Land of the Rising Sums

Land of the Rising Sums


The Japanese are a calculating bunch. They measure proficiency on the abacus there in dans, like karate or judo. Maths whizz (and former Guardian South America correspondent) Alex Bellos visits an after-school abacus club in Tokyo, thrumming to the sounds of busy fingers dashing over the beads, where he is beaten to the count by a five-year-old.

And at the national championships in Kyoto he is flabbergasted when the winner adds up 15 numbers flashed on to a screen in just 1.7 seconds — entirely in his head. Apart from the strangeness of it all, what he learns is that perhaps the Japanese are not as intimidated by numbers as we are. It all adds up.


Journalist Alex Bellos heads to Japan to investigate why Asian cultures seem better at maths than many Western countries and visits the national abacus competition in Kyoto during his journey. He asks whether there is something fundamental in Japanese culture that keeps the nation at the upper end of the numeracy league tables, and explores songs taught in schools to help with times tables.

Cast & Crew

Presenter Alex Bellos
Producer Alexandra Feachem