Mina Watanabe expects silence from her students.
Her patience and understanding are required to attain the
goal. Watanabe must listen to the incessant clicking of beads.
Certain to follow are the rapid scrapes of fingernails against
slippery, Mylar desktops. And finally, through diligence,
there is absence of noise.
The rustle of beads and flicks of fingernails are no
nuisance. They are barely audible and, in fact, Watanabe
encourages them. But eventually Watanabe would prefer dead
air. It is a sure sign she is doing her job well.
Watanabe is founder, teacher and president of SuperMath, an
advanced- mathematics class that finely hones calculation
skills through nontraditional means that stress creative
thinking as well as logic.
SuperMath begins with the abacus, the ancient calculating
machine made of wooden beads and bars set in a frame. The
class' methodology turns the easiest of calculations -- 4 + 3,
for example -- into a complicated three-step process that
takes some time to master.
Gradually, it all adds up, and up and up and up until
students, children and adults alike, can dispense with the
abacus and make instant calculations in their heads. Students
who complete the basic program can multiply and divide three
figures by one figure, and add and subtract a string of up to
10 double-digit numbers. At the highest levels of SuperMath,
square roots, cubic roots and other complex calculations are
not a problem.
"This hasn't changed for thousands of years. This has to be
good. Good things don't change," said the gregarious Watanabe,
who believes that the abacus was first used in Egypt about
So who needs a calculator?
Harry Tan of Redwood Shores, for one. Tan's 7-year-old
daughter, Tiffany, has been taking the class for 10 months. He
tests her skills in anzan, or mental calculation, by spitting
out three- or four-digit numbers and simultaneously punching
them up on a calculator. Second-grader Tiffany usually yells
out the answer before dad can hit the "equals" button.
"In the future, whether it's high school or college, I want
her to be comfortable with math," said Tan, who always keeps a
calculator handy for his job as an international freight
forwarder. "Math is always a headache with the majority of
students. (This class) provides good training for her
SuperMath's goal may be improved proficiency in math, but
the curriculum offers something extra. It is meant to produce
a sharper mind by demanding as much from the creative right
hemisphere of the brain as the logical left side.
The idea is not to memorize tables, as is the case with the
traditional Western way -- or "non-abacus way" as Watanabe
prefers -- math is taught. Rather, the idea is to let the
abacus and the brain do the work without the help of a
preconceived answer, until the brain can operate with only a
"mental" abacus. Many of the students continue to flick their
fingers against a table or the air as they manipulate
imaginary abacuses. That, says Watanabe, is the right brain
hard at work, using imagination as a tool.
"It's more about the thought process than anything else,"
Watanabe said. "It develops good fundamental skills. I can
type 100 words a minute in Japanese. I quickly grasp computer
programs, and I've never had to take classes." And she gives
anzan and the abacus all the credit.
Watanabe, 55, grew up on the northwest coast of Japan's
main island, a region that she boasts produces the country's
best rice. She learned the soroban, or Japanese abacus, in her
hometown of Niigata. By the age of 10 she was better at it
than her three older brothers.
But the popularity of the abacus declined sharply shortly
"Forty-five years ago, there were abacus schools all over
Japan," she said. "They (the schools) were trying to produce
human calculators. As soon as the (electronic) calculator was
introduced, they figured there was no use in having human
calculators any more."
But a human calculator was essentially what Watanabe had
become, although she chose not to enter the mathematics field.
She moved to the United States in 1972 to study linguistics,
first at Covenant College in Tennessee and then at the
University of Texas at Arlington.
At UT, she met Mike Watanabe. They married in 1975 and
settled in Salinas after her husband found work as a PG&E
In 1979, Mina Watanabe was making Japanese flower
arrangements for a Salinas flower shop. She was constantly in
trouble with the boss for misplacing the chart that listed the
sales tax for each purchase amount. Watanabe made all the
calculations in her head and, having no use for the chart, she
would absent-mindedly move it from its spot while hurriedly
completing a transaction.
The sales tax was 8 percent at the time, and Watanabe was
surprised it confounded her co-workers. And so Watanabe found
her calling in life.
"It was so easy for me," Watanabe said. "I knew I had to
help people acquire this skill."
Watanabe started with two students that first year. Her
business did not really take off until she and her husband
moved to Daly City in 1982 and her class was featured on a
local Japanese television show. In 1986, the couple moved to
Half Moon Bay where their Ocean Colony home doubled as Mina
Watanabe's office for the next 13 years.
Watanabe now operates out of a Belmont office, sandwiched
between a coin laundry and a clothing store. Watanabe and
three other instructors teach SuperMath year-round at
locations in Belmont, Burlingame, Half Moon Bay, Los Altos and
San Francisco. Its 200 students range from preschoolers to a
Watanabe, 5 feet of nonstop energy, puts in plenty of
aerobic work while teaching at her long, hallwaylike
office/classroom. She scoots from the head of the class to the
back of the room, where she fishes out pieces of paper from
file cabinets or makes photocopies to hand out to the class.
She busily moves from one long desk to another to give
students one-on-one attention.
She leads the class in sing-alongs, improvising a
multiplication song to the tune of "ABC."
Standing in one spot does not slow her down as she
punctuates sentences with hand and arm gestures, which in turn
sets her bobbed haircut swishing.
There is little doubt Watanabe enjoys what she does, and
her enthusiasm spreads to those she teaches.
Gideon Shaanan of Redwood Shores notices it in his
7-year-old daughter, Maya, a member of a Monday afternoon
class in Belmont.
"Initially, she was taking Friday classes," Shaanan said.
"After a week of school and activities, you would think the
last thing she would want to go to is a math class. I would
pick her up, and she would do her exercises in the car. It's
intellectually rewarding for her. That, to me, is the greatest
Mika Iwamura braves the afternoon highway traffic from her
home in Tracy so her son, Keisuke, 8, and daughter, Youki, 6,
can continue their SuperMath training in Belmont.
Keisuke began taking classes when he was 5 when the family
was living in San Mateo. He says he was just a "normal" math
student when he started, but is now one of the best in the
subject in his third-grade class at Wanda Hirsch Elementary.
"You learn different stuff that's a lot harder than regular
school," Keisuke said. "It makes my schoolwork easier."
Watanabe admits second-graders and up into SuperMath, but
does allow younger children if they show an aptitude toward
the subject. Watanabe says initially, she was nothing out of
the ordinary as an abacus student. She is now a master of
soroban/anzan, certified by the World Federation of Soroban
Education as a six dan in a ranking system akin to the black
belts used in martial arts. (Fewer than 10 people hold a four
dan or higher in the United States.)
Her experience bolsters Watanabe's belief that anyone can
learn SuperMath, be they mathematically inclined or
challenged. Watanabe is always eager to lend words of support
At a recent class, Watanabe was giving final instructions
to an 8-year-old student who had recently began mental
calculation before an exercise. Her final words to him: "Don't
forget you're really good at anzan."
SuperMath breaks many of the sacred rules taught in typical
math classes. One of the biggest no-nos, counting with one's
fingers, is not only allowed, it's expected.
"It's so cute when they start," Watanabe said. "They're
ashamed to show their classmates, so they put their hands
underneath the table so no one can see them count."
Watanabe developed a series of 14 workbooks for the class.
Each student starts with Book 14 and works up to 1. Before
moving on to the next book, a passing grade of 70 percent must
be achieved in a timed test. By Book 8, students are ready to
begin training in anzan.
Completion of the books can take up to four years.
"It gets more complicated the further you get into it,"
said Montara's Kitty Rea, who has been teaching a Half Moon
Bay class since November. "It becomes more of a puzzle, a
challenge, a code that kids like to decipher. In my mind, it's
a crossword puzzle with numbers."
Watanabe likens the training to piano lessons: "This takes
time. You don't expect to be able to play Beethoven in a few
months. Good things in life can't be acquired in a short
period of time."
Watanabe's "youngest student," 68-year-old Katoko Sax of
Palo Alto, appreciates the attention to detail the class
demands. She watches her four grandchildren, ages 2 through 7,
and is disturbed by the short attention span they display.
Part of her motivation in taking the class is to pass along
the knowledge to her grandchildren and to teach them the
virtue of patience.
"Everything has to have an instant solution (with them),"
Sax said. "They're deprived of the merit of sticking to one
thing for a long time and achieving something. There has to be
consistency, and that's the attitude I want to instill in
Like many adults, Sax has had some difficulty grasping some
of SuperMath's concepts. The most difficult hurdle is putting
aside years and years of memorizing addition, subtraction,
multiplication and division tables.
In approaching the abacus, the student must forget even the
simplest of equations. Once that is established, SuperMath
makes perfect sense.
Watanabe is taking steps to bring SuperMath to Japan. She
has shot an instructional video that she plans to circulate
there. After conquering that "small" country, she will be
ready to take on the rest of this big one.
It is Watanabe's way of giving back.
"Nowadays, you always hear about people talking about
self-esteem," Watanabe said. "It's vital that a child acquire
this. I thought about myself, and I always had it, and I got
it from abacus education. It really helped me."
Watanabe's tone suddenly turned serious when she discussed
how far she can spread her SuperMath gospel. She says she
knows her limitations.
When asked what those limitations were, she gives dramatic
pause before saying, "All over this country." Another pause is
followed by a half-maniacal, half-self-deprecating laughter.
Bursts of laughter, clicking beads, tapping fingers.
Silence will come in due time.
E-mail Cicero A. Estrella at email@example.com.