May 30, 2007

Dragon Zakura


At first glance, the TBS television series Dragon Zakura compares well with the movie Stand and Deliver. In the latter, maverick math teacher Jaime Escalante's goal is to teach and motivate his students at a failing inner-city high school to pass the AP calculus exam.

In Dragon Zakura, Kenji Sakuragi is an ex-motorcycle gang member who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and became a lawyer (which is excruciatingly difficult in Japan). Now he's looking to do the same at a baka gakkou, a bottom-ranked Tokyo high school.

High schools in Japan are ranked by entrance exams the same way colleges in the U.S. can be ranked by SAT scores. Compulsory education in Japan ends with junior high and you have to pass an entrance exam to get into a good public high school.

His goal for his students: pass the Tôdai (Tokyo University) entrance exams, perhaps the toughest in the world (ironically, in terms of actual academic performance, Tôdai is pretty middling by world standards; once all those fried brains make it in, they're not particularly eager to set the world on fire).

Dragon Zakura, like Stand and Deliver, is "based on a true story." But while Stand and Deliver is a fairly accurate bio-pic, Dragon Zakura is far more fanciful. For example, the "master teachers" Kenji Sakuragi recruits to teach his hard-luck cases. The physics professor looks just like Einstein, the literature professor looks like Natsume Soseki, that kind of thing.

The knowledge they impart, though, is spot on. The pedagogical approach presented for the English portion of the exam (a subject I am somewhat qualified to address) should be made part and parcel of the curriculum in every Japanese high school. Though even here, Sakuragi is teaching to the test and nothing else.

Despite its uplifting conclusion, however, Dragon Zakura is a depressing indictment of the Japanese education system. While the "soft bigotry of low expectations" can be defeated by the right combination of innovative teaching techniques, the tagline: "Anybody can make it into Tôdai" is profoundly different than the tagline: "Anybody can pass the AP calculus exam."

Because everybody can't make it into Tôdai. For every student who makes it in, another student won't. This zero-sum game has turned the Tôdai exam into little more than a tortuous test of IQ and memorization skills. A high school student trying to get into Tôdai basically succeeds by proving that he's capable of graduating from Tôdai.

It'd be like having to ace the GMAT, MCAT, GRE and LSAT just to get admitted to the freshman class. But if you could pass those exams in the first place, why bother going to school?

The entire planet, on the other hand, could take the AP calculus exam if they were so inclined. And those credits would be treated the same at any institution, from the local community college to Harvard.

Moveover, in the U.S., those of Sakuragi's students who didn't make it into Tôdai on the first try certainly wouldn't waste a year of their lives as rounin treading the same water all over again. Anybody who could "almost" make it into Harvard could easily sail into a dozen other world-leading, top-tier schools that wouldn't hurt their future prospects in the slightest.

Related posts

Perseverance makes perfect

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May 27, 2007

Chapter 1 (The Shore in Twilight)


Ryou'un (凌雲山), lit. "skyscraping mountain," the name for the mountains that house the palaces of the emperor/empress and province lords in each kingdom.

General Sei (青将軍) is better known as Kantai. See chapter 78 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

尭天 [ぎょうてん] Gyouten (high heaven)
慶国 [けいこく] The Kingdom of Kei (jubilation)
社真 [としん] Toshin (shrine + truth)
金波宮 [きんぱきゅう] Kinpa Palace (golden waves)
凱之 [がいし] Gaishi (victory song)
瑛州 [えいしゅう] Ei Province (crystal)
麦州 [ばくしゅう] Baku Province (barley/wheat)
宰輔 [さいほ] Saiho (ruler + help)
劉 [りゅう] Ryuu (ax)

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May 24, 2007

The Golden Compass


One of my favorite fantasy series of all time, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, debuts in December as a Major Motion Picture, with what looks on paper at least to be a great cast. The movie is titled The Golden Compass, which suggests (I hope) three separate films following the three books in the trilogy. Based in part on Paradise Lost by John Milton, His Dark Materials is easily one of the most theologically complex young adult novels ever written (though I suspect the film will accent the action and not the theology). Fans of Angel Sanctuary and Constantine--and religiously "transgressive" fiction in general--should definitely check it out.

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May 22, 2007

The problem with katakana


Peter Payne asks why the subject of English presents such a high hurdle to the average Japanese, even after six years of mandatory classes. He suggests "the fear of making mistakes," which is certainly a significant problem in language acquisition (and a major reason why children are such good language learners--they don't care).

But thinking in more concrete terms, teaching-to-the-test and the ubiquitous use of katakana are extremely problematic in a country that wishes to make English its second language.

Just as in the U.S., the former is a bureaucratic nightmare. What's depressing about the latter is that nobody is willing to take the simplest of baby steps. Take the news. While furigana could come in handy with some foreign names (i.e., "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad"), there's no excuse to turn on the news and see names like (George) "Bush" or (Christopher) "Hill" spelled out in katakana.

And high school textbooks should use the "Roman" alphabet for all terms and names that are obviously foreign in derivation and use.

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May 20, 2007

Prologue (The Shore in Twilight)


The term "ley line" (which only dates to the 1920s) is very close to the original Japanese.

The mingling of amateur archaeology with Chinese spiritual concepts of land-forms led to many new theories about the alignments of monuments and natural landscape features. Writers made use of Watkins' terminology in service of concepts related to dowsing and New Age beliefs, including the ideas that ley lines have spiritual power or resonate a special psychic or mystical energy.

A "dragon hole" is more commonly known in Japan as a "power spot." Dragon holes are linked up by ley lines or "dragon lines."

載国  [たいこく] Kingdom of Tai
鴻基  [こうき] Kouki (wild goose + foundation)
白圭宮 [はっけいきゅう] Hakkei Palace (white square jewel)
仁重殿 [じんじゅうでん] Jinjuu Manor (virtue + weight)
広徳殿 [こうとくでん] Koutoku Manor (spacious benevolence)
泰麒  [たいき] Taiki (peace + unicorn)
瑞州  [ずいしゅう] Zui Province (auspicious)
文州  [ぶんしゅう] Bun Province (literary)
驍宗  [ぎょうそう] Gyousou (strong horse + sect)
汕子  [さんし] Sanshi (net fishing + child)
傲濫  [ごうらん] Gouran (proud + overflowing)

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May 17, 2007

"Shadow of the Moon" revisions


More analysis of the TokyoPop translation of Shadow of the Moon and a big mistake (of omission) by me in chapter 9.

Here's the TokyoPop exerpt in question:

          Like stars--
          Yoko felt dizzy. She closed her eyes for a moment, and dug her fingers into two turfs of grass that grew on either side of where she sat. Then she looked again.
          It was like she was gazing down at interstellar space. The constellations and galaxies she had seen in countless photographs were spread out below her feet.
          No. I don't know this place.
          The thought came unbidden to her mind. She realized she had known the stars were there ever since she first saw the strange, dark ocean--but she had been avoiding the idea, unwilling to accept the truth. Now, the realization filled her and she was lost.
          This was not the world Yoko knew. She had never seen an ocean like this. Everything--the forest, the cliff, the dark waves--belonged to another world.
          I don't believe it.

Here's a literal translation I just did:

          Like stars.
          Youko felt dizzy and sat down on the cliff.
          That was doubtlessly a scene of the universe. Stars and nebulae [star clusters] and galaxies and that kind of thing spread out beneath her feet.
          This is a place I don't know.
          Suddenly a thought welled up. The thing she had been trying not to look at directly gushed out and wouldn't stop.
          This was not the world Youko knew. Youko didn't know this ocean. Youko had surely slipped into another world.
          Iya da.
          "It must be a lie."
          Where is this? [A common alliterative expression in Japanese: "Koko wa doko?"] What kind of place is this? Dangerous or safe? What is the best thing to do after this?
          Why did something like this happen to me?

A few of the translations Eijirou suggests for Iya da: Not a chance. / Damn! / It's dreadful. / What a bummer! / Oh, no! / Huh.

We both left out "cliff" because the antecedent is already there. I can't find anything about any grass. I also switched the sentence order around to improve the prosody in English, though now it strikes me as a bit too sparing. So I changed "The thought overwhelmed her" to "Her thoughts suddenly overwhelmed her. She could no longer turn her face from the truth in front of her."

We both left off a good line before she says "Joyuu": "Why did this have to happen to me?"

"But all she could hear was the tide surging through her" should be "But all she could hear was a sound like the tide surging through her." I'll stick with my version, though the TokyoPop version is a tad more accurate.

However, I did forget to translate the last paragraph. I'm pretty sure I know what happened. I ended on "She hugged her knees, buried her face in her arms and wept" and then rushed off to work (I was working second shift at Microsoft and this was before I started emailing the page scans to myself at work). Because that sentence sure sounds like the end of a chapter, the next day I started translating the next chapter, which begins on the facing page. That's one reason I started including page numbers in subsequent projects.

Here's the last paragraph:

          Youko finally lifted her head. She'd cried so hard and so long that she felt slightly feverish. Crying her eyes out had made her feel better, but only a little. She lowly opened her eyes. The ocean stretched out before her like the universe.
          "How very strange--"
          She felt as if she was gazing down on a sky shot through with stars, a starry night arraigned against the serene blackness, the galaxies turning slowly in the water.
          "So strange and yet so beautiful--"
          In time Youko calmed down and finally came back to herself. Absentmindedly she gazed down at the stars in the water.

From the TokyoPop version I can't find: "Yoko breathed slowly. There were worse things that this, she thought."

The online and offline browser versions have been updated. More corrections here.

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May 15, 2007

It's not me!


Okay, it's very weird to wake up hearing somebody singing your name on the radio. Especially when it's not that common a name (well, unless you live in Oregon). A group by the name of Pink Martini has released an album titled Hey, Eugene! The title track begins:

Hey Eugene.
Do you remember me?
I'm that chick you danced with two times
Through the Rufus album
Friday night at that party
On Avenue A

Look, I've never been to a party on "Avenue A" and have no memory of ever being to a party at which a Rufus Wainwright album was playing. Just to set things straight!

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May 13, 2007

The Shore in Twilight


After a long hiatus, I've resumed work on The Shore in Twilight, The Sky at Daybreak ("Tasogare no Kishi, Akatsuki no Sora"). My goal is to post one chapter a week starting next Sunday. For this translation I'm using the White Heart (Kodansha X) edition.

The "twilight" (黄昏) in the title is the same as the 2002 film directed by Yoji Yamada, Twilight Samurai (たそがれ清兵衛). The title in Japanese is "Tasogare Seibei," "Seibei" being the name of the protagonist.

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May 08, 2007

Miki Yamamoto


My interest in cooking is pretty much limited to what can be fried, boiled, or microwaved in ten minutes or less. Except when Miki Yamamoto comes on the screen to host Cooking Today. She doesn't actually cook anything. Her job consists of introducing the day's guest cook, looking admiringly over his or her shoulder, playing the attentive student, and sampling the final product.

She may well be the cutest "announcer" (as the occupation is known in Japan) in existence. (The graphic above does not come close to doing the live version justice.) Though it is possible that she's an android manufactured in a secret laboratory beneath Mount Fuji, where thousands of high-speed centrifuges spin away 24/7, distilling the essence of the adorable into weapons-grade kawaii-ness.

The same factory made Kelly Ripa, though the Japanese version cranks the demureness factor up to eleven (she doesn't have Regis to put up with). I'm not talking "gorgeous" in the otherworldly Grace Kelly/Audrey Hepburn sense (yeah, that dates me). I mean, there's "pretty" and then there an inconceivable beauty (imagine Wallace Shawn saying that) that causes rifts in the fabric of spacetime.

Miki Yamamoto isn't that. And, frankly, the thought of that in real life is rather terrifying (my basic problem with Densha Otoko). Rather, I'm talking about the human form of whatever it is that makes grown men with no interest in cooking watch cooking shows while saying, "Awww."

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May 03, 2007

Buying Japanese manga


Manga is a great way to study Japanese and learn about contemporary Japanese culture. While translations of Japanese manga are becoming ubiquitous, getting your hands on the original Japanese versions is a bit trickier. But thanks to the Internet not that daunting once you know where to look.

There are limited number of titles available in bilingual format, such as Doraemon, a clever kid's manga that's ideal for learning hiragana and the basic kanji.

Three bibliographic sources I've used for finding manga (titles and authors) are Emily's Shoujo Manga Page and Girls' Horror Comics. They both provide ISBNs, the easiest way to look up titles at Amazon-Japan or Book1. Erica Friedman's Okazu blog is a great source of information about all things yuri.

Manga Blog is a clearing house for manga-related links and reviews from a wide variety of sources.

If negotiating the Japanese proves too tricky, Massachusetts-based importer Sasuga Books has an all-English interface and provides ISBNs in its product listings [UPDATE: it has since closed]. Also, once in a great while Amazon links to Japanese titles on its English site. [Also recommended: JPQueen.]

Another thing I've done is gone to a bookstore with a generous manga section, browsed through titles that looked interesting, and then ordered the Japanese versions (if still in print). Manga go in and out of print fairly rapidly, so a title may no longer be available in Japan by the time it's licensed in the U.S.

As for recommending titles, as I've noted elsewhere my tastes tend toward shoujo and yuri. I've added ISBNs to the titles I reviewed here and here. But in terms of "family-friendly" recommendations, I think Kujira no Oyako (4063703371) is a wonderful series to start with. [Book1]

In the yuri category, I recommend Kawaii Anata (4758070172), a collection of superbly written, bittersweet short stories by Hiyori Otsu. (With very little tweaking, many of these stories could have originally run in The New Era.) [Book1]

In the shounen category, Full Metal Alchemist (4757506201) is one of the most popular. [Book1] With a sixth-grader as the reluctant protagonist, Alien Nine (4253146074) appears to be a kid's comic, but it's not. The excellent anime was canceled after four episodes probably because it was scaring little kids half to death.

Disney released an English sub/dub of Ghibli's Whisper of the Heart. The only English translation of the original Mimi o Sumaseba (4088535154) manga I know of (though I'm sure there are others) is the Shoujo Magic scanlation based on my translation. [Book1]

And one other thing. It is cheaper to import a Japanese manga all the way from Japan than it is to buy the translated version in the U.S. (using SAL).

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