In Homogeneous Japan, an African-Born University President

Motoko Rich, New York Times, April 13, 2018

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Dr. Oussouby Sacko, who is believed to be the first African-born president of a Japanese university, segued elegantly into fluent Japanese, invoking Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ. The university, Dr. Sacko said, was “diversifying and internationalizing,” and he wanted the students to “recognize your difference from others.”

In this island country that is sometimes less than welcoming to immigrants, Mr. Sacko is an outlier. A resident for 27 years, he obtained Japanese citizenship 16 years ago and worked his way up through the ranks of a Japanese institution.

With a declining population, Japan is being forced to confront its traditional resistance to taking in foreigners. Last year, according to government figures, the number of foreign nationals living in Japan hit a record high of more than 2.5 million, with about 15,140 of them from African countries.

Yet that total number of foreign nationals makes up less than 2 percent of Japan’s population of 127 million, a lower proportion than in South Korea, for example, where foreigners make up about 3.4 percent of the population. The share is much higher in the United States, at 14 percent, and it is close to 40 percent in Hong Kong, according to data from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

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And despite recent efforts to allow highly skilled foreigners to obtain permanent residency more quickly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared that he will not relax immigration policy to address the country’s falling population.

Dr. Sacko says he believes Japan needs to allow in more outsiders, simply as an act of self-preservation.

“Japanese people think they have to protect something,” he said during an interview in English before a reception recently to celebrate his appointment. But, “someone who has a broad view from outside on your culture can maybe help you objectively improve your goals,” he said, occasionally interrupting the interview to greet his guests, switching effortlessly between English, French and Japanese.

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He had also met and started to date a Japanese woman, Chikako Tanaka, whom he later married and with whom he has two sons.

Dr. Sacko moved to Osaka, Japan, for six months of language lessons before enrolling in a master’s degree program at Kyoto University. In meetings with colleagues, he was often asked to take minutes, which helped him improve his listening comprehension and writing ability. At night, he watched Japanese television shows and socialized with Japanese classmates.

His dedication to becoming fluent distinguished him from other foreigners. “They said, ‘If you speak Japanese, they will put you in meetings and on committees and that’s not interesting,’ ” he said. Many foreigners, he added, “spend too much time among ourselves.”

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“He deeply understands Japanese culture and the way of thinking,” said Emiko Yoshioka, a professor of art theory whom Dr. Sacko appointed as vice president at Kyoto Seika. “But he also is able to poke fun at the fact that he is a foreigner.”

The faculty vote for president was extremely close, with Dr. Sacko winning by just one vote. At his inaugural reception, a group of musicians played Malian music on a patio, and Dr. Sacko stood quietly on a small stage during a parade of speeches from the mayor of Kyoto; the Malian ambassador to Japan; and various academic colleagues, including a professor from Kyoto University who repeatedly slipped up and called him “Professor Mali.”

Ryo Ishida, chairman of Kyoto Seika’s board, noted that the university had recently started a campaign to embrace diversity.

“But I don’t think his election was much to do with the university’s promotion of diversity,” Mr. Ishida said. “He was elected as the best leader of the university among his colleagues.”

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Already, 20 percent of its student body comes from abroad, much higher than the 4 percent overall ratio of foreign students in Japanese higher education. Dr. Sacko said he hoped to raise Kyoto Seika’s level to 40 percent within a decade.

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Other black residents of Japan said that Dr. Sacko could help improve race relations in a country where performers still appear on television in blackface.

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Dr. Sacko said he had not experienced racism in Japan but said he was treated differently simply because he does not look Japanese. Despite his Japanese citizenship, for example, he says he is automatically routed to lines for foreigners at the airport when he returns from trips abroad. “It’s not because you’re black,” he said. “It’s because you’re different.”

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