Abacus app developed in Japan to learn mental math skills is a global hit

TOKYO – An app developed in Japan for people to learn the abacus method for mathematical calculation skills is gaining popularity around the world, with more than 8,000 domestic and overseas students using the app to train their mental arithmetic skills.

Shuhei Komatsu, in the background, performs a mental calculation while moving his fingers in front of a tablet in the Chiyoda district of Tokyo on June 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Yuichi Nishigori)

Users perform calculations by touching virtual beads on the SoroTouch app, just like they do when using a Japanese abacus or soroban. The game-like application allows people to develop their mental arithmetic skills.

At an online “SoroFes” event held in June, 8-year-old Shuhei Komatsu expressed his excitement by shouting, “Great! I am in first place. Yeah ! Komatsu, who joined the event from Tokyo, was one of approximately 630 children from seven countries competing in mental math calculations. A host was seen encouraging attendees via the Zoom app in both Japanese and English.

The 8-year-old can calculate the sum of five three-digit numbers that appear one after another on the tablet screen in just five seconds in the app’s “flash mental calculation” mode. His mother Akina, 38, said: “I make him calculate (the total amount) when we go shopping.”

Chika Yamauchi, the founder of Digika Co. who developed the SoroTouch app, is seen at the company’s office in Tokyo’s Chiyoda district on June 15, 2022. (Mainichi/Yuichi Nishigori)

SoroTouch was developed in 2014. Beads like those used for soroban abacus are displayed on the tablet’s screen, and their color changes when users touch them, allowing them to do calculations like on the traditional calculator . But unlike Japanese soroban abacus, both hands are used on this application. Features of the app include “mental arithmetic mode”, on which the color of the beads does not change but just flashes momentarily when touched. This allows users to learn mental math skills naturally.

The technology was developed by Chika Yamauchi, 56, founder and president of Digika Co. based in the Chiyoda district of Tokyo. When she was in charge of the development of financial products at Citibank, she saw a Japanese trader who was good at mental calculations according to the soroban method, which his colleagues around the world relied on. Yamauchi thought, “This skill is necessary for business.”

After leaving the bank for reasons such as caring for her children, Yamauchi started a soroban school at home with her friends from her mommy community. In 2012, she participated in the World Mental Calculation Championships held in Turkey with her second daughter, who had obtained the rank of second dan in mental calculation. The pair was no match for the other contestants, so Yamauchi studied abacus methods from around the world. The fact that people used both hands overseas surprised her, but she realized: “Instructors in Japan teach how to use the soroban, but in other countries the use of the skills of mental arithmetic in everyday life is the goal (of learning the abacus) from the beginning.”

After various trials and errors, Yamauchi developed the SoroTouch app and released it in 2016.

Digika’s current chairman Yasunobu Hashimoto, 39, was previously in charge of overseas business development at Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten Group Inc. He met Yamauchi in Japan, and they partly got along because he had learned the soroban. Then he joined Digika and helped SoroTouch take off. SoroTouch learning centers have now expanded to 10 countries and regions, and more than 8,000 students are learning the skills while connected online.

(Japanese original by Yuichi Nishigori, Regional News Department)