The abacus is a handy calculator handed down from olden times in Japan. Until about 50 years ago, it was an indispensable tool at the workplace, or around the home; used to calculate business sales, living costs and so on. However now, in recent times, it seems to have been replaced by convenient electronic calculators and computers. So, is this the end of the abacus? No, not at all. The number of users is increasing, not only in Japan but all over the world, as its use is changed and it becomes a study tool to help increase children's ability to get to grips with mathematics.
Even pre-elementary school children are keen to attend abacus school in Tokyo (Courtesy of Koike Shuzan Kenkyu Juku)
Mental Arithmetic is its Speciality
If you look at a typical abacus from above, it is a rectangular wooden frame with a number of thin rods lined up in columns side by side, and on each rod are 5 beads. The abacus uses a basic calculation method (Shuzan) where numbers are counted by moving these beads up and down with your fingers as if flipping them. The rods that run through the beads are called keta (digits) and the further to the left the keta, the larger the numerical place. You can count big numbers just by having a keta; whether it be in the thousands, or in the billions.
Children look at the monitor and practice mental arithmetic (Courtesy of Koike Shuzan Kenkyu Juku）
If you just remember the simple rules on how to move the beads, anyone can add, subtract, multiply or divide using an abacus. If you practice further you will be able to do quick calculations by just picturing the numbers in your head, even without an abacus to hand. If you go into an abacus classroom around town, you will see children practicing mental arithmetic by looking at numbers displayed on a computer screen and moving their fingers in thin air as though using an abacus.
Originating from Mesopotamia
The abacus originated from an instrument that initially came from the region of Mesopotamia, part of current-day Iraq, some 4,000 years ago. It evolved in Egypt and Rome and it is said that the prototype of the modern abacus was completed in China. It was introduced to Japan some 500 years ago, but the Chinese style abacus had 7 beads lined up in columns. The Japanese style abacus not only reduced the number of beads per column to 5, but also changed the design. Whereas the Chinese beads were round, the Japanese beads were modified to be hexagonal-shape when viewed in profile, making them easy to catch with the fingers, and meaning they could be manipulated quickly.