After reading this page, you will learn about the short history of Japanese abacus, its structure, and how to "read" the beads on it. You will realize that it's not magic but rather an incredible tool used in some parts of the world up to this day.

Image Credit: Paul Schadler | Flickr

## The Ancient Calculator

## The Chinese vs. The Japanese Abacus

**, the abacus is a rectangular frame with several vertical rods and one horizontal beam. The Chinese abacus has 7 rounded beads in each rod - 2 beads on the upper part, 5 beads on the lower part. However, with the Chinese abacus, it is almost impossible to do "mental" computations (I'll explain it later). To make mental computations easier, the Japanese had slowly developed their own abacus. The 7 beads in each rod had been reduced to 5 beads. The Japanese abacus is now smaller, wider, and lighter than its Chinese counterpart. The beads have sharper edges for easier control. The Japanese abacus is still manufactured to date and is still taught in schools in Japan.**

*soroban*

the Chinese abacus has two heavenly beads and five earth beads

Photo: Wikimedia

the Japanese abacus is smaller and easier to manipulate

Photo: Harry Li | Flickr

## Parts of the Japanese Abacus

The Japanese abacus is a rectangular frame consisting of vertical rods. The number of rods is not less than nine and is always an odd number (e.g. 11 rods, 13 rods). The abacus has a horizontal bar that separates the beads into upper and lower sections. The upper section has only one bead per rod. The upper beads are known as **heavenly beads 1**. The lower section consists of four beads called the

**earth beads**. The

**2****reckoning bar**(the horizontal bar) has dots that are equally distributed along its length. The dot is the starting point of the computation. The rod with the dot is called

**3****units rod**. The Japanese abacus is smaller than its counterparts; thus, making it easier to handle. You can easily grab the abacus' body with your hand while using the other hand to move the beads up and down.

**4**parts of the Japanese abacus

Photo: Rainy Kua

## Using the Japanese Abacus

### The First Step: Zero

Hold the abacus with your left hand (if your left-handed, use your right hand). Make sure the abacus is not upside down (the heavenly beads should be on top). Tilt it until all the beads go down. Place it back on the table. With your left hand still holding the abacus, slide your right index finger across the reckoning bar from left to right to separate the heavenly beads from the bar. What is it for? It's the same as pressing the AC on the calculator! When all beads are not in contact with the reckoning bar (all heavenly beads up and all earth beads down), it means you have a **zero** value.

### The Beads' Value and The Units Rods

This is the important part so read carefully. Each **heavenly bead** is equivalent to **5**; each **earth bead** is equivalent to **1**. The **units rods** (the rods with the dots) are the **first digits**. You can choose any dots to start with. However, the dot near the center is usually used. The rod on the ** left side** of the units rod is the tens digit, the rod on the left side of the tens digit is the hundreds and so on and so forth. The rods on the

**of the units rod are the**

*right side***decimal places**.

### Reading the Abacus

*On the units rods***1 earth bead** raised to the reckoning bar means **1**.**2 earth beads** raised to the reckoning bar means **2**.**A heavenly bead** lowered to the reckoning bar means **5**.

And so on and so forth.

*On the tens digit***1 earth bead** raised to the reckoning bar means **10**.**3 earth beads** raised to the reckoning bar means **30**.**A heavenly bead** lowered to the reckoning bar means **50**.

And so on and so forth.

*On more than 2 rods***A heavenly bead** lowered to the reckoning bar on the **third rod to the left**,**4 earth beads** raised to the reckoning bar on the **second rod to the left**,**0 earth bead** is raised to the reckoning bar on the **units rod**,**3 earth beads** raised to the reckoning bar on the **first rod to the right**,**A heavenly bead** lowered to the reckoning bar on the **second rod to the right**,

Means you have **540.35**!

the Japanese abacus illustrating numbers 1 to 9 from right to left

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

## The Mental Calculation

In abacus classes, once the students had learned the basics of using the abacus, they will be taught to calculate without it! That's right; they will be given long lists of numbers to be added or subtracted, or large digits to be multiplied or divided using only their imaginary abacus. With the present structure of the Japanese abacus, it's "easier" for abacists to visualize the single row of heavenly beads and four rows of earth beads. This is known as ** anzan** in Japanese and

**in Chinese. Beginners can learn adding and subtracting mentally. However, multiplying large digits is very difficult for beginners and needs more training. As of this writing, only one person can do mental multiplication of two 7-digit numbers.**

*xin suan*## Watch this amazing video

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