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Conference Explores Traditional Japanese Mathematics

Jun 07, 2017


Japanese notebooks on tableParticipants from four countries attended the Conference on Sangaku and Wasan at Randolph-Macon (SWARM), which was held April 28-29, 2017. The conference, which highlighted traditional Japanese mathematics, was organized by Professors Todd Munson (Asian studies) and David Clark (mathematics), who planned the conference thanks to grants they received from the AAS Northeast Asia Council and the Japan Foundation, New York.

The Phenomenon of Sangaku
"The conference was held in honor of Hidetoshi Fukagawa, a career high-school teacher who devoted his life to the study of wasan (traditional Japanese mathematics), and was instrumental in introducing the phenomenon of sangaku—colorful wooden tablets inscribed with geometrical problems that were hung in shrines and temples throughout the country—to the Western world," explains Clark, who met Fukagawa when he and his students traveled to Japan in 2015 during January Term (J-term). "He spent a day with my students during our J-term trip, visiting several sangaku, and they absolutely adored him. He's in his early 70s now, but we plan to visit him again during our 2018 J-term courses, Advanced Traditional Japanese Mathematics and Japan Past & Present."

The Culture of Mathematics
The conference provided an opportunity for scholars, educators and students to learn about the fascinating culture of mathematics in Tokugawa Japan. Participants—including R-MC faculty and students—fostered a community with broad interests in wasan and a diverse collection of viewpoints to contribute to its study and dissemination. "Art, religion, history, and mathematics all play important roles in understanding this topic," notes Clark.

Elen Khachatryan '20 (physics and mathematics major; astrophysics and chemistry minor) enjoyed learning about traditional Japanese mathematics.

"It was incredible to interact with all the professors and discuss interesting mathematical problems," she says. Especially exciting for Khachatryan was a conversation she had with Professor Fukagawa. "Although language was a little bit of an obstacle for our communication, we managed to overcome it," she says. "It was a very inspirational conference!"

Invited Speakers
In addition to Hidetoshi Fukagawa (Daidou and Kogakkan Universities, Japan), the following speakers shared their expertise at the conference: Rosalie Hosking (University of Canterbury, New Zealand), author of Sangaku: A Mathematical, Artistic, Religious, and Diagrammatic Examination; Mark Ravina (Emory University), author of the forthcoming book Japan’s Nineteenth Century Revolution: A Transnational History of the Meiji Restoration; Tony Rothman (New York University), co-author of Sacred Geometry: Japanese Temple Mathematics; and J. Marshall Unger (Ohio State University), author of Sangaku Proofs: A Japanese Mathematician at Work.

"We had an impressive lineup of invited speakers with diverse academic backgrounds: mathematics, history and Japanese studies," says Clark. The conference included one contributed talk, by Felicia Tabing (Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology). R-MC Mathematics Professor Adrian Rice, along with Clark and Munson, also presented.

An Interdisciplinary Experience
An exhibition of dozens of life-size posters of sangaku (mathematical votive tablets) served as a backdrop for the conference. Also on display were several soroban (Japanese abacuses), sangi computing rods, and many rare Tokugawa-era mathematical books.

"I had so much fun at the conference," said R-MC Mathematics Professor Eve Torrence in an email to Clark. "What a treat for our students and department. All the speakers gave a different perspective and the order fit together perfectly."

R-MC Dean of Academic Affairs Lauren Bell sent an email to Clark and Munson congratulating them on an informative conference.

"Not only did the conference bring people from around the state and nation, and from around the world, to Randolph-Macon, but it also brought together preeminent scholars of history, Asian Studies, and mathematics for a truly interdisciplinary experience," wrote Bell. "I can't quite put into words just how awed I was to see the life-size images of so many sangaku tablets in one location and to have the chance to view the images up close. I know how precious and fragile the original tablets are and how significant a chance it was for our students, colleagues, and attendees to have had the chance to experience these beautiful community and educational resources."