Winning smile

Ever the diplomat, Ousmane Sankhon


Think back to 1984, before the Japanese government had recruited armies of foreign-born English instructors to internationalize the countryside and when gaijin commentators on television were all but unheard of.

At that time of cultural homogeneity it raised eyebrows when a certain dark-skinned African man started appearing on the air — not in some overseas news dispatch but right there in a Japanese studio, in the company of well-known Japanese entertainers. He wore exotic robes, and — to the great surprise of viewers — spoke excellent Japanese.

The man was Ousmane Sankhon from the Republic of Guinea, and before long he was showing up on television pretty regularly. From his first broadcast, his quick wit and charming gap-toothed smile helped endear him to the public. Today, some 1,000 television shows, a dozen commercials and three movies later, his face has become among the most recognizable in the country.

The role of the foreign tarento, or television entertainer, is to provide another set of eyes through which the Japanese can view themselves. Sankhon performed the task with aplomb: Rather than bristle when someone on a Japanese talk show let slip a racial slur, he would seize the opportunity to comment on cultural diversity.

And in a climate where “foreign” generally meant either “American” or “white,” his determination to present his native Africa to Japan broadened his host country’s understanding of the world beyond its shores.

Though he is best known as a darling of the media, television was always something of a sideline for Sankhon. He came to Japan in December 1972, at the age of 23, to serve as a diplomat at his country’s embassy in Tokyo, a position he held for eight years. (He also did a stint in Washington, D.C.)

Sankhon has now shifted his energies to the social activities that he says were always close to his heart. When he isn’t conducting cross-cultural seminars in far-flung regions of Japan, he’s in Tokyo volunteering for UNICEF or managing his company, Sankhon Systems Bureau, a nonprofit organization that coordinates his cultural and philanthropic activities. He also spends time caring for the handicapped and elderly.

Sankhon is the fourth son among the 22 children produced by his father’s three wives. He himself has a teenage son from his first marriage, to a Japanese, and a newborn boy with his current wife from Guinea. (He calls her his “big African queen.”) His hobbies are singing enka ballads at karaoke joints and eating out.

Speaking in a baritone mixture of English, Japanese and French, the celebrity-turned-activist candidly described to The Japan Times the vicissitudes of fame in Japan and the cultural similarities between his homeland and his adopted country.

He also shared an aspect of his life unfamiliar even to his many fans. Sankhon’s right ankle became deformed in his youth after a hospital mishandled his soccer injury. This has shaped his approach to life ever since.

How did you originally get into television?

Part of my job at the embassy was to arrange PR for Guinea, informing the Japanese about my country. That was a very hard job. People are not interested in every tiny country in Africa. Many even think that Africa itself is one big country!

One day a friend — just as a joke — said, “You speak good Japanese. Why not go on [variety show] ‘Waratte ii to mo’?” I somehow managed to get myself on the show and clowned around with people like [television entertainers] Tamori, Kataoka Tsurutaro and Sanma-san. And when I talked, people laughed!

The director said, “You’re interesting. Please come back.” At first I came twice a month. After that, every week. I did that particular show for 3 1/2 years, together with Kent Derricott and Dave Spector. I became famous.

But why do you think were you such a hit?

I always try to come up with things Japanese would otherwise never hear about. [The producers] know that if they let me talk, I’ll say something thought-provoking.

On “Waratte ii to mo’,” I talked about my culture, the similarities with Japan — always educational things for children or about the environment. Always fun, but always interesting.

You seem content with your presence in Japan. Have you ever experienced overt racism here?

Many times. For example, we were making a television show at 3 a.m. I was asked to wear a long black robe and posted inside a cemetery. A camera crew came to find me. They passed by and made a big deal of saying they couldn’t see me in the dark.

When I moved around a bit, they said, “Oh, we saw him! But all we could see were his eyes and teeth.” I was told the American press was very angry about this, asking how could this program go on the air?

What is the most bizarre thing you’ve gone through on TV?

They asked me on TV whether black people tan. I said, yes, of course; we have beaches in Africa too! Then they asked me whether black people use suntan lotion. I said yes, how come? But all they said was let’s go see how it works on you.

So we went to a tanning salon in Meguro [in Tokyo]. I undressed down to a pair of briefs and they placed heart-shaped adhesive patches here and there on my body. I spent an hour under the light.

Afterward, they removed the patches and could see that I’d tanned. This aired live. They said, “Oh, blacks do tan.”

How did you feel about these episodes, personally?

To be honest, I think such things are stupid. People laugh, but in my heart I laugh back at them.

What was life like when you first arrived?

Some Japanese still thought blacks ate humans and lived with lions. I told them that I saw my first lion in Japan. I visited a zoo, took a picture and sent it home. Giraffes, too.

But I also knew nothing about these people! Before coming to Japan I thought Japanese were all samurai. My knowledge of this place was basically that they were famous for their role in World War II and that they were militaristic. My impression was very bad and quite vague.

When we landed in Haneda — it wasn’t Narita back then — I was surprised to see buildings. I had thought it was part of the third world.

What is the secret to learning Japanese?

Not feeling shame. When I first appeared on talk shows, everybody laughed at me whenever I made a linguistic mistake. What can you do? Japanese isn’t my native tongue.

I got the hang of it little by little, and whenever they laughed at me, I just brushed it off. Many Japanese in that situation, however, would simply clam up.

Tell us about your family.

My father’s father was from Forecariah, the frontier between Guinea and Sierra Leone. He was of a very big tribe and was a great warrior. I don’t talk much about it because nowadays all Guineans are the same and there’s no real need to bring it up.

My father died when I was 14. He worked as a prefectural official in the city of Bouffa. He spoke French, English, Creole, Spanish, Portuguese, German. All white people had to go through my father. In Guinea we have 16 local languages, and my father spoke all of them.

My mother is now 92 years old. Her father was a very great teacher of Arabic, a religious teacher, a teacher of imams.

How about you? Are you a religious man?

Well, I’m 50-50. I’m a Muslim, but my religious feelings come primarily from the heart. The most important thing is to have a pure spirit, to cherish life, to help handicapped people or old people, to protect nature as much as possible.

When it comes to the taking of life in the name of Allah, I am completely against that. The most important thing in this world is to protect the life that God has given us.

Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day. My mother always told me, “God made you the famous man you are today, and so did your ancestors. So don’t forget your God. In your house, before drinking alcohol, make ablution and pray.” So, I do this as often as I can.

You’re famous for your big smile, but is there a Sankhon who feels sadness or anger?

Yes. I have many [such emotions]. You see, I have a big family in Guinea of almost 100 people — cousins, aunts, nephews. There are always problems and I have to call home every day.

Also, my right leg is not good. People don’t know that I’m handicapped. Sometimes I’m in great pain. But this is my own problem. People are not watching TV to hear about my sorrows. Everybody has their own sorrow, but we must keep it inside and fight it. That is life.

My policy is to make myself happy every time I go on TV. I try to reduce my stress. When I’m scheduled for a taping session, for one or two days beforehand I avoid all quarrels. Because, you see, I’m very open. If I’ve got something on my mind, you’ll see it on my face. That’s why when there’s a predicament at the office, my staff hides it from me until the shoot is over.

Did you feel bitterness about the accident that caused your disability?

I had a big dream of becoming a soccer player, like Pele, or [Just] Fontaine of France, or [Germany’s Franz] Beckenbauer. It was my dream to be like them.

My mother was angriest, but people told her, “Just trust in God. Even though his soccer dream is gone, you don’t know who he will become.”

I, too, was angry. But I’ve realized that one must be happy with the now. Maybe if I’d become a soccer player, I would have made a lot of money and not have worked or studied very hard. But after I suffered the accident, I took all my power to the desk, in the classroom. I never abandoned my sense of discipline.

Even now, past the age of 50, I like to study. I try to know more than my colleagues or my elder brothers.

After more than three decades in Japan, what cultural similarities have you noticed?

[In Guinea] when you pour drinks for senior people, you have to use both hands. And you never stand. You never look down upon them.

When you go to somebody’s house, you always take off your shoes. That is also the same as Japan. The entryway to the house is very important. Whenever you visit some exalted person’s house, you must get down on your knees and put both hands on the floor as if you were praying. So every time I see a samurai movie on TV, I say, “Hey, that’s the same as Africa!”

How about in the area of food?

We both have cultures of rice. In the morning before going to school, in the daytime, in the evening we eat rice. We eat more of it than the Japanese!

Parents [in Guinea] are strict about rice. If you drop a single grain, you have to pick it up because rice is very important. Children don’t know how that grain came to the plate, so they are made to learn.

The Japanese also believe that every grain has a life that must be respected.

As a former diplomat, how do you view Japan’s enormous aid to developing nations?

I oppose “binding aid.” This refers to when Japan grants ODA [official development aid] and then says, “You have to hire Japanese companies. You have to buy Japanese things.” I don’t appreciate that.

The process should be open to more than Japanese companies. There are companies internationally that have good knowhow and which can provide labor cheaper than Japan.

Japan complains about the bad economy, but other countries have it worse. Japan must still share its money with developing countries, because there are people dying from hunger and AIDS. People here cannot conceive of the human suffering that exists.

When Japan grants ODA, it must consider governance. Don’t just hand money over; think about how it will be managed. Some countries’ presidents use Japanese ODA to buy weapons. That money is for the people.

How do Japanese NGOs compare with those from the United States or Europe?

I think European and American-run NGOs are more effective because they can talk directly to local people and know their feelings. Ironically, that is because of the history of colonization.

What are your plans for the future?

We have created a fund to build schools in Guinea. Every year, I want to build one school. I want to do many things to improve education for my country’s children, to improve my country’s future.

I’ve been in Japan so long that I have to leave something behind me. I can’t just come here and go on TV and be famous. I have to give something to Guinea. Back home they have to say, “He did something for his country.” The best way is to give some children a good education.

I’ve lived in Japan longer than in my home country, so this has become my home.

But we have a saying in Guinea: “No matter how long you leave a tree in water, it will never become an alligator.” In other words, no matter how long I live in Japan, I’ll always maintain my culture and customs. This is who I am.