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October 2000

Kids Rank with Adults at Japan Abacus Championship

The Japanese Soroban Grand Prix (soroban is a Japanese abacus) for 2000 was held in Tokyo recently to determine who was the most accurate calculator on the abacus, and elementary schoolchildren ranked with adult participants in the annual championship.

Some 300 participants, all winners of prefectural preliminary tournaments, competed for the titles in four divisions: mental calculation of numbers read aloud, abacus calculation of numbers read aloud, an all-round individual event, and an inter-prefectural competition. The all-round individual event was divided into the three groups: the "junior" class for elementary schoolchildren, the "school" class for junior high and high school students, and the "senior" class for adults. A grand champion was chosen for each division and class.

Sixth-grader Ittetsu Suzuki from Hokkaido, who hoped to win the junior all-round individual title for a third consecutive year, lost out to fifth-grader Sachi Watanabe from Miyagi in the final. As many as 105 kids took part in the junior class.

Sachi, who achieved a perfect score, said, "I'm very happy because I really didn't expect to win." She practices the abacus two and a half hours every day, but said with a smile she needs to do more to become "faster and more accurate."

The individual event involves five kinds of calculation: multiplication, division, mental calculation, abacus calculation of written problems, and calculation of invoices. The person with the highest combined point score for the five categories, all done in less than a minute, is named the grand champion.

Despite his loss in the combined individual event, Ittetsu vied with adults in mental calculation of numbers read aloud and received the prize for excellence. Sayaka Matsuda, a sixth grader from Ishikawa Prefecture, got the same prize in abacus calculation of numbers read aloud.

The abacus is believed to have come to Japan from China in the late 16th century. The standard abacus currently in use in Japan has 21 to 27 rods, with five beads sliding freely on each rod--one signifying the number 5 and each of the other four the number 1.

Despite such a long tradition, unfortunately the number of abacus users is steadily declining. The abacus helps develop the power of numerical calculation and memorization. It is said to be particularly effective if children learn to use the abacus while they are young and their brains are still in the development stage.

An official at the League of Japan Abacus Associations, which organized the competition, said abacus calculation was "part of Japanese culture that should be carried on into the 21st century." "We want more and more schoolchildren to learn how to use the abacus," the official said.

Photos (from top): Competitors at the abacus tournament; a typical Japanese abacus; some kids joined the adults on the winners' podium. (The League of Japan Abacus Associations)