Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Training Math Athletes in Japanese Jukus

First of all, please watch the short video below, showing what is going on in a juku in Japan.

This amazing calculation method is called "Flash Anzan (暗算 = Mental Calculation) Method".

How can it be possible? 

Its secret is that all of those in the video are practitioners of soroban (abacus), which is a Japanese traditional calculating device that has been widely used across the country for centuries. Without proficiency of soroban, it is probably impossible to calculate as quickly as in the video.

How many people can perform this calculation method is not known. However, 
it is probably wrong to think that the Flash Anzan players are extremely rare people, while not all the soroban users can perform it.
I suppose that considerably 
many soroban users can make it if the flashing speed is not very fast.

Point is that this skill is not reserved for a handful of gifted people, but given to those who have grit and perseverance to go through training and practice.

Now you can give it a try on this site

In the beginners' course, soroban learners calculate so slowly with some mistakes and complains as in the below video.

Then how they become formidable math athletes?

As they continue training, their calculating performance gets faster and faster, and over time they come to feel that the act of filliping beads is a bottleneck process and eventually replace the real soroban with an imaginary one in their mind. The kids in the first video, who are rapidly moving their fingers on the table, have reached to that proficiency level. And the masters, like Mr. Yuki Kurosawa, have completely internalized all the process including the finger motion in his mind... 

This is my hypothetical argument about the trajectory from a soroban beginner to the Flash Anzan master, though it cannot be validated due to the lack of academic study on this method. I really wonder if it can be a great contribution to human society to elucidate how an individual can develop this skill.

Next time, I would like to pick up some of the findings on this method, which scatter in the Internet, in order to seek some suggestions.

(To be continued)


  1. So we dont know precisely the technique that they use ? :(

    1. I wrote about one of the rare studies on the technique in the following posts:

      What We Know So Far about the Flash Anzan Mthod 2

  2. Abacus ia a traditional calculation devise from China!

    1. I hear that it came to Japan in 15th century. So allow me to say it's Japanese tradition.

    2. They actually came from Sumeria about 5000 years ago. The Chinese invented what most people think is an abacus. The Sumerians I think used grooves in a rock with pebbles.

  3. Here's the research you're looking for:

    Hatano, G., Miyake, Y., & Binks, M. (1977). Performance of expert abacus operators. Cognition, 5, 57-71.

    Stigler, J. W. (1984). "Mental abacus": The effect of abacus training on Chinese children's mental calculation. Cognitive Psychology, 16, 145-176.

  4. I agree that it is an amazing trick, but I believe there is very little it can offer society. I mean, it is certainly more useful than juggling or riding a unicycle, but it will not help to advance society any more than speed-reading (another somewhat amazing trick which is useful, but will not lead to any major societal advancements).

    Many people think that mathematics is about performing complicated arithmetic, but this is nowhere near the truth. I am a professional mathematician who has conducted research in pure and applied mathematics at several universities, for almost 10 years. I can tell you that mathematics is about the study of complex structures and about the interrelations of ideas. It is about modeling real and idealized systems in ways that allow you to make precisely quantifiable predictions. It is about formally and precisely identifying which properties of a system/structure/object allow you to make inferences about that system/structure/object. And it has absolutely nothing to do with high-powered arithmetic tricks. No mathematician would consider bothering to learn this skill.

    These kids are being taught a difficult skill, but one that could be done more efficiently and effectively by a machine, in any real-world context. Any ideas about how this type of training will benefit society are completely misguided. They would be MUCH better off learning *creative* problem solving, and studying problems which allow for multiple solution techniques. Drilling students endlessly on repetitive tasks will not help them to become innovators, inventors, or problem solvers. It will only promulgate conformity, and in terms of the progress of society, that is a dead end.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I wish you could have submitted such a substantial opinion under your name.

      When I talk about “contribution to human society”, I have ordinary people in my mind, not the achievement in pure or applied mathematics. I believe that if we find the way to acquire the ability of quick and accurate mental calculation, it will contribute to the society, especially in the country where innumeracy is lamented. Probably you focus only on highly technical matters of mathematics, though I don’t know whether you are right or wrong in such a professional world.

      And despite my flashy words such as “formidable” and “athletes”, the Flash Anzan skill itself seems not as difficult to acquire as the spectacular image may make us think.
      I checked several websites of soroban jukus and found that the learners usually go there two or three times per week for about one-hour lesson. And the Flash Anzan lesson usually lasts only 15 minutes or so. If I find more about this, I will make further reports.

      Lastly, with regard to the innovation, invention, etc. you don’t have to worry.
      Japanese people, who have gone through a lot of drilling and testing, are a fairly creative nation in their own way.
      Rather, although I don't deny problem-solving, I’m afraid that the too much emphasis on problem-solving may possibly overkill the learning itself.

  5. Watanabe.

    I think that the real point of this is that we can teach people just about anything - or more to the point, people can learn about anything. This would suggest that we think about how to better approach teaching people to be creative.

  6. Dear Mr. Watanabe Manabu. Thank you for sharing information about the almost un-credible "Flash Anzan". Which shows one of the immense menu of abilities that humans can learn.

    When I see good soccer players in action, I am astonished by their ability to, in a matter of split seconds, have a correct overview of the whole field - where the ball is or where it's comming from and going to, where "enemy" players are, where their own team players are, where the goal is, where the goalkeeper is - or is moving to - and be able to SUM all these informations and IMAGINE a kick that can drive the ball to the goal. And then, MOVE THEIR BODIES IN ORDER TO DO SO! Well, I guess Anzan practitioners are doing something not so disimilar... Except they are using their hands - and their feet - to make the result of their work known publicly... :-) Interestingly, it seems that both the soccer players and the Anzan children are NOT using their voices - or other communication abilities - to get their results. Or goals. It looks like THE WHOLE BEEING IS COMPLETELY ABSORBED IN ONE - AND ONLY ONE - TASK: SUMMING AND IMAGINING THE ANSWER.

    Anyway, as it is obvious that no one would ever consider to make Anzan classes to be the ONLY part of children education, I guess it is a fantastic way to develop an ability that could, otherwise, remain dormant. And I wish the millions of children of my country - Brazil - that spend up to 4 hours A DAY watching TV movies of playing screen games would just spend an hour A WEEK learning Anzan.

    All the best,

    Andre Rivola Cvijak


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