Text and photo by
Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Symbols work in mysterious ways: a hundred different people might witness the same scene but each one of them will notice a different detail to connect it with the scene. This happened to me with the soroban (そろばん), the Japanese abacus: from the first moment I saw it, it got identified in my mind with the culture of the shitamachi, the “low city” of the merchants and the artisans of Edo and pre-war Tokyo; perhaps because I hadn’t expected that at a time when everyone turns to technology for everything there would still be people (and especially people in the capital of the country that invented electronic calculators) who use arguably the oldest device for numerical calculations created by man. And that they would do it with an ease that would make even the fastest computer user envious.
The abacus came to Japan from China (of course) some time when the civil wars that started in the 12th century and continued into the 18th were still raging; if Tokugawa Ieyasu hadn’t won in Sekigahara on October 1600, it would have probably remained a tool for mathematicians but “Pax Tokugawa” and the commercial blooming of Osaka and Edo brought to the surface another class that had a need for fast calculations. In typical Japanese diligence, the merchants modified its size so it could fit their needs and made it an inseparable piece of their toolbox, teaching its use first orally and then in schools –my mother in law who was born in the first decade of the Emperor Showa, the decade the West calls “the 1930s”, was using the soroban much faster than the electronic calculator because this was how she was taught in elementary school.
What impresses most (at least me) is that my mother in law was not just a relic of the beginnings of the previous century: in all shitamachi, merchants, and especially those dealing in traditional items, never stopped using this “primitive” contraption with the beads and they never stopped teaching their children and their apprentice clerks its use. And they are not alone: customers don’t seem to have any difficulties in participating in the game. The merchant makes the calculation on the soroban, turns it to the customer so they can see the result and they nod and pay the sum –like characters in an 18th century woodblock ukiyo-e print. The fact that they both have in their hands a powerful computer in their cellphone seems to be completely irrelevant, as is that the scene takes place in the most technologically developed metropolis on the planet.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.
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