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Beninese ambassador brings TV star power to diplomacy

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Beninese Ambassador Zomahoun Rufin says — half-jokingly — his dream is “to become the next Japanese prime minister.”

“My home country aside, I love Japan the most. I even want to turn Japanese,” the 49-year-old envoy says, his face lighting up with a friendly smile.

Officially representing the West African country in Tokyo since 2011, Rufin has a unique background — he used to be a TV “talent” who gained popularity on variety shows here about a decade ago.

He was one of the leading stars on “Koko ga Hendayo Nihonjin” (“This is What’s Strange About Japanese People”) hosted by comedian-turned-film director Takeshi Kitano.

“I owe a lot to ‘Beat’ Takeshi, because I became well-known in Japan thanks to him,” Rufin said during an interview in his embassy office.

Rufin recalls the day he was scouted by a TBS producer to appear on TV — when he was eating at a ramen shop in Tokyo.

“I was offered the fantastic pay of ¥12,000 per show, so I immediately replied, ‘That’s awesome! I’ll take it, I’ll take it!’ In those days, I was working for ¥450 per hour, so it sounded like such a blessing.”

Rufin was one of about 100 foreigners to appear on the program, in which foreign residents voiced their displeasure about various aspects of Japanese society. With his loud voice and unique gestures, he was one of the most popular people on the program until it ran its course in 2002.

Rufin went on to appear on several other programs, including the long-running daily variety show “Waratte Iitomo” (“It’s OK to Laugh”) hosted by comedian Tamori. In 2007, Beat Takeshi gave him a stage name, “Sonomanma Higashi II,” after Hideo Higashikokubaru, the popular TV entertainer known as Sonomanma Higashi who was elected governor of Miyazaki Prefecture.

In addition to his TV appearances, he published books in Japanese — “Zomahoun no Hon” (“Zomahoun’s Book”) in 1999 and the sequel “Zomahoun Oi ni Naku” (“Zomahoun Cries a Lot”) in 2000. The first book became a best-seller, moving 270,000 copies.

He has used the royalties from the books to build four schools in Benin over the past decade.

When Rufin was appointed to be an envoy to Japan, some media — including outlets in his home country and abroad — called him a “Japanese-made ambassador” who was given the position only because of his Japan connections and despite the lack of any diplomatic experience. He says this doesn’t bother him in the least.

Rufin’s parents were a local government employee and a farmer in Dassa-Zoume, Dahomey (Benin’s name until 1975). He went through financial hardships during his school days due to the early loss of his father, all the way until he graduated from the National University of Benin. He then earned a four-year government scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in educational ideology at Beijing Language and Culture University.

Many Japanese students were studying at the university, and when he decided to move to Tokyo, the father of one of his Japanese friends was kind enough to become his guarantor in Japan.

Rufin arrived in Tokyo in 1994 to study Japanese at a language school in Edogawa Ward. After studying Japanese for two years, he entered Sophia University and later was accepted into a doctorate course, with a major in sociology.

He took on three part-time jobs to cover his academic and living expenses. But in an accident at a factory where he was working, Rufin lost part of his left index finger. “I didn’t sleep much back then, and was always tired. But I enjoyed studying. Studying has always been a joy for me,” he recalled.

During his studies at Sophia University, Rufin wrote a thesis comparing elementary school education in Benin, China and Japan. But he has yet to obtain his doctorate — with his studies interrupted by years of work to build schools in Benin — and is currently writing another thesis on labor-related problems in developing countries, especially in Benin.

“Education in Benin is lagging far behind (Japan and China),” he said. Benin, under the colonial rule of France from 1894 to 1960, uses French as its official language. But more than 70 percent of Beninese can’t speak or read French because a lot of children are unable to finish elementary school.

With his experience studying and living in Japan, Rufin credits the high quality of education here as a prime reason behind the nation’s development into one of the world’s top economies.

In building the schools back home, Rufin chose areas where such institutions have been scarce. He gave all of the schools Japanese nicknames — Edo Elementary School, Meiji Elementary School and Takeshi Elementary School. That third one was named after Takeshi Kitano. He also built a Japanese-language school there.

In 2002, he was awarded the People’s Honor Award by the Beninese government for his efforts to strengthen his country’s ties with Japan. He also served twice, in 2004 and 2006, as a special advisor on Asian issues to Beninese President Yayi Boni.

After he took up his diplomatic position in December 2011, Rufin has lived in the ambassador’s official residence with his newlywed wife. However, he continues to pay the rent for an apartment in Nakano Ward that he has had for 20 years.

“My heart doesn’t feel calm without having my belongings in that apartment,” he said, adding that he still rides his old bicycle and uses sento (public baths) — a habit he acquired while living in an apartment without a shower or bath.

“I love sento, because the atmosphere there is great, and you can feel the people-to-people ties,” he said, adding, “I don’t feel any energy if I don’t eat miso ramen every day.

“I’m just an ordinary person who comes from a poor background. I just work hard to earn money in Japan, so that I can use it for people who are poorer than I am. I want them to get an education,” he said.

Rufin has sent stationery and medical equipment to his home country for years.

“I want to live both for Benin and Japan. I love my country, but I also love Japan. Without Japan, the world is not beautiful at all,” he said. “In Japan, there’s wisdom — the wisdom not to have any wars. Japanese culture is harmonious and humanistic. Japanese can think about others before him/herself, and are reliable people.”