Japan is a paradox of ancient traditions and modern devices coexisting within a single society. It’s not unusual to see an Edo-style temple standing next to a contemporary office building, or a crew of field workers, ankle deep in water, planting a rice paddy with high-rise buildings reflected in its mirrored surface. One day, while standing on the train platform waiting for the express train to Shinjuku Station, I witnessed the very best paradox of all.
The train platforms in Japan typically have a kiosk that sells sundries such as newspapers, cigarettes, umbrellas, souvenirs, candy, snacks, and beverages to busy commuters. Another convention in Japan is the use of the abacus, which the Japanese call soroban, as means of calculating figures. Postal clerks, shopkeepers, and even some bank tellers use them in the course of everyday transactions. School children learn the basics of the abacus, however, to use one professionally requires a skillful technique, almost like playing a musical instrument. Therefore, many Japanese people take special advanced classes to learn how to use an abacus properly.
What, you may ask, do a train platform kiosk and an abacus have to do with each other? Well on this particular day, while standing on the platform at Ikebukuro Station waiting for the express train to take me to my job in Shinjuku, I spotted an old woman, the proprietor of a sundries kiosk, bent over a computer-generated spreadsheet printed on that familiar green and white striped, accordion-folded paper with the perforated edges. I didn’t think anything of it at first. It was just an old Japanese woman in an apron, perhaps doing her monthly bookkeeping. But upon closer observation, I realized that she was checking the rows and columns of figures on the computer spreadsheet…with an abacus!