The abacus (in Japanese called either soroban iterally calculation panel— , or shuzan literally bead-calculation— ) was taught in Japan since the 17th century (Shin Kyoikugaku Daijiten,1990). During the Edo Period (1602–1868), mathematics instruction at small private schools called terakoya was all conducted on the abacus. Text books for abacus studies also appeared from the early 1600s. During the Meiji Period (1868–1912) of westernization, abacus was omitted from mathematics studies because it was thought to be a pre-modern Japanese method of calculations, whereas mathematics textbooks focused on Western mathematics. However, from 1926 abacus instructions became mandatory at the upper grades of compulsory elementary school. It was taught from textbooks in the mid-1930s during a period of nationalism, and seen as a positive aspect of traditional Japanese culture (Shin Kyoikugaku Daijiten, 1990). At that time children learned to add and subtract by aba-cus in the 4th grade and to multiply and divide in the 5th grade. The post war 1951 reform of the curriculum limited abacus training to only addition and subtraction between 4th and 6th grade. Despite all these changes, Japanese throughout most of the 20th century acquired basic abacus skills at school and the abacus was a popular device at stores, companies, and schools
There are still abacus juku in every major Japanese city and town, and a scene from a typical suburban juku is shown in Figure 6.1. Attendance at abacus juku usually begins in 3rd grade, with a peak enrollment of 4th graders and a sharp enrollment decline thereafter. Very few abacus pupils attend juku for more than two years. Abacus juku are privately owned and operated, and teachers receive accreditation to teach from the League for
Soroban Education in Japan (“LSEJ”) through its regional divisions.
Achievement in abacus studies is formalized in attaining ranks according to one’s level of expertise. The lowest of the ranks is called “15-kyu” (“fifteenth-class”) and requires only that one pass a 14-minute, 30-item test of very simple addition and subtraction. From the third-class examination and up, the test consists of 90 items and is about 40 minutes long. The precipitous increase in difficulty as students progress through these ranks is seen in comparing the pass rates on examinations last year: 6-kyu = 82%, 4-kyu = 51%, 1-kyu = 43% (Personal communication, LSEJ, July 22, 2003).
Passing the third class examination indicates proficiency sufficient to use abacus in the workplace, and the rank of first-class is rarely attained. One would have to attend juku for 1~1.5 years for five hours weekly to achieve a third-class rank, and would need to maintain that pace for at least three full years to achieve the rank of first-class. Abacus teachers have attained ranks higher than 1-kyu, which are called by the suffix “-dan.”
The numbers of children studying abacus at juku has decreased steadily, declining by 86% from a peak of 3.1 million children who took exams to achieve rankings in 1983, to only 442,364 in the year 2002. This figure represents an even sharper drop than the 36% decrease in the size of the general population of elementary school children, from 11 million in 1983 to 7 million in 2003 (Personal communication, LSEJ, July 22, 2003). Even the physical composition of the abacus itself has changed in Japan. Prior to World War II the abacus used in most commercial settings had five beads in its lower tray, but after the war it became more common to use an abacus with only four beads in the lower tray.
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