Thursday, April 19, 2007

Warazan - Straw reckoning devices of Okinawa

In a slide presentation at a recent symposium at MIT on khipus, Jean-Jacques Quisquater of the Universite Catholique de Louvain, Belgium, noted that the ancient use of devices similar to khipus had been reported throughout the Asian-Pacific world including across the islands of Polynesia and in Okinawa.

In Okinawa, such devices, made of straw, have been called warazan and were in use by the islands' native people until fairly recently (the beginning of the 20th century).

A picture of a warazan, along with a synopsis of a year 2000 talk in Germany by Professor Kurayoshi Takara of the Ryûkyû University in Japan is given here:

A Google search for an e-mail address for "Kurayoshi Takara" yielded nothing.

However, I found that Professor Gregory Smits from Penn State University had recently translated an article by Dr. Takara. So I asked him if he could be of assistance with regard to finding Dr. Takara or otherwise finding more information on these Okinawan devices.

Dr. Smits also had no luck in finding an e-mail address for Dr. Takara. However, he was able to give some further information on warazan (also called barazan), writing me in an e-mail (that he subsequently gave me permission to publish below):

"[Warazan] were made from of plants, with rice straw being the preferred material. Counting was done via the joints of the stalks, using a variety of methods. On the island of Okinawa warazan were used mainly for calculations, contracts, and collecting debts. In Miyako and Yaeyama, warazan (called barazan) were mainly used to record tax collection and related matters such as labor service. They were also sued to record gifts received at formal ceremonies. After the "head tax" was abolished in these islands in 1903, the use of warazan soon stopped. The diffusion of basic education was the other factor. Ryukyuan elites were familiar with mathematics and did not use warazan. In other words, these counting tools were an aid to those without formal education."

Asked for a citation or two regarding warazan in the scholarly literature, Dr. Smits noted that regretably almost everything published on the subject in the scholarly literature has been written only in Japanese.

However, Dr. Smits was kind enough to offer two such Japanese citations, "the first a short article and the second a book consisting of the collected writings on the subject by Tashiro Yasusada (and published posthumously by one of Tashiro’s colleagues)":

Ishigaki Hirotaka, “Warazan,” Okinawa daihyakka jiten, v. 3 (Okinawa taimusu sha, 1983), p. 1004.

Tashiro Yasusada, Okinawa ketsujou kou [Thoughts on knotted cords in Okinawa] , (Youtokusha, 1945, 1977).

Thank you Dr. Smits!



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