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Vow to ‘compete at the Japanese level’ pays off for Oussouby Sacko, Kyoto Seika’s next head

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Contributing Writer

The first part of Oussouby Sacko’s story, which was printed in Thursday’s newspaper, can be found at bit.ly/jtsacko1.

Upon graduating from high school in his native Mali, Oussouby Sacko received a scholarship to study architecture in China. He would spend the next six years acquiring his undergraduate degree in architecture, mastering Mandarin and trying to stay out of the crosshairs of angry Chinese racists intent on causing Africans serious harm.

During this tumultuous period, he had come to a decision about the area of architecture that interested him — a decision that would bring him to Japan, yet another country where he’d have to find his way, unable to communicate and ignorant of the culture.

Sacko would spend the next nine years (1991-2000) conquering the Japanese language and earning both a master’s and doctorate in engineering/architecture from the prestigious Kyoto University. He joined the staff at Kyoto Seika University in 2001 as a professor assigned to the faculty of humanities where, in addition to architecture, he taught numerous subjects, including field survey methodology and urban design.

By 2013 he had risen through the ranks to become dean of faculty. The internal politics he had to navigate to do so were considerable, especially so as a non-Japanese, but he had a set of ironclad principles, forged in China and honed in Japan, that have borne him throughout. The first and most essential of these was “to compete at the Japanese level.”

“I didn’t have equal opportunity,” he says. “But I forced myself to block that out. Even as a student at Kyoto University, my classmates were not only Africans but Chinese and Koreans. And they all seemed to keep a distance from the Japanese.

“Japanese would see this and think of them as ‘other.’ I was determined not to be thought of as that kind of foreigner. So, I only communicated in Japanese, did all my laboratory research in Japanese, and gave lectures and reports only in Japanese.”

Also, Sacko established himself, as he’d done in China, as a bridge between Japan and the outside world.

“I had Japanese classmates who’d say ‘I don’t want to go abroad, because there’s nothing I can learn from them. Everyone is coming here to learn from us.’ But I was a research leader in my laboratory, and I used my leadership role to open the Japanese eyes to the outside world. I arranged trips to other Asian countries, to places like Vietnam, where they’d see people struggling, working hard, trying to develop — things they’d never get to see inside a laboratory. That shocked a lot of my classmates, and people began to say, ‘If you travel abroad with Oussouby, you will learn a lot!’

“I even took them to Mali, including my professor,” Sacko explains. “And by the time we got back they’d learned something important: that it’s not about whether the country is developed or underdeveloped, it’s about a human experience, about what you can learn and feel from other human beings. This is something that Japanese society tends to forget, and it can only be taught if they venture outside of Japan.”

Eventually these efforts at broadening perspectives and de-otherization began to pay off.

“I soon noticed that I was not treated as that foreigner any longer, they were treating me as one of them,” he says, laughing. “Sometimes they’d be talking to me, reminiscing about TV shows when we were kids, or criticizing other foreigners, and totally forget I’m not Japanese.”

As a member of the staff at Kyoto Seika, and an individual capable of interacting fluently with Japanese and effectively with foreigners, Sacko began to establish himself as someone his colleagues could look to for outside knowledge and depend on to act as an intermediary or ambassador when dealing with foreign staff, students and visitors. Having fluency in Japanese, Chinese, French, English and several African languages only enhanced this status. As a result, he found himself being assigned to various committees, including the highly influential curriculum committee.

“My first year there they assigned me to the curriculum committee, and also as director of Kyoto Seika’s program in the United States,” Sacko recalls. “I was in the States with students when 9/11 occurred! When it happened, the Japanese parents were of course panicking. Every single minute they could see the explosions and the buildings falling down on Japanese TV.

“But we were in Ohio, which is pretty far away, but still the parents were calling and crying and demanding I bring their kids back. So, I had to calm them down, and the fact that I didn’t lose my head, and reassured them, during that situation informed them that maybe they can trust this guy in some tough situations. Not all situations, but some.”

What some foreign residents here in Japan might perceive as objectification, or at best an imposition, Sacko embraced, thereby establishing himself as indispensable.

Japanese colleagues, he says with a smile, “would tell me my approach is very Japanese — but at the same time stronger and more direct. The things they didn’t want to say, I’d say. What they didn’t want to do, I’d do! So they pushed me in front a lot. Especially when it came to dealing with other foreigners.

“Like when there’s a problem with the English teachers, for example. Sometimes we have to tell them their job is finished, but the Japanese, they can’t talk to them. They would take 10 years deciding what to do.”

“So,” he says, “they’ll send me. My foreign colleagues would tell me, ‘Sacko, they’re using you! That’s not your job!’ But I tell them, ‘No, this is my job, ’cause I’m the chief of the curriculum committee. I am the one who’s supposed to tell you.'”

Friends who had chosen a different route to success in Japan that had worked out for them would often give him advice they thought was in his best interests.

“They’d tell me, ‘Hey Sacko, you should take it easy, man. Japanese people, the only reason they put you on committees is because you can speak their language. Man, I’ve been here 25 years, don’t speak the language at all and I’m doing very well.’

“But my goal was not to have some big achievement or position here in Japan. I’m always going home next year; I’ve been ‘leaving next year’ since I got here. My goal is to learn things that will serve me in my future life, whatever I do, and wherever I go. I don’t see Japan as my last destination.”

Soon, Sacko began putting together a task force made up of colleagues with a vested interest in the university’s future, and as his power grew he was able to place members of this team on the curriculum committee as well. And together they began the task of designing a course of study best suited to Japan’s changing needs, as the country diversifies and totters towards multiculturalism.

By the time he was appointed dean of faculty, Sacko had positioned himself for a posting in the upper echelon. So, when the opportunity to run the entire school presented itself, Sacko was equal to the task.

And what a task it was: To become a candidate, you had to be recommended by at least 10 members of the faculty or administrative staff. Before the recommendations could be made, much like a political election, a debate had to be held — in Japanese, of course — in front of all staff members.

Then, once recommendations had been made, a second debate before the entire student body took place. Subjects up for debate included the candidates’ vision for the future of the university, and how they would implement their ideas. The other two candidates, both Japanese, were a professor of a higher rank within the school administration and a gentleman who’d been working at the university for many years.

“They had actually asked for a third debate,” says Sacko, “but I refused. My participation in the debates was optional, but I was ready.”

A bit of negative campaigning had gone on, but Sacko couldn’t confirm who initiated it and what exactly was said. What he does know is that the campaigning was fierce and, in the end, he won the election by the narrowest of margins.

“All of this just serves to reassure me that I was not elected because I’m black or Malian,” says Sacko. “I was elected because I could compete with these gentlemen on their level, and because my ideas were better, and because I could bring change.”

President-elect Oussouby Sacko will assume his new office in the spring. He lives in Kyoto with his wife of 23 years and two sons.

Black Eye appears in print on the second Monday Community page of the month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com.

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