, the soroban maintained its strong position in education, and students were required to learn soroban in grades two through six. During the Meiji Period, a majority of the population showed great skill 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 societal change, this time a complete renovation.

         Undoubtedly, these changes affected the soroban world. During this time, the soroban was being perfected to suit the Japanese need for more speed in calculating, and in 1944 the official soroban exam system was introduced by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The official exams test for speed and accuracy in four areas: multiplication, division, addition and subtraction, and denpyozan. An exam level is called a "kyu". A person can become a qualified soroban teacher by passing the first kyu exam. Since the first official exam was administered, approximately 45 million people have taken the exams, and about 11 million examinees have passed the 3rd ,2nd, and 1st kyus.

         Although the exams were introduced and many people have taken them,soroban requirements in the schools have gradually decreased. Why ? This question is answered by the overwhelming trend toward the modernization and computerization of the Japanese society. Today, new high-tech computers, household appliances and recreational items have created a fast-paced world with an increase in technostress and a decrease in appreciation for human values and 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 has spent less time learning and understanding the basics of life such as philosophy, religion, and the arts. At the same time, society no longer values the basics behind all of the new technological devices nor the fundamental math skills of soroban. Thus, five hundred years after being introduced, the teaching of soroban is facing some difficult problems:

How does society value the soroban in the rapidly progressing Computer Age?
What position in education should we give to soroban?
Can we 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 for soroban. Society has realized the danger of losing valuable skills due to rapid modernization and is returning to teaching the basics in all areas, including soroban. The Ministry of Education has recognized the value of soroban techniques in teaching the basics of mathematics, and in 2009, the elementary school curriculum was revised to include soroban study not only in the third grade but also in the fourth grade.


         Although the present curriculum for a Japanese student does not seem to show so, the society in general still values soroban skills. This is indicated by the thousands of students who learn soroban at juku classes. A high value is placed on the benefits of soroban which are listed below:

1. Fosters a greater sense toward numbers
2. Helps develop an intuitive understanding of numbers through their concrete representation on the soroban( similar to Roman numerals).
3. Fosters one's trust in the process of calculation by enabling one to observe it in action.
4. Manifests the concept of decimal places and the progression of units by tens physically.
5. Instantly accomplishes addition and subtraction when numbers are placed on the abacus.
6. Improves understanding of compound numbers (by training in the use of supplementary numbers to 5 and 10).
7. Aids in developing the beneficial qualities of concentration, patience, and endurance.
8. Fosters one's confidence towards calculation.
9. Uses a left-to-right calculation method which makes quick estimation and rounding off possible.
10. Works on the decimal rather than fractional system-an easy progression to digital systems.
11. Develops mental calculation, which is the ultimate resource.
12. Develops the right brain tremendously.
13. Leads to greater mental capacity.
14. Expresses large numbers simply and easily.
15. Provides a sense of achievement as one's proficiency improves.


         The soroban's history clearly indicates that it is not solely Japanese. Originally, it was quite an international item. Thus, in an effort to re-introduce the soroban to people of other nations, I have offered a free soroban class for foreigners for the past 23 years. Additional aims are to share a part of Japanese culture and to promote friendship and goodwill between Japan and other nations.The class is sponsored by the Osaka Abacus Association and the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry. All instructions are given in English and is taught one-on-one by professional Japanese soroban teachers. Since 1986, over 920 students from 81 countries have attended the class. About fifty students have passed the 3rd kyu or higher; about 400 have received 4th ,5th , or 6th kyus; and 90 have succeeded in anzan exams.


         Studying the soroban not only develops one's thought processes and fundamental calculation skills but also provides an opportunity for an individual to appreciate an essential element of life in this modernized world. Therefore, it is hoped that the soroban will gain popularity with people of other countries, so that they might enjoy its benefits.

Written by
Ken Moritomo
Courtesy OAA& USP