Something Never Obsolete hr667

Hidemi Woods
5 min readJun 18, 2023

There are many things that used to be common and have become obsolete now. In Japan where I was born and grew up, an analog calculator called ‘soroban’, a Japanese abacus, had been so popular and seen everywhere when I was a child. Almost every store and household had one and even the elementary school had mandatory classes for the fourth grader to teach how to use it so that students needed to buy it. Most stores in my neighborhood used it as a register. It had been a major tool to calculate until an electronic calculator appeared.

Private soroban schools were abounding accordingly. It was a common practice that students went there after school. In my neighborhood, all children who had learned the multiplication table attended the soroban school. I was one of them. The school was the teacher’s house located right next to my house which was actually part of my family’s premise that we rented him. The class was held twice a week, in which students with different grades and ages sat side by side on the floor and practised soroban on the long narrow low desks elbow to elbow.

Soroban has a national certification system that officially certifies a grade by an examination held regularly . After learning the basics, students would take the examination to get grade certification that started from the level six. The lesser the number, the higher the grade. For some reason, I was extremely good at soroban that required speed and accuracy. I was able to finger the beans on a soroban faster and more precisely than anybody else. I acquired the certification with one try straight from the level six to the level three, which made me the youngest level three holder at the age of ten. The school had never had a student who achieved that before me, and another girl named Junko. We were the same age, got in the school on the same day, and made this achievement at the same time.

Junko was the opposite of me except for skill in a soroban. She was pretty, thin, considerate, and from a poor family. She once suspended and ruined her timed session at the soroban school just to hand me tissues when I had a nosebleed next to her. When I was waiting for the soroban class to begin in front of the school with her and my mother came out of the house to hit me, she helped me run away by carrying my soroban bag and following me. She was the one who taught me how to ride a bicycle in place of my busy indifferent parents and witnessed my first-ever ride, and jumped for joy screaming “You got it! You got it!” over and over. She was such a kind girl.

After we moved on to practice for the level two examination, things had changed. The level two was a whole new game. While up to the level three the result was decided by the total marks of three subjects, which were multiplication, division and addition, the level two required above 80 marks for each subject. Digits were huge including decimals and slip addition was added as one more subject. To pass the level two, we had to score above 80 in all these four subjects. The teacher told Junko and me to brace ourselves for difficulty ahead because we wouldn’t pass with one try from here as we had done so far. He was right. Both of us failed the examination for the first time. Then we had stuck there for over a year by failing three times more in a row. Although we had been on a losing streak, we were looked up to at school because nobody there had ever passed the level two and we were the only students who were trying for it. But gradually, people around us had had an interest in our rivalry since we had progressed in sync. They began to whisper about which one of us would pass the level two first, which had incited competition against Junko in me while we were best friends. Since I was regarded as the top student there with Junko close behind me, I felt I should pass before her. My mother also started to demand that I should, out of her vain. I had been under more and more pressure so that I became convinced I must have beat her on the next try.

On the day of the examination, I planned to have a warm-up before heading for the examination site by having my father time my calculation of the four subjects. Junko was going to drop by my house to go with me. However, I didn’t have enough time to finish all four timed subjects before she came because I overslept. I would have to do without a complete warm-up. My mother jumped on my decision fiercely and ordered me to finish a thorough warm-up. I explained that Junko would come before I finished. “I will make her wait,” my mother said, “Ignore her! You’ve just got to pass this time!” I was constrained to start calculation and I heard Junko coming in the middle of it. My mother ushered her into the dining room that was next to where I was practicing. I heard my mother talking to her to distract her attention but I knew she noticed I was practicing by the sound of soroban beans and my father’s voice of “Start!” and “Stop!” for timing. She was sitting at the table quietly sipping tea and listening to my mother’s gab. I imagined how much she wanted to practice too, instead of wasting valuable time before the examination just by waiting for me. When I finished a warm-up and saw her face in the dining room, guilt assaulted me furiously. We left for the examination together and she didn’t mention about my warm-up or her excruciating wait. My mother’s devious trick worked. I passed. Junko failed.

I was proven to be the best as the first level two certification holder at school. The teacher and all the students admired me. My mother seemed satisfied, but said it was her who made this happen, not me. As for me, I was all guilt. I passed by outfoxing Junko who had been incredibly nice to me all the time. Although everybody expected that I would move on to get the level one certification, I quit soroban. Junko continued, passed on the next try, and acquired the level one certification eventually.

The digital era arrived and a soroban became obsolete. People no longer used a soroban for calculation and the soroban school disappeared. It has been forgotten as time goes by. Yet, I still have an urge to scream and run away every time I remember the day of my last level two examination. Qualms and shame have never disappeared and die hard in me.

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