Oussouby Sacko

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Oussouby Sacko

    Main guest

    Oussouby Sacko is a native of Mali, a country in West Africa. After studying abroad in China, he decided to move to Kyoto in 1991 to further his studies, instead of returning home to Mali where there was some political unrest. In April 2018, Sacko was appointed president of Kyoto Seika University. Because the appointing of foreigners to the position of university president is unusual in Japan, the move generated global attention. In addition to putting his plan for innovating the university into action, Sacko also serves as a member of experts’ councils that advise the Kyoto Prefectural Government and Japan’s national government. He gives lectures at the request of several educational institutions as well.

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March 19, 2019

Japanophiles: Oussouby Sacko

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Moving to a foreign country, learning the language, and becoming a member of society is a major accomplishment in and of itself. But becoming the president of a university in your adopted country? That’s a rare feat indeed. On this Japanophiles edition of Japanology Plus, we meet a man who’s done just that: Oussouby Sacko, from Mali, the current president of Kyoto Seika University. We learn about Sacko’s origins, how he found himself in Japan, and the ways he’s trying to connect Japanese students with the world.

Oussouby Sacko was born in the Republic of Mali in 1967, seven years after the country had become independent from France. An academically-gifted student, he received a scholarship to study in China in 1985. China was a very different place then than it is now. As Sacko related in a 2017 interview, when he first arrived in Beijing, he was surprised at how small it was!

Based in China, Sacko had the opportunity to visit Japan, a land of state-of-the-art electronics and a supersized Tokyo. But what impressed Sacko more was what he calls “the human scale” of friendly Japanese men and women. These human-scale encounters encouraged him to make Japan his next destination after his studies in China.

Arriving in Japan in 1991, Sacko began studying at Kyoto University. Kyoto, as host Peter Barakan mentions, is a proud former imperial capital with centuries of culture and tradition, and is not always thought of as open to outsiders.

As Sacko notes, however, Kyoto may actually be more welcoming to the foreign visitor than the Japanese one. These days, Kyoto is one of the top destinations for the ever-increasing number of visitors to Japan, and the vast majority leave the city happy they came. Kyotoites may seem aloof to some Japanese from other places, but it may be thanks to their conservative attitude that the city’s storied traditions, now so beloved by tourists, have been kept alive.

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Sacko and Barakan share thoughts on Kyoto’s unique culture.

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Sacko gives frequent talks at educational institutions throughout the Kyoto area.

During his conversation with host Peter Barakan, Sacko says that compared to a decade ago, fewer students at his university are interested in studying abroad. This appears to be a nationwide trend. The peak number of Japanese students studying at universities abroad, 82,945, was hit in 2004, and by 2014 it had dropped 36 percent. These days, as Sacko mentions, if students are going abroad, it’s more often on short programs lasting perhaps a month or less.

Why? Partly, these numbers are a reflection of Japan’s changing demographics—there are simply fewer young people than in 2004. But studies have also pointed to other obstacles. For one, job hunting in Japan begins in a university student’s third year and continues into the fourth—the two years also considered most suitable for international study. As a result, students studying abroad for six months or a year risk falling behind their peers in landing a job right out of school.

Another oft-cited factor: while Japanese students spend years drilling grammar, vocabulary and other building blocks of English and other languages, they may not have much practical experience using those languages. This, in turn, may make them nervous about making the leap abroad. At Kyoto Seika’s international space, students from Japan and abroad can mingle in a casual setting—one way Japanese students can get more practical experience using another language before studying internationally.

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Kyoto Seika’s international space, set up by Sacko.

Sacko’s international ambitions run the other way, too: he hopes to raise the percentage of foreign students studying at his university from 20 percent to 40 percent within a decade. As Japan's population continues to decrease, many universities are struggling to maintain their enrollment numbers—Sacko’s reach for students from outside the country may point the way forward.

But won’t those students have trouble communicating and fitting in? Maybe so, says Sacko.

“But that’s the point,” he argues. “We are all different. Let’s accept each other. And then let’s make that the force of this university.”

From a man who’s traveled from Mali to China to Japan, becoming a university professor along the way, those words carry a lot of power.

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Sacko sees the power in connecting Japan and the world at large.

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