An Interview with Oussouby Sacko about Diverse Leaders in Japanese Education

Page No.: 
Benjamin Thanyawatpokin, Ritsumeikan University

Welcome to TLT Interviews and our first featured interview of 2021! For this installment, Benjamin Thanyawatpokin had the chance to interview Dr. Oussouby Sacko at the JALT2019 International Conference after Dr. Sacko’s plenary speech. Dr. Sacko is a professor in the Department of Liberal Arts, Faculty of Humanities at Kyoto Seika University. He was Dean of Faculty from April 2013 to March 2017. He has been the President of the university since 2018. He received his doctoral degree in the field of Architecture and Architecture Planning from the Graduate School of Engineering at Kyoto University. His research has involved extensive research into policy, housing planning, and design in Mali and Japan. His recent work has included community architecture, community re-design, and architecture conservation. Benjamin Thanyawatpokin is currently an English language teacher at Ritsumeikan University. He mainly does research in the area of Game-Based Language Teaching and CALL. His latest projects have been about improving and clarifying the role of the teacher in the game-based language teaching classroom. He has also done projects which relate to language learner identity, plurilingualism, and modifying conversational activities for use in CALL classrooms. So without further ado, to the interview!

Benjamin Thanyawatpokin: Do you think the things you learned in China doing your undergraduate there helped prepare you for doing your master’s and PhD in Japan?

Oussouby Sacko: When we were in Nanjing or Beijing, we had a lot of foreigners from different backgrounds. We had a lot of time to have discussions and debates. We had regular discussions on the global situation and a lot of other kinds of things. So, I think that really helped me as a foreigner—to have a kind of introduction to how to deal with different situations, because, when you come to Japan, you feel more alone. In Nanjing, it felt like we were in a community (of foreigners). When I came to Japan, it was a kind of shock. The first shock was that I was too alone. You try to catch up with people or other foreigners, but they are so busy. They are working so much. So, that was one of the problems I experienced when I was in Japan in the beginning.

Do you think this sense of a “foreigner community” helped you with ideas on how to make your mark in Japan?

Yeah, of course. This was one of the things I tried to focus on. My part in the project I am working on now was something I learned in Nanjing. We really tried to get people together; to get them to talk and discuss things. And naturally that discussion can help us. You know, to come up with solutions to issues and so on. You know, when you have this discussion you have a kind of “new entity” which can support foreigners (in Japan). I learned this when I was in China—how to support each other. When I came to Japan not many people were organized and maybe that’s what they wanted. I don’t know. Some people were struggling but when we started to get together, we could share information and share the way of doing things.

When you were doing your master’s or PhD in architecture at Kyoto University, you made a Nonprofit Organization (NPO). It was called, I think, “Tobiuo?”

Yeah, “Tobiuo.”

Do you think it was possible to set up this NPO because you were a foreigner in Japan? Did they want more ideas from foreigners? Or was it a struggle to get that started?

Okay, so that was originally impossible because I was a foreigner. But I took it as a challenge. It was difficult at first, but I wanted to try to challenge the system to help students then. At that time, there were a lot of volunteer groups. They were helping us (foreign exchange students), but they would come and set up an event and take pictures with us. Then, that was it. I remember they invited me for a conference in a school far away; maybe the countryside of Toyama or so. For 20 years, they were gathering food, furoshiki, and little toys and gadgets to send to Mali because they said there were kids and people who were starving there. They had pictures of starving children and poor people. I didn’t even know where these pictures were coming from. I wanted to show them what Mali was really like. I asked them why, for 20 years, they didn’t go and see how the goods they send are used. So, I went out and found pictures of people in my country going out, going dancing, having a good time and living life. Some people were crying when they saw those pictures because for 20 years they had this image of Mali. That’s the thing; I wanted to make a group to support people and share information. Not based on what they think we need, but on real information that is shared among everyone.

When you first started teaching at Kyoto Seika, did you feel that there was an unspoken expectation that you would be a cultural ambassador plus a teacher of architecture?

When I got there, there were professors who did not speak other languages, who did not want to integrate within their own “frames,” so when I came, I broke that kind of framework. They were surprised on both sides (Japanese and foreigner staff). My frank speaking style shocked Japanese people. The foreign teachers that were there at the time did not want to push for any changes. They were just observing. So, I was the one who was making new ideas. But there was another group (of professors) there at the time who wanted me to help change the university. They thought I could be the future of the school. I didn’t know that, but the fact that from the first year they put me in many different committees and departments but just as an observer showed they wanted me to learn and help change the school. Later, they put me in more managing positions and heading departments. For example, I was managing an exchange program and our students would go to America. However, this was during the time of 9/11. They wanted to cancel the exchange program, but it was my idea to postpone and not cancel it. You know, chu-dan not chu-shi. Many parents were worried about their kids, but I gathered about 14 students, and we talked about it. They were very happy with postponing and not canceling the trip. I communicated with my students and listened to their ideas. Even though I was a young teacher, I was able to inspire the president and show him I was able to represent the school. This was only a few months after I joined the school. I was very new in the school.

So was it this willingness of yours to integrate, learn how the Japanese side works, and “break the frames” that allowed you to climb the ladder?

Yes. People want to communicate. I just help them do it.

At university, there is an expectation for language teachers to also be cultural ambassadors. I’m an American teacher, but at the same time I’m constantly being asked to talk about what life was like in America. I have to teach the English language, but there is also a large cultural component to my job. Do you think that this is asking too much of teachers or do you think that it’s simply part of the job of teaching in Japan?

Okay, that’s not only Japan because when I got a scholarship to China, that’s what the government told us in the beginning. They said, “Each of you is an ambassador of your country. They will see your country through you and how you act.” Even if you are not teaching, you are in media. So, I had an idea about trying to facilitate teaching and learning about many things in Africa. During an interview I had in Japan, I remember telling them that “I learned to be more Malian in Japan.” They asked me some questions about my country that I never thought about. Every time I go back home, I have to find more information and material to show where I’m from when I come back to Japan. That’s what is unique about Japan, or even Asian countries. You feel more like where you are from. Wherever you come from, you feel that you have to explain that more. They always remind you that you come from somewhere else. The first question in Japan is always, “Oh, we do it this way in Japan. How about in your country?” That question makes you feel where you are from more. It’s not a negative thing. I think they want you to be a part of your culture. Also, that’s also a way to protect their own (Japanese) culture as well. I don’t think it is a negative thing. It’s a way for everyone to know their positions. If you try to be too Japanese, they don’t like that. So, you have to bring something to them and their work. I feel that my role to play is that I must understand you (people who I work with). We are different, but I must understand them.

Do you think that understanding that is now more important that you’re the president of Kyoto Seika University?

Yeah, it is very important to remind them too that I am different.

So, you remind the Japanese side that you are different and that you will fundamentally look at issues in a different way?

Yes, of course. For example, they are taking some things too seriously. I try to tell them to take it easy and relax. They always ask me how I can be so calm in front of certain situations. For example, with the exchange program I mentioned earlier. Also, with some changes in curriculum and foreign students in the university as well. Trying to come to the table with a different perspective but also let them know you are trying to help is very important.

Going back to English teachers, through casual observation and asking my students, I would estimate that around 60 or 70 percent probably won’t use English after they graduate from university. Knowing this estimate, what do you think is the main role of language teachers who are in Japan: to teach language ability or to teach cultural awareness and appreciation for other cultures?

For me, language is a different structure. It’s not about the grammar or the vocabulary. It helps you to be out of your mindset culturally or similar things. To know other structures and context is important. The goal is to help the students see many things from different angles. Sure, I think language should be a goal of language teaching. There are some who are willing to speak fluently, and we should help them. But the main goal is not about speaking English; it’s about seeing things from different angles. For most students, it is about seeing different contexts. If you see the Japanese way of setting and doing English teaching, it is different from the native way. But it’s their way of approaching and understanding different structures and contexts. Understanding a different language helps students understand different ways of solving problems. It’s interesting because you see Japanese teachers who don’t speak English but are teaching it. There are many books that help them teach. I don’t know if they do a good job or not, but it’s their way of training different mindsets and different approaches.

So, getting closer to the end now, going back to diversity and Japanese and non-Japanese staff interaction, you talked a lot about how you try to promote communication between the two sides. Could you maybe explain a few methods that Kyoto Seika is doing to improve communication between the two sides?

When I was the head of curriculum committee, we set up an informal lunch meeting with the English teachers and foreign staff. I think it worked; however, I also think Japanese teachers are sometimes afraid of native teachers. They know very well the structure of the grammar and the vocabulary, but they don’t use the practical side of things sometimes. I saw that sometimes the Japanese side would not want to talk to the native side because they would see the native teachers talking and having a good time, but they don’t want to confront them. Maybe because they don’t have a good accent, or maybe because they don’t have a good vocabulary skill. So, I helped facilitate them to talk at these informal lunches.

So you have formal meetings where people talk?

No, no, no, informal. Informal is better. If it was a formal meeting people would force themselves to come. At informal meetings where people can talk and go, most people would interact more freely. But I have seen that the people who don’t collaborate with that the most are the Japanese English teachers. Sometimes that side thinks the native side don’t do their classes properly. However, I also see that the students like that. Many students want to have more informal teachers. Some teachers might believe that students think native teachers will be less strict than Japanese teachers. You know, “I want to get the credit easily,” but that’s not the case. They think the native teachers are cool or entertaining, but that’s not the point. It’s to have a person who gives a different point of view to the students. You can’t do that while you are so tense and frustrated.

Do you think the Kyoto Seika University schools of architecture, design, or manga are more open to integrating with non-Japanese teachers?

It depends. We have a lot of professionals in our school. They are doing their own designs and their own projects. Sometimes it happens that they have many international projects. So, some do very well on that. However, other professors also say, “I am domestic.” They say that. However, I try to push them to meet with other people. If you go there and talk to those teachers, you will learn about them and they will communicate with you. They are nice people and they will work with you, but they maybe don’t try to communicate outside enough. Right now, many things are changing, and I think they need to integrate. They have to integrate and work with foreigners, but they have a few reservations. They should accept the change.

You took office in 2018, and it is 2019 now. Do you think that this integration is getting better?

Yeah, I have many informal and formal meetings. If I talk for two hours in different meetings, I will usually get about four or five questions. Sometimes I will get more. They are also usually personal questions and very insightful. I’ve also noticed that they are not against ideas of integration and working with foreigners. They are just afraid of changing. I distribute paper to the people at the meetings and tell them to write me questions whenever they have one. So, I try to keep communication open with them.

It goes back to what you said in the New York Times that Japanese people “have something to protect”?

Yeah, that’s why it is difficult to get questions from them sometimes. But I think the transition is going well lately. We are slowly changing and working together better. Of course, there are some who are more resisting the change, but with time, discussion and more change, they should follow the group. Sometimes I hear that some people may be against some ideas, so I try to talk to them and hear their opinions.

At Kyoto Seika University, 20% of the students are from foreign countries. Have you seen that number going up during your time in office? Or is it going down?

We open all the exams to foreigners. The school rate last year was 20%. But actually, this year, it is 30%. If I look at the exam ratios up until now, we had 90 who applied to the graduate school last year. This year we had about 270 that applied. Out of 270, maybe 210 or so were foreigners. That’s the point. Maybe this is a kind of message to other countries so people can be more welcome in coming to our school. I think this change should come naturally. Some people say we should make campaigns, but I think it should just come naturally through changes in the student body. People come and try to take exams and it promotes diversity.

You think that this is improving diversity?

Yeah, we have students from several different countries like China, Canada, Finland, and many areas of the world. More importantly, each student individually is very diverse. They all have many experiences. This could help Japanese people. Maybe in 10 years, things are going to get more globalized and we are helping our students change for the better. But, on the other side, some teachers gave me information that now some high schools are scared to send their students to us because we have foreigners.

Really? How?

Yeah, so this is one of the problems. Those same high schools are making programs connecting abroad. But they don’t want to send them to us because we have foreigners. I thought we should use our diverse students as a kind of PR for our school, but some other people also told me that we shouldn’t.

All right, that’s it! Thank you so much.

No problem, thank you.