Sam Naser

Counting on beads

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In Japan, the land that gave the world the desktop, pocket and wristwatch calculator, one counting device has always managed to hold its own.

It’s the abacus, a 2,400-year-old instrument that never blinks, blips or runs out of batteries. In fact, it usually consists of nothing more than rows of beads on wires inside a bamboo frame. Yet, for sheer speed and accuracy, it will best most of its electronic rivals at any addition, subtraction, multiplication or division conundrum thrown its way. And unlike a calculator’s microchip brain, the abacus can accommodate any number, no matter how large.

In a world that’s becoming evermore electronic, the abacus’s very survival is a testament to the resilience of a few beads and strips of hard wood. While techies slog through typing on a calculator, a fleet-fingered abacus user will flick across a few tiers of beads, and a mere clickety-clack later, will have arrived at the same answer in a matter of seconds.

Its prowess was perhaps most famously demonstrated on November 12, 1946, in a contest held in Tokyo between a Japanese abacus operated by Kiyoshi Matsuzaki, and an electronic calculator operated by U.S. Army Pvt. Thomas Wood. The match asked both competitors four basic arithmetic operations, as well as a fifth problem that combined all four. The abacus won four to one in both accuracy and speed.

But the true advantage of the abacus goes beyond speed. In fact, the mark of a seasoned abacus student is the ability to dispense with the physical hardware altogether. The beads are still moved, but in a mnemonic image projected in the person’s mind.

Mental math

Not long ago, mental arithmetic was a fixture of primary school education. So much so, that 30,000 juku (schools for abacus instruction) used to be in operation in Japan in the 1980s, teaching students as young as tots in abacus literacy.

At the juku, instructors would prepare students to no longer need the abacus at all. For a portion of class time, all abaci would be put away as the instructor called out figures to be calculated, and students would sit, eyes closed, moving their hands on their desks. Abacus literacy was measured through a series of examinations granting new ranks, just as it is with the martial arts. But instead of tying on a colored belt, a new ranking label would be tagged onto the front of the abacus.

The best and the brightest, of course, mastered the ability to mime the beads in their heads. It’s a skill known as anzan or “blind calculation,” a cerebral art that’s drawn researchers from around the globe. Cognitive neuroscientists claim that such mental arithmetic exercises the prefrontal area of the brain, enhancing mental abilities such as memory, concentration and the ability to think logically.

Those who become proficient with the abacus almost automatically become adept at anzan. It’s likely a big reason why, despite the popularity of calculators, the abacus is still very much in use today. In Japan, it continues to be taught in primary schools as part of mathematics lessons, with teachers giving song-like instructions to teach young students the decimal number system.

But for all the appeal of the abacus, it’s still not clear whether it will stand up in the long count against its electronic cousins. Its main strength lies in addition and subtraction, not sophisticated calculations, and it remains notably weak when it comes to modern requirements, like data storage.

Technology is one reason why its popularity has largely waned in the last 20 years. At one time, children in Japan were so enthusiastic about the abacus that they sought prestigious certifications through rigorous tests that graded abacus proficiency. Those certifications paid off big time when it came time to look for a job. But according to the League of Japan Abacus Associations, the number of people taking these abacus certification tests plummeted to 180,000 in 2005. Compare this to 1980, when the number of students taking abacus certification tests peaked at 2.05 million.

Encouragingly, though, the abacus seems to be staging a comeback. The number of students taking certification tests began rising in 2006 and rose to 210,000 in 2009. The league says the renewed interest in one of mankind’s earliest counting devices falls on the heels of recent expert claims about the abacus’s role in enhancing concentration and memory.

Big in America

Like so many of Japan’s other innovations, the abacus has also found a home in the United States. Private classes are available in nearly every major city nationwide. Take, for example, Tempe’s IQ Abacus, a school that offers private classes to students aged 4 to 12 in mental math and abacus literacy.

Rueyin Chiou founded the school, a beneficiary of abacus math herself, after she witnessed its benefits when transferring her abacus skills to her son in preschool. Chiou has been teaching mental math classes ever since, developing her own textbooks, homework, workbooks, audio CDs, posters and math games.

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