Banshu abacus

Banshu abacus Banshu soroban

"Read, write, do math with an abacus"
Beautiful diamond-shaped chamfered abacus


What is Banshu abacus ?

Banshu abacus refers to abacuses produced in the city of Ono located in the center of Higashi Harima, in the southeast of the Hyogo prefecture. Ono is blessed with a warm climate and engaged with the abacus production during their faming off season.
Banshu abacus is characterized by its production process divided into several phases. This craft became one of Hyogo's representative traditional crafts thanks to its high productivity and prodigious techniques.
Otsu abacus, introduced from the Nagasaki prefecture, is believed to be the origin of the current Banshu abacus. As a transportation hub bustling with Omi merchants, Otsu was conveniently situated with easy access to the commercial capitals such as Osaka and Kyoto, which originally flourished with abacus production.
Banshu abacus for daily use at schools or retails gradually increased its production volume while developing its product range. The developed products include abacuses in colors, unique toy shapes, and some with handy use drew the children's attention. Though the recent proliferation of computers and calculators has brought about flagging demand for abacuses, Banshu abacus remains a vital item in education at home and school.


The history of the abacus goes back to the late Muromachi period (1336-1573), when abacuses were introduced from China to the Nagasaki prefecture via the city of Otsu in the Shiga prefecture. Otsu was a convenient place to access Osaka and Kyoto where the business districts where, which prodded the abacus production. Then, it contributed to the development of Otsu abacus.
In 1580, Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI (powerful feudal lord, 1537-1598) captured Miki Castle in the city of Miki but some residents escaped to its neighboring city, Otsu. The residents who had acquired the techniques of making abacuses began the abacus production after they returned back home, which is deemed as the beginning of Banshu abacus.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), education was conducted widely in terakoya (private elementary schools at the time) to encourage children to learn to read, write and count on abacus. Abacuses soared in popularity especially in business districts in keeping with the explosive spread of terakoya resulting in 8 abacus wholesalers and over 200 subcontractors by the end of the Edo period.
Following the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895), the city of Ono had a newly developed Ogawa type bead making machine, which enabled mass production. Moreover, abacuses continued growing in demand with the economy once the School Education Law was implemented after World War II. However, abacuses have experienced a slowdown in demand due to the widespread of computers but still boast full production with over 530,000 piece made every year.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Frame making This process is to make a frame out of ebony wood imported from Africa or Indonesia, or accumulate timber.
    It involves cleaving the woods into large pieces, cutting large pieces into smaller pieces, and processing a plate to the dimensions of a frame.
  2. 2. Beads production Banshu abacus undergoes over 100 processes which are professionally crafted by expert artisans. Tamakezuri is a process that shapes the woods into abacus beads. It is carried out after the raw wood is selected and dried completely.
    Abacus beads are mainly made of boxwood which is known to be a wood hard enough to break an axe. The premium abacus uses boxwood, ebony wood and red sandalwood to make beads. Raw wood is sliced into round and bead shape. Recently there is a new technique of making beads out of a long round bar.
  3. 3. Rods making Abacus rods are mainly made of Japanese bamboo, while smoked bamboo is used to make rods for premium abacuses. A bamboo stick is cut to a specified size and cleaved into smaller pieces, and the stick pieces are rounded and smoothed.
    Banshu abacus has a divided production process system that requires abacus frames, beads and rods to be processed at respective plants. All the processed materials are transferred to other artisans for further processes to assemble.
  4. 4. Frame processing This process is to make joint holes in the frame boards. The top, bottom and sides frame boards are planed to give a smooth surface and the holes and grooves are also made. Holes are made to align with the axles and back rods while the groves are made for fitting the backboards. A backboard is made out of a specified board and the holes are made in the beam that fits in between the top and bottom frames.
    The process moves on to embed the celluloid strings in the grooves after the holes are made for the bamboo axles to come through and the grooves are made on the beams. The bamboo axles are cut down to be prepared and the mortise is made so it is ready to be assembled for the final process. Temporary assembly is carried out before the actual assembly to see if the frame needs a fine adjustment to assure smooth further process can be conducted.
  5. 5. Inserting rods and beads The rods are inserted in the holes in the beam, and the beads are threaded on the rods.
  6. 6. Assembly With the beads threaded on the rods, the bottom frame, right frame, backboard and back rod are attached in sequence.
  7. 7. Making joint holes This process is to make three types of joint holes, which are called medake dome, urabo dome and sumi dome. Those joint holes are made on the top and bottom frames, then an aluminum wire is pierced and the pierced wire is cut by scissors. This work ensures the back rods, axles, and side frames are properly built to form an abacus with high durability.
  8. 8. Polishing This process is about polishing to finish in the parts where hands grip, and filing is given at the end of a cut wire. Polishing to finish is applied with sandpaper or aphananthe aspera (leaves that impart luster to the Banshu abacus).

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