I was quite stunned by this. For the first part, it is great (and charmingly bizarre) that there is a craze based around the abacus that has such a following (abacus or “soroban” championships), and for the second part… it is nothing short of remarkable when they get to the stage where they go “beyond the abacus”, and are just doing it in the head, but using abacus moves. And so fast!!! The radio program “Land of the Rising Sums” by Alex Bellos that I learned this from is here. There’s also a Guardian article here. It is all mostly about how numbers and arithmetic are taught in Japan. I think it is great that (from the people they interviewed) there’s a sheer love of calculation and of numbers and that there’s none of the lamentable “I’m not good at this I’m a languages/sports/art person” attitude that is so common in our society and which is responsible for poisoning children’s education so early on. I also love that the abacus is so fundamentally old-fashioned – an antidote to our love of technology for its own sake, and the tendency to relegate the calculation to the calculator, as though it’s some nasty thing one shouldn’t trouble one’s brain with… (The image is from the iTunes site for an iPad app for a soroban, by Paul-Andre Panserrieu. I have not tried it, but since I borrowed the image from there I felt I should give them a plug. Also, I like the irony.)
Anyway, I’ll let you listen to it – it is a well-spent half hour – and urge you to get to the end about “flash anzan”, where numbers are flashed on a screen way faster than you can read them out, and added up with lightning speed by thousands of children at a time, in their heads, using abacus moves. It seems to me that there are some interesting processes going on here involving bypassing the use of language centers to get more directly to the essence of the computation with the numbers organized visually in a way that allows for rapid operations on the numbers.