The Abacus
vs. the Electric Calculator

The abacus, or soroban as it is called in
Japan, is one of the first objects that strongly
attracts the attention of the foreigner in
Japan. When he buys a few trifling articles
at some store, he soon notices that the tradesman
does not perplex himself with mental arithmetic,
but instead seizes his soroban, prepare it
by a tilt and a rattling sweep of his hand,
and after a deft manipulation of rapid clicks,
reads off the price.
It is true that
the Japanese tradesman often uses his board
and beads even when the problem is simple
enough to be done in one's head, but this
is only because the use of the abacus has
become a habit with him. If he tried, he could
no doubt easily add 37 and 48 in his head.
But such is the force of habit that he does
not try to recognize the simplicity of any
problem; instead, following the line of least
resistance, he adjusts his soroban for manipulation,
and begins clicking the beads, thus escaping
any need of mental effort.
Doubtlessly the Westerner, with his belief
in the powers of mental arithmetic and the
modern calculating machine, often mistrusts
the efficiency of such a primitive looking
instrument.
However,
his mistrust of the soroban is likely to be
transformed into admiration when he gains some
knowledge concerning it.
For
the soroban, which can perform in a fraction
of time, a difficult arithmetic calculation
that the Westerner could do laboriously only
by means of pencil and paper, possesses distinct
advantages over mental and written arithmetic.
The
Japanese tradesman with his soroban would easily
outstrip a rapid and accurate Western accountant
even with his adding machine.
An
exciting contest between the Japanese abacus
and the electric calculating machine was held
in Tokyo on November 12, 1946, under the sponsorship
of the U. S. Army newspaper, the Stars and Stripes.
In reporting the contest, the Stars and Stripes
remarked:
"The machine age tool took a step backward
yesterday at the Emie Pyle Theater as the abacus,
centuries old, dealt defeat to the most uptodate
electric machine now being used by the United
States Government...The abacus victory was decisive."
The Nippon Times reported the contest as follows:
"Civilization, on the threshold of the
atomic age, tottered Monday afternoon as the
2,000yearold abacus beat the electric calculating
machine in adding, subtracting, dividing and
a problem including all three with multiplication
thrown in, according to UP. Only in multiplication
alone did the machine triumph..."
The American representative of the calculating
machine was Pvt. Thomas Nathan Wood of the 20th
Finance Disbursing Section of General MacArthur's
headquarters, who had been selected in an arithmetic
contest as the most expert operator of the electric
calculator in Japan. The Japanese representative
was Mr. Kiyoshi Matsuzaki, a champion operator
of the abacus in the Savings Bureau of the Ministry
of Postal Administration.
As may be seen from the results tabulated on
the following page [sic], the abacus scored
a total of 4 points as against 1 point for the
electric calculator. Such results should convince
even the most skeptical that, at least so far
as addition and subtraction are concerned, the
abacus possesses an indisputable advantage over
the calculating machine. Its advantages in the
fields of multiplication and division, however,
were not so decisively demonstrated.
Type of Problem 
Name 
1st
Heat 
2nd
Heat 
3rd
Heat 
Score 
Addition:
50 numbers each containing 3 to 6 digits 
Matsuzaki 
1m.
14.9s
(Victor) 
1m
16s
(Victor) 

1 
Wood 
2m
0.2s
(Defeated) 
1m
58s
(Defeated) 


Subtraction:
5 problems with minuends and subtrahends
of from 6 to 8 digits each 
Matsuzaki 
1m
.4s
All correct
(Victor) 
1m
.8s
4 correct
(No decision) 
1m
All correct
(Victor) 
1 
Wood 
1m
30s
All correct
(Defeated) 
1m
35s
4 correct
(No decision) 
1m
22s
4 correct
(Defeated) 

Multiplication:
5 problems each containing 5 to 12 digits
in the multiplier and multiplicand 
Matsuzaki 
1m
44.6s
4 correct
(Defeated) 
1m
19s
All correct
(Victor) 
2m
14.4s
3 correct
(Defeated) 

Wood 
2m
22s
4 correct
(Defeated) 
1m
20s
All correct
(Defeated) 
1m
53.6s
4 correct
(Victor) 
1 
Division:
5 problems each containing 5 to 12 digits
in the divisor and dividend 
Matsuzaki 
1m
36.6s
All correct
(Victor) 
1m
23s
4 correct
(Defeated) 
1m
21s
All correct
(Victor) 
1 
Wood 
1m
48s
All correct
(Defeated) 
1m
19s
All correct
(Victor) 
1m
25s
4 correct
(Defeated) 

Composite problems:
1 problem in addition 30 6digit numbers;
3 problems in subtraction, each with two
6digit numbers; 8 problems in multiplication
each with two figures containing a total
of 5 to 12 digits; 3 problems in division,
each with two figures containing a total
of 5 to 12 digits 
Matsuzaki 
1m
21s
All correct
(Victor) 


1 
Wood 
1m
26s
4 correct
(Defeated) 



Total Score: 
Matsuzaki 



4 
Wood 



1 
Note: This excerpt
was kindly brought to my attention by Erez Kaplan.

Excerpted from the book, "The Japanese
Abacus, Its Use and Theory", by Takashi
Kojima, Charles E. Tuttle Company Inc. 1954,
reprint 1987. ISBN: 0804802785.
http://www.ee.ryerson.ca/~elf/abacus/abookexcerpt.html
