History of Japanese Abacus

The beginning of the Abacus in Japan.

Abacus originated in Mesopotamia few thousand years ago. Then ancient Chinese people improved it to be a more practical tool for trading passing through the Silk Road.

Generally speaking, calculation has started in 15th century along with transmitting of the Abacus to Japan from China. By then, calculation was a game or hobby done by the upper class who lived in Kyoto.

In fact, Japanese Samurais had started to make use of the Abacus in Sengoku period[1]. Because, it is indispensable to have Accuracy in calculation for working out a strategy for victory in war. That mean positioning soldiers, purchasing goods, trading arms and everything.

[1]A.D.1467-1615  Japanese age of provincial war

Abacus for General Public.

After Sengoku Period, Education began to spread widely for the people in Japan.

In Edo period[2], to learn reading, writing, Abacus were becoming an essential term for successful merchants to develop commerce and trading all over Japan.

Society greatly changed from ancient Japan to the Meiji period[3] then Edo Period but there was a time that the Abacus was prohibited by the Meiji Government.

In 1871, elementary schools adopted the European way of calculation and by writing using Arabic Numerals. Hence, eliminating the educational system of the Tokugawa Era including the Abacus.

[2]A.D 1603-1868 [3]A.D.1868-1912


Abacus Adapt to Westernization.

As part of tradition, people’s life was fixated with the use of the Abacus thus going to school would be meaningless without learning the Abacus. The government was alarmed with this situation and thought that it’s unhealthy for the people to turn their backs on education.

As a result, Abacus was included in the education curriculum the next year but the early abacus introduced by the Tokugawa government has been eliminated for the Meiji government wanted to spread the true sense of writing numbers.

Abacus was available to everyone for the previous way of calculation and writing were troublesome so it was abolished. In the Edo Period, the widespread of the usage of Abacus was eminent so a unified system was introduced to that there will be a standard in school.

In addition, the use of Arabic numerals was mandated by the government. As a result, the shape of the Abacus was changed. Two 5-unit beads were used until the middle of the Meiji period then it was transformed to one 5-unit bead. To be unified, the use of one 5-unit bead and five 1-unit bead was mainstreamed.

In 1938, with the spread of the decimal system which aided to a quicker calculation, once again the shape of the Abacus transformed to having one 5-unit bead and four 1-unit bead.
After the Second World war, also localization/Unit point becomes a 3-digit separator of Western-style from 4-digit separator of Japanese style, it has led to the shape of the current abacus.
wp-bunmei-kaikaSource: http://www.library.metro.tokyo.jp/

From Calculation Tools to Brain Development Tools.

In 1960s, abacus was becoming more and more popular as 4-5 elementary schools out of 10 learn the Abacus. It is advantageous to have Abacus certification during this time especially in the acquisition of job. The number of people who do Abacus totaled to about 8 million.

However, in the late 1975, the Abacus lost its value for the advent of digital calculator and rapidly the number of Abacus learners continue to decrease. IT evolution, the usage of digital calculator and the declining birth rate are some of the factors that affect the decline.

In 2005, it was thought that Abacus will be lost in transition.
However, as science flourish then Abacus is also now geared as a tool for brain development.


This is the history of Abacus Education which had changed and developed with the changing times.
Learning Abacus helps develop one’s potential that would pave way to the better understanding of one’s self. A better understanding of one’s self helps one choose the best career whether it may be STEM or GAS.

Reference: いしど式まとめ from ISHIDO-SHIKI JAPAN
Translate: IPPO Japanese Math School

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