Ancient calculator is a hit with Japan's newest generation

An ancient mathematical instrument seemingly in eclipse in this era of integrated circuits is making a comeback.

The beaded calculating device known as soroban in Japan and abacus elsewhere is finding a surprising number of new fans among Japanese schoolchildren.

Michio Nanjo, director of the National Abacus Education Federation, says: ''When the pocket calculator first became popular in the mid-1970s, it was widely thought the soroban, after many centuries of use, was outdated. But the falling off in interest seems to have been only temporary. Many people are now finding the old way still has its uses.''

The federation says the number of people taking its annual ability test has grown from 2.4 million in 1974 to around 3.2 million last year.

The Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which has been conducting annual abacus proficiency tests for almost 40 years, also reports significant increases and says that almost half the applicants last year were schoolchildren aged 12 and upward.

In the past, the majority of those taking the exams have been students about to graduate or those already working who thought an abacus proficiency certificate would enhance their employment prospects.

Now, it seems, children are taking up the abacus because it is simple to operate and introduces an element of fun and personal achievement into mathematics.

Teachers are delighted with the trend. Education conferences in recent years have heard the constant lament of declining mathematical and mechanical skills in a technological age. Teachers complained that youngsters were becoming totally dependent on machines.

Use of pocket calculators, for example, seemed to be a shortcut to solving mathematical problems. But it meant increasingly that the student no longer thought through the concepts leading to the answer.

Fewer students use mental arithmetic, teachers say, and their manual dexterity has been lessened because of such innovations as electric pencil sharpeners replacing the old reliable penknife.

Revival of the soroban satisfies both requirements.

On a recent visit to Japan, Leo Richards, director of the University of Southern California's Soroban Institute, observed: ''The abacus has value in the psychological processes of learning. It provides youngsters with a 'hands on' experience of mathematical processes. Give me any concept and I can use the abacus to teach it. In fact, the user creates mathematics.''

He claims the soroban can instill discipline and confidence while the calculator, which actually performs all the operations itself, is alienating.

''Moving the beads back and forward allows the user to assume control. One of the reasons the abacus is critical is that in our technological world, we are developing an aura of infallibility toward the electronic calculator. If we depend solely on calculators, we are losing control. And if the machines don't work properly, we become frustrated.''

The soroban, Michio Nanjo adds, can turn a mathematical duffer into a whiz kid, removing a lot of the intimidating mystery from arithmetic.

In this computer age, many Japanese companies would seem to agree. For them, soroban proficiency is an essential criterion for employment.

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