Numbers in Japan

AbacusIn my experience the Japanese are better at maths than us Brits. Whereas for years we have been taught “new Maths” where calculators are an integral part of the process, Japanese children are still taught by rote, in a similar way that people of my age in the UK were made to recite times tables. The Japanese however have an easier time remembering as most Japanese numbers can be pronounced as words or part of words. For example a friend uses his name as his ATM pin number. Not probably the most secure approach, but easy to remember when he needs emergency cash during a night out.

In the classroom young kids learn from reciting songs like the cuckoo one word for which “juichi” can be read as eleven and “kukuu” can mean 99.

The other major difference is the use of the “soroban” or abacus. This plus the fact that Japanese numbers have always been given in multiples of ten and are expressed as ten one, ten two, two ten one etcetera without the need for the incongruous eleven, twelve and twenty one.

It is truly impressive to watch a competent abacus user rattle through the sums. The accounts clerk in my office in Osaka could click her way through the monthly sales ledger at 10 times the speed I would manage on my then state-of-the-art analogue adding machine and probably if we made the comparison today, 100 times faster than my amateurish attempts on an Excel spread sheet.

In Japan, China and Korea, use of the abacus is the cornerstone of arithmetic and has become a competitive activity in Japan where annual national abacus tournaments are held. The highest level of these competitions gives way to “empty abacus” contests where sums are done” in the head” using abacus techniques. The leading exponents of this art can manage multi digit, multi layered equations in fractions of seconds.

There may however be some hope for us. My grandson who is seven can comfortably recite the results of the times tables such as 12, 24, 36 etc. whereas the old lady and I need to start with once twelve is twelve, two twelves are twenty four and on. Unlike me he can do this without tapping his feet.