[From November Issue 2013]
Ousmane Youla SANKHON
“Forty years have passed since I arrived in Japan. I’ve been to all 47 prefectures. Japanese people praise me saying, ‘You know Japan better than I,’” says Ousmane Youla SANKHON in fluent Japanese. He became famous appearing in variety shows and in commercials on TV. Nowadays he is busy travelling all over Japan for events and lectures.
Sankhon was born in 1949 in the state of Bofa, Guinea. Watching planes fly overhead, as a young boy he dreamed of becoming a pilot. In those days, most children in Guinea didn’t go on to higher education. Sankhon, however, went on to study in the capital at the University of Conakry at the suggestion of his parents who attached great importance to education. Coming top in an exam taken by some 10,000 people, he won a state-sponsored scholarship to study in France.
After studying economic politics at the Paris-Sorbonne University, Sankhon returned to Guinea to become a diplomat. He was then ordered to “go to Japan.” Sankhon’s studies had focused on Europe and he had no knowledge whatsoever of Asia nor Japan. “I saw Burma and Vietnam in transit and got worried thinking, ‘These countries are less developed than Guinea. Japan is even further away. Just how backward can it be?’” Sankhon says, laughing.
However, what waited for Sankhon in Japan was streets lined with skyscrapers and roads thronged with cars. “I was stunned when the car I was in got on a highway. The car was rushing along at the same height as the third floor of a building,” says Sankhon. “In Marunouchi, even in the middle of the night, there were always some lighted windows. I understood that Japan was a success because Japanese are such hard workers.”
Sankhon was in a hurry to study Japanese in order to perform his duties as a diplomat. “I decided I didn’t have enough time to learn kanji, as I was to be transferred to another country in a few years. So, using the Roman alphabet, I listened to everything very carefully, pronouncing it exactly as I had heard it.” Also, by writing down words he’d been taught, he made his own dictionary and memorized two words each day.
He was later transferred to the US before returning to Guinea. But before his first son was born, he took a leave of absence from the Foreign Service to come back to Japan. “At 64, I’m still on my leave of absence,” says Sankhon, laughing.
Because even though he had intended to stay for just a short while until his son was born, he became popular on TV. “I didn’t know that it was an audition,” says Sankhon. He was told by someone from the Japan-Guinea Friendship Association to go to a TV station to do some PR for Guinea. There were many non-Japanese there. Unaware of the circumstances, he spoke frankly about a variety of things. Then someone said “What an interesting man!” And with that, he was hired for a variety show.
“My office had always been lively; a place where people gathered together.” He started to make frequent appearances on TV, attracting attention because of the contrast between his cheerful, humorous speech and his intelligence as a speaker of six languages, including Japanese. “I stood out because there were no other black TV personalities in those days.”
Some programs made a joke out of his black skin, for example, “Searching for Sankhon in a dark place.” “Some said it was discriminatory and questioned whether a diplomat should appear in such programs,” says Sankhon. “But I didn’t mind a bit because I didn’t have an inferiority complex about my black skin. Besides, everyone’s jokes were so full of affection that I enjoyed the shows myself.”
Sankhon’s success opened doors to other TV personalities from Africa. African TV personalities aren’t rare anymore today. Sankhon himself doesn’t appear so much on TV these days. He puts his energies into giving lectures and into social welfare activities.
“Education in Guinea is still very backward,” says Sankhon. “Some children must walk half a day to get to their elementary school. That’s why I built one in Bofa. I also donate stationery to orphans. The children get really excited,” says Sankhon. With help from local Japanese government and other organizations, he has also donated fire engines and farming machinery to Guinea.
Sankhon became interested in the welfare of others because of a personal experience. “I broke my leg when I was a child. The treatment I received from my Guinean doctor was inadequate, so this leg became permanently damaged. My mother massaged me everyday for years, but it didn’t help.” When she got old, Sankhon took care of her, inviting her to Japan to have her eyes operated on.
Meanwhile one of his acquaintances, an administrator for a nursing home, said to him, “Why don’t you study nursing and obtain a license as a caregiver?” So he trained in the nursing home by pushing wheelchairs and bathing the elderly. “I spent a night in a diaper. Kanji was the hardest part of studying for the exams.” After a concerted effort, he successfully gained a second grade qualification. Now he visits nursing homes, entertaining the elderly by doing things like singing enka ballads.
After the Great East Japan Earthquake, he went as a volunteer to areas affected by the disaster. “I was impressed to see victims queuing up properly to receive food.” His welfare activities in Guinea and Japan over the years have been recognized and this July, Sankhon received an award from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. “My skin is black, but in my soul I’m completely Japanese,” he says humorously. “Japanese values of duty and empathy are really fantastic. Because I feel that these have been on the decline over the last 40 years, I continue to emphasize their importance in my lectures.”
Text: SAZAKI Ryo