Professors author national article on Japanese Calculation Tablets

Mesa Community College Mathematic professors David Schultz and Enrico SerponeMCC mathematic professors David Schultz and Enrico Serpone. MESA, Arizona -- April 19, 2018 – An article on Japanese Calculation Tablets, Sangaku Optimization Problems: An Algebraic Approach, is featured in the March 2018 edition of Mathematics Teacher, published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Authored by Mesa Community College professors David Schultz and Enrico Serpone, the article delves into how geometrical problems on wooden tablets were placed as offerings at Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples during the period from 1603 to 1867.

During this time, Japan was isolated from the influence of Western mathematics. Despite this isolation, Japanese mathematics, called Wasan, flourished and a unique approach to present mathematical problems was developed.

Schultz said more than 900 painted wooden tablets called sangaku have been discovered with problems developed by priests, samurai, farmers and children.

“Oddly, some sangaku problems, which pre-date calculus, display calculus,” Schultz said. “Information such as this provides a different angle to use in the classroom and exposes students to historical linkages in mathematics.”

A book about the tablets, Sacred Mathematics: Japanese Temple Geometry, was the inspiration for the article and the MCC Math Club is working on bringing the book’s author, Fukagawa Hidetoshi to present the tablets during the next school year.

Schultz and Serpone were able to successfully figure out how several problems in the book may have been solved using traditional methods instead of calculus.

To help readers/students visualize examples, the authors developed animations that are available at

Schultz said he has a special interest in the creation and implementation of animations in the classroom to emphasize the dynamic nature of calculus with his students.

“As one analyzes the problems appearing on the sangaku tablets, it becomes evident the Japanese mathematicians were extremely creative and well versed in geometry and algebra and the characteristics of polynomial functions,” Schultz said. “It is our hope that instructors at all levels will introduce their students to the wonderful and fascinating sangaku problems created over 200 years ago.”

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Media contact: Dawn Zimmer,, 480-461-7892

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Publication Date: 
Thursday, April 19, 2018