Why are divine New Zealand maths problems hanging in a Japanese shrine?

15 August 2018

It’s an artistic, religious, mathematical puzzle worth contemplating. There will soon be a uniquely New Zealand mathematical contribution to a Japanese shrine, thanks to a University of Canterbury doctoral graduate.

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    Between the 17th and 19th centuries, mathematically orientated votive tablets appeared in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples all over Japan. Known as sangaku, they contained problems of a largely geometrical nature. Photos: Rosalie Hosking

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It’s an artistic, religious, mathematical puzzle worth contemplating. There will soon be a uniquely New Zealand mathematical contribution to a Japanese shrine, thanks to a University of Canterbury doctoral graduate.

A post-doctoral researcher at Yokkaichi University in Japan, Dr Rosalie Hosking has received a grant from the New Zealand Japan Exchange Programme to create a new Japanese devotional tablet with mathematical problems on it, in the spirit of those created centuries ago.

“We will be dedicating a new Japanese mathematical tablet known as a sangaku which will contain three problems constructed by Associate Professor Clemency Montelle and Dr John Hannah from the University of Canterbury’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, and Dr Kevin Hannah (UC Education Plus), as well as myself,” she says.

Posing divine maths questions for contemplation, the tablet will be dedicated in the Kitano Tenmangu shrine of Kyoto in late October.

Dr Hosking is a historian of Japanese mathematics, specialising in the mathematical problems placed on wooden tablets and hung in shrines and temples during 1600-1868. These tablets contain eye-catching brightly coloured mathematical diagrams along with Japanese text which contains a mathematical problem pertaining to the figure.

“In the 1600s during their isolation period, the Japanese started to make large wooden plaques which they would paint mathematical problems onto and hang in shrines and temples. This tradition died out in the early 1900s but has had a revival recently,” Dr Hosking says.

“This new tablet will be the first ever created by non-Japanese mathematicians, and will be hung alongside an original Edo period tablet in the Kitano Tenmangu shrine of Kyoto.”

Her PhD supervisor and UC expert in the history of mathematics in ancient cultures, Associate Professor Clemency Montelle reads ancient mathematical texts in the original language and contributed a mathematical problem for the sangaku. 

“It’s wonderful seeing an artistic aspect of mathematics woven with another culture making it accessible to non-mathematicians. It testifies to Japan-New Zealand research relations and strengthening bonds,” says Associate Professor Montelle.

Dr Hosking spoke about sangaku and her UC thesis, titled Sangaku: A Mathematical, Artistic, Religious, and Diagrammatic Examination, in a Radio New Zealand interview recently. In her thesis she argued that sangaku had multiple functions and should be considered artistic, religious, as well as mathematical artefacts.

For further information please contact:

Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168margaret.agnew@canterbury.ac.nz
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