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Sunday, March 9, 2008

COSPLAY CULTURE

School offers costume-play way to 'cool' English


Staff writer

Learning a foreign language is never easy, and for many it can even be a painful process.

News photo
Cosplish teacher Mimmi Schwalbe, costumed as Sayla Mass from the "Gundam" anime, gives a lesson during a Feb. 24 free trial at the school in Tokyo's Akihabara district. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

How would the suffering be eased, though, if teachers and students could wear their favorite anime, manga or video-game characters' costumes in class and then all tackle the learning curve together?

Well, it might be fun. But it sounds unreal, doesn't it?

Yet in this wacky, wondrous postmodern world, a group of people are about to launch that far-fetched approach to learning for real.

What they've come up with is Cosplish — a mix of your typical English-language school in Japan and the country's famous homegrown kosupure ("cosplay," or "costume play") culture.

"I've always wanted to do a business in relation to English," said Cosplish founder Tomohiro Suzuki.

As the globalization wave surges around the world, Suzuki, 26, who has studied and worked in England, Australia and New Zealand, said he realized that the market for English schools in Japan — already in abundant supply — still had potential for growth. But he didn't ever intend to run a regular school — and his priority was to add fun to the educational equation.

Having worked as a branch manager and sales and promotions manager at the @home Cafe in Tokyo's geek capital of Akihabara — a locally famed "maid cafe" where the cutesy young staff come skimpily attired like fantasy French maids — Suzuki saw a business opportunity in that same locale where all kinds of people and offbeat businesses mingle.

The target audience for this school is not only geeks (otaku in Japanese) but also a more general clientele, said Suzuki — and even though the teachers all wear costumes, it is not mandatory for students to do so as well.

Cosplish mainly sets out to teach "practical" English, including slang, and also features two unique courses described as Otaku Eiken (geeky English proficiency) and Moeng ("cute English," derived from the Japanese "geekspeak" word moe, a variant on kawaii, the "pure" form of "cute"). "We don't intend to say we will provide an education that enables students to go to Harvard," said Suzuki, adding that he wants to provide a space where people can have fun, talk about their interests and learn practical English — and hopefully "spread Akihabara culture far and wide."

A glimpse of his vision was on show during free trial sessions held on Feb. 24 at the school in Akihabara, where a casual and cordial atmosphere reigned supreme.

"Welcome to Maxima Broken English," Cosplish teacher Mimmi Schwalbe kicked off the dummy lesson, wearing a pink spaceship-crewlike costume modeled on outfits sported by the character Sayla Mass in the extremely popular anime "Gundam."

The beginning of the trial that featured three sessions was just like a regular school, with Schwalbe asking each student their name and occupation.

However, not many teachers would follow that by asking: "What's your favorite anime or manga?"

But what an ice-breaker it was!

"Ah, I like Magic Princess Minky Momo," said one participant. "Well, I'm kind of embarrassed to say that," he laughed — and the whole class burst out laughing.

Then, in the equally unorthodox second session, titled "Otaku Eiken," the topic was common abbreviations used on social-networking sites, in e-mail and instant messaging. So it was that we budding linguists were introduced to the likes of B4, PLZ, GR8 and LOL — with Schwalbe explaining their meanings and when and how to use them.

Finally, for our third session, the topic returned to "Gundam," with teacher Tristan Walker clad in the clingy blue-and-white costume of Amuro Ray, a "Gundam" pilot. Nonetheless, Walker was enthusiastic in working together to translate some lines from "Gundam" into English — as well as leading a quiz with his pupils about weapons from "Gundam."

And many participants had some positive things to say.

"I thought it was charming, very frank and easy to get involved with for beginners," said Kaori Sakakibara, a designer and a fan of "Gundam" and anime. "The abbreviations for online chatting were very practical. I will try out what I learned," she said.

Another participant, anime fan Hiroaki Sawada, 37, said the idea of the school is unique and has potential, but he hoped the third session of "Gundam" would go even deeper into details.

Walker brought up a similar point, saying "balancing the general audience with the hardcore audience" is a challenge.

Cosplish plans to start regular sessions from the end of this month on weekends, according to Suzuki.

Schwalbe, who thought the trial went pretty well, said she hopes that the school attracts more attention, and will inspire many more people to say: "Yeah, I'm going to go to school and have fun!"

For more details about studying Cosplish, visit cosplish.seesaa.net/


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