Using Soroban (Japanese Abacus) to Teach Anzan (Mental Maths)

What is Soroban?

Soroban is the Japanese abacus.  It looks very similar to the Chinese Suanpan (which is to be expected since it was derived from the Suanpan when it was first introduced to Japan in the 1600s) except that instead of having two beads in the top part, it only has one.

What is Anzan?

Anzan is the Japanese method of doing Mental Math by using a mental image of an abacus.  No physical abacus is used.

Soroban and Anzan have been part of the compulsory curriculum in Japan for many years until its modernisation and increased focus on the use of computers in daily life.  During the Meiji Period, when Soroban was still actively taught in schools, the Japanese population showed strong skills in Math and Anzan.  Since the decline in its teachings and the increase usage of technology, there have been concerns that the general population is losing valuable skills in the basic fundamentals of the thinking process.  In 1989, the Japanese Ministry of Education reintroduced Soroban into the elementary school curriculum.

When I was in school, they were beginning to introduce calculators into Math classes.  At that time, it was limited only to the senior students, while the junior students were still required to perform Mental Math.  I remember an argument from the junior students regarding why we weren’t allowed to have calculators since they were so readily available anyway.  The reason was that we needed to learn the basic fundamentals before we were entitled to the privileges of technology.  I am inclined to agree with the Japanese Ministry of Education.  We are becoming too reliant on technology to perform simple tasks for us.

Why use Soroban for teaching Anzan?

Simply put, it’s effective.  It trumps the electric calculator in speed and accuracy:

On November 12, 1946, a contest was held in Tokyo between the Japanese soroban, used by Kiyoshi Matsuzaki, and an electric calculator, operated by US Army Private Thomas Nathan Wood. The bases for scoring in the contest were speed and accuracy of results in all four basic arithmetic operations and a problem which combines all four. The soroban won 4 to 1, with the electric calculator prevailing in multiplication.

How does Soroban help teach Anzan?

I’m not exactly sure right now, but I’ve bought a mini Soroban for Gavin (waiting for it to be delivered) and am looking around for suitable books or teaching programs to help teach him Soroban.  I’ll let you know what I find out so watch this space!

Currently, as far as I am aware, they are teaching Soroban in Heguru through flash cards.  The children have been taught to recognise numbers from 1 to 100 on the Soroban.  I don’t know what else they plan to do with the Soroban, but I’ve decided to explore teaching Gavin Soroban and Anzan.

More in the next post but for now, let me inspire you with this video.  Check out the Mental Math calculation – I don’t think I could calculate that fast with a calculator! And here’s another one on Brain Age – watch the increasing speed of calculation!

Learn more about Anzan/Soroban:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

10 thoughts on “Using Soroban (Japanese Abacus) to Teach Anzan (Mental Maths)

  1. Thank you, Shen-Li , for this post. I have been looking forward to it since you first mentioned about your plans to research these two methods some time ago. I am at a stage of exploring different ways of teaching math to my daughter and I haven’t rushed into arithmetic as I still haven’t decided on a best visual method for her, as this seems to be her most predominant style right now. I will now be looking forward to your opinion regarding SEE’s method.


  2. My pleasure. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get to it. Hope to get the SEE’s method post out soon.

    It’s good that you’re exploring. I think I jumped into Math a bit too quick with Gavin without really thinking about the method I was going to teach him. Although he can do basic sums, I find he has to count everything. There have been a couple of times when he did it in his head, though, but he was motivated by the subject… e.g.

    Gavin: I want 10 Thomas shirts.
    Grandma: How many do you have now?
    Gavin: 6.
    Grandma: So how many do you need grandma to buy for you?
    Gavin: 4.

    If my Mum had asked the question any other way, I’m sure he wouldn’t have answered.


  3. Could it be that Gavin can indeed do it in his head and can perceive quantities, but because he was also taught to count the traditional way at the same time, he assumes that when he is asked to count, he needs to do it item by item? Your mum did not ask him “to count”. Just a thought…
    It also can point to the fact that he is good with number bonds and can turn them around, so when he is asked “What plus 6 makes 10?”, he does not need to think.


  4. I’m not sure… He seems to get confused when he sees sums with big numbers. By big, I mean anything that is double digits. Also, he gets put off when he sees, say 6+4=? But when my mother asked him that question, the subject was about Thomas the train – his favourite. It’s hard to know what he can and cannot do because he doesn’t appear to know how to do math equations without aid. Or maybe it’s just how we phrase the question?


  5. Oh yeah… I’m pretty sure he can’t perceive quantities. He gets the answer wrong every time they do this in Heguru. Even when I try it with him using Smarties, he can’t get it.


  6. We are from globalmaths, and teaches Abacus and Mental Arithmetic just like the Azan method. Our Centers are at Subang Jaya. If you are interested to know more. Call 012-3979238


  7. Thanks Ben. Any chance you will be opening a center closer to KL? Subang Jaya is pretty far from us and also the heart of Traffic Jam city. Takes a lot of time to get to especially when I need someone else to watch my younger son.


  8. Where do you stay, cause we plan to open a new branch in Damansara Jaya. Happy Chinese New Year to you, wishing you a blessed and a prosperous new year.


  9. Good News, Our new Globalmaths & Globalart Damansara Jaya will be opening soon in June 2011, the open day is 22th May. Please contact me for a free trial class. 012 3979238


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