Early Modern Numeracy

Reading Hanley’s Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture with my class (which is quite interestingly divided on the success of its argument, but we’re just getting started), I was struck by my own lack of knowledge about Tokugawa era numeracy. We’ve got a pretty good handle on literacy, by class and period, but not its mathematical equivalent.

It comes up in her second chapter, on living space: the minka [commoner house] architecture which spread in the late 17th-early 18th century “required a considerable amount of calculation” (30), which presumably was available (otherwise the houses couldn’t have been built). I’ve always assumed that numeracy was pretty widespread among the urban population — merchants and artisans and anyone else involved in substantial business dealings — and that even farmers need pretty strong math skills to keep track of productivity, inputs and markets. I have also read things which suggest relatively low rates of numeracy among samurai — considering arithmetic something done by “lowly merchants” — but that is counterintuitive: household budgeting based on an annual stipend must have required some fiscal planning.

Perhaps part of my problem is that I don’t have a good idea of how a non-numerate person would function, in a modern or early modern environment. Once markets and money are involved, basic numeracy seems to be a sine qua non for daily life function. It is true that there are still plenty of non-market actors in the early, even mid-Tokugawa, so there should be some numeracy shifts to track.

But it’s going to be harder than literacy, because it can leave fewer traces. Is anyone working on this question? Rough ideas welcome.


  1. I saw an Open University maths programme the other day that discussed Maori mathematics. If I understood it correctly they’re numeracy is more visual so they can make sophisticated calculations by eye. Like a cook who can judge how many handfuls of flour to use. I don’t know if that’s any help. I know zilch about this.

  2. 1) Is it not possible that gender plays a role in the professed numerical literacy of samurai? If women have traditionally managed the family budgets in Japan, admitting to being good with numbers might be admitting to being henpecked. I do not, however know if the woman-as-family treasurer was as uniform as cultural stereotypes make it out to be.
    2)When I visited/used post offices, restaurants, markets , even wholesale markets, etc. in Japan, i found i was generally much faster at doing adding by head or quick scribbles or guestimating based on rough rounding off and since i am not exceptionally blessed with short-term memory, I attributed it to the use of the soroban. I would not go as far as the Eskimos who did not show up as promised for Steffansson because they did not see him write down the information and assumed the white man’s memory was purely extra-somatic, but I must admit to being tempted to think the same about Japanese numeracy — this was decades ago . . . not centuries ago, but for what it is worth…
    3) This is an interesting subject and i hope more comments come. 敬愚

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