• Manager of Oregon's only abacus school

  • Miwako Sakabayashi

  • INTERVIEW

  • Writer Fumiko

  • Editor Ryoma, Andy

“Cool Portlander” Passing On the Heart of Japan Through the Abacus

The only abacus school you’ll find in Portland, or even in Oregon, is the “Japanese Abacus Math School of Portland LLC (JAMS)”.
The manager of the school and one of its teachers, Miwako-sensei, instructs over 80 students of different nationalities and ethnicities.
Many people, when they hear the word abacus, may think, “Oh right, that thing with the beads that you flick back and forth,” but what Miwako-sensei strives daily to do is to pass on the “heart of Japan” to the children. The children who learn from Miwako-sensei, with her soul full of passion, all have a glittering look in their eyes.
I hope you’ll find as you read this interview that the “heart of Japan” is a dignified one that beats all around the world.

Interview&Photos by Fumiko, Translated by Andy Edited by Ryoma

On the day we visited JAMS, located in the Bethany neighborhood, home to some of the most passionate families in Portland about their children’s education, it was a test day for the upper-level students.
miwako-sensei-001

The students were clicking their abacuses with undivided concentration.
Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Russians, children from all over. As each problem was given in the teacher’s lively voice, they promptly went about solving it. I was overwhelmed by the serious looks on their faces.

Once the test was over, however, those looks all turned into lovely smiles.
I thought to myself that they must be happy that the dreary test was over, but I was wrong. They had enjoyed solving those problems with their abacuses. So those smiles were the same kind that naturally appear on someone’s face when they’ve just played a rousing game of sports.

miwako-sensei-002

It would appear that these children absolutely love the abacus.

“Lessons in school are so much easier when you can do mental math!”
“I’m happy that I can solve problems faster than anyone else at school!”
“I’m shining up!”

The children answered my questions with beaming smiles.
miwako-sensei-003

They enjoy the abacus the same way they would sports, and they have pride in themselves. What kind of person must the teacher who instructs them, Miwako-sensei, be?

NWhat made you want to teach abacus in Oregon?

My ex-husband was reading the New York Times, and what he said as he was reading an article about an abacus teacher was exactly what did it.
“Why don’t you use your abacus skills to others like he does?”

miwako-sensei-004

But back then I thought, ‘why should I do that?’ In my mind, showing off my own talents was a shameful thing to do. That’s the kind of modesty which is unique to Japanese people. But then I realized:

“If I don’t teach the abacus, there will be no one to pass on its techniques.”
And then I started giving classes to two students.

 
NWhat advantages would you say there are to learning the abacus?

“If you can use it here, you can use it anywhere!”

A child who masters discipline and the basics of being a person in the classroom will use them everywhere else, which is a big advantage of learning here.

miwako-sensei-005

Miwako-sensei’s face is a smile full of confidence as she asserts this point. It is the heart of Japan that she is teaching here.

“The abacus is the heart of Japan, after all.”

 
NWhy do you say that it’s the heart of Japan? What is the heart of Japan to you?

“The heart of Japan is a feeling of respect for others.”

Japanese people go out of their way to keep an appropriate sense of distance between themselves and others. Whether that person is in a position above or below them, the important thing is that feeling of respect. According to Miwako-sensei,
“A feeling of sympathy is what enables us to respect others.”
miwako-sensei-006

In America, students tend to address their teachers with a title during class, but if they’re friendly with the teacher, that title goes away once class is over. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for a teacher to accept or even welcome a situation like this. However, it’s different in Japan. Ms. Teacher is still Ms. Teacher, even outside of class.

 
NSince you have children from so many countries who come to learn, is there anything you stay mindful of as you teach?

It’s much easier to teach only to Japanese kids, which is because they’ve been raised and disciplined in a particular way.
“The behaviors I correct in the classroom are the things that Japanese parents would already have instilled into them at home.”
The things a Japanese person would consider basic etiquette are often not basic at all in another country. For example, the way we’re taught to sit is different. Even if it’s okay in the child’s country, it’s not okay in her classroom if she thinks it takes away from an attitude of learning. It’s important to train them in the basics of polite speech and mannerisms.
miwako-sensei-007

“However, even though I make them follow the basics closely, I don’t want to keep them from using their talents just for the sake of teaching etiquette.”

For example, there are relatively many kids in America who are left-handed, but she has them use their right hands when using the abacus. This is one basic rule she makes them follow. On the other hand, however, when they are using an imaginary abacus for mental math, she won’t stop them from using their left hand to move its beads around. This is because it frees up their right hand to write down the answer. There’s no reason to impede the development of such a logical ability.
miwako-sensei-008

 
NWhat have you found difficult about teaching abacus in America?

“Rather than saying it’s difficult, I’d say it presents a challenge. Everyone is unique in their own way in this country. That’s a good thing. I don’t want to break that uniqueness.”

Common sense and common courtesy as seen in one country aren’t always common sense in another. That’s part of what makes each child unique. Because of this, she doesn’t want to make it seem like the individuality that their ethnicity gives them is improper. Teaching them the “core” of being a good person, without stomping on that individuality, is a difficult task, and is the challenge she faces.
miwako-sensei-009

Children who are raised in America, where freedom of the individual is highly respected, and most differences are embraced, all have different approaches at first to using the abacus. They flick the beads back and forth using a pen, or support their head with an elbow on the table. To them, there’s no reason why that should be wrong.
The right attitude to have when learning from someone through the abacus, consideration for others who are learning alongside you, and handling objects with care; these “core” values are hard to teach.

 
NTell us some good and bad things about teaching abacus in Portland.

“One good thing is that you get to teach the kids the good things about both America and Japan.”
miwako-sensei-010

She teaches the children who are raised here to fuse the “American intuition” that they have with a “Japanese intuition”. In America, it’s a good thing to stand out from the other people, and so there’s a strong tendency to have a prideful attitude towards those who aren’t as good as you. Conversely, in Japan the prominent idea is that it’s a bad thing to stand out, and it’s good for everyone to be the same.
Miwako-sensei gives confidence and pride to children who become better at crunching numbers than their peers at school by teaching them the abacus. At the same time, she wants to raise them with the kindness to teach other kids who don’t have the same abilities, grow alongside them and help them, rather than scoff at them in pride.

“Here, we raise the kids to have both confidence and compassion.”
miwako-sensei-011

“There aren’t any bad parts in particular, but I did sometimes wish I had all Japanese students when I first started out.”

But that was most likely because she was inexperienced, and was trying to push American minds into a Japanese frame of mind by force. Back then, she didn’t embrace the American way of thinking in her classroom. Since then, however, teaching has cultivated more of a tolerance toward American thinking in her, so she doesn’t view it as a bad thing anymore.

 
N Is there anything you’d like to say to the parents out there?

“Please back off.”

Having your kid learn a new skill, like the abacus at this school, is an investment you’re making in the child’s future. So it’s better to watch over the child as he or she learns, rather than stepping in to give help.

miwako-sensei-012
“Helping the child only ruins things in the long run.”
A parent shouldn’t help a child every single time he tries to put his shoes on. It’s important to let him learn how to do it himself. It’s true that this isn’t Japan, and there may be differences in how parents discipline their kids versus how Miwako-sensei does. But so long as the parents trust her and trust the school enough to give her custody of their kids during the day, she’d rather they stand back and watch as the kids learn a Japanese brand of “discipline, respect and consideration”.

 
NHow would you put the appeal of the abacus into words?

“It’s there, and at the same time it isn’t. You can see it, but you can’t. It’s a mysterious power of sorts.”
miwako-sensei-013

Many people think that the physical “abacus” is all there is to an abacus. The real “abacus”, however, is in a person’s head.
Miwako-sensei has the opportunity to see this in action. Once every two years, she teaches abacus to people who want to teach at schools for the blind, and what she finds is that those who are blind already have an imaginary abacus, and are better at mental math than those who can see. Blind people don’t need to work with a real abacus. It doesn’t even need to physically be there. The reason for this is that as soon as they’ve felt one, they have the shape of it drawn in their heads, and they’re instantly able to use it for mental math.

“The abacus is visible, but invisible at the same time. And it’s always there, and nobody can keep it from being there.”

 
NWhy do you think people are changing their views on the abacus in the digital age?

“I think it’s simply because you can see it with your eyes, touch it with your fingers, and learn from it with your ears.”
miwako-sensei-014

Children like to do things by touching objects with their hands. Even if that object isn’t in front of them, they can envision it and use it as if it was. That’s something you can’t do with a digital calculator. With a calculator, you have to look at the numbers as you punch them in. A child’s imagination is improved through learning the abacus, particularly for mental math. Mental math takes place in the world of the imagination, so they are able to expand that world freely. By expanding those horizons, the children develop and grow.

 
NFinally, what makes you happy about teaching the abacus?

“I get to use the abacus techniques that only I know to pass on Japanese forms of discipline, respect and consideration to my students.”

Miwako-sensei firmly believes that children who have fundamental discipline will have confidence and pride, as well as consideration for others, wherever they go. She has high hopes for the futures of all the children who study here, and believes that they will make wonderful adults. She is extremely happy to be able to teach them the important things about being a person.

『The Japanese Abacus Math School of Portland LLC(JAMS)』

place 15160 NW Laidlaw Rd., #215, Portland, Oregon 97229

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TEL:503.419.8040

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