Japan’s Kyoto University Welcomes First African President

“On a beautiful spring Sunday during cherry blossom season, the new president of Kyoto Seika University welcomed students for the start of the Japanese school year. ‘You have left your home,’ he told the 770 first-year and graduate students gathered in a gym on the hilly campus. ‘But this is also your home.’ In Bamanankan — the lingua franca of his native Mali…Dr. Sacko, who is believed to be the first African-born president of a Japanese university, segued elegantly into fluent Japanese, invoking Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ.”  M. Rich, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Excerpt: In Homogeneous Japan, an African-Born University President, By Motoko Rich, The New York Times

“In this island country that is sometimes less than welcoming to immigrants, Mr. Sacko is an outlier. A resident for 27 years, he obtained Japanese citizenship 16 years ago and worked his way up through the ranks of a Japanese institution.

With a declining population, Japan is being forced to confront its traditional resistance to taking in foreigners…Obtaining Japanese citizenship is extremely difficult. Since 1952, just over 550,000 people have managed to naturalize as Japanese citizens, most of them ethnic Koreans whose families have lived in Japan for several generations since the colonial occupation of Korea. Dr. Sacko says he believes Japan needs to allow in more outsiders, simply as an act of self-preservation.

‘Japanese people think they have to protect something,’ he said during an interview in English before a reception recently to celebrate his appointment. But, ‘someone who has a broad view from outside on your culture can maybe help you objectively improve your goals,’ he said, occasionally interrupting the interview to greet his guests, switching effortlessly between English, French and Japanese.

Dr. Sacko, the eldest son of a customs officer and homemaker, grew up in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. A strong student, he won a scholarship from the Malian government to attend college abroad.

Dr. Oussouby Sacko.

He had never been anywhere other than the neighboring country of Senegal. With 13 other students from Mali, he was assigned to study in China and landed in Beijing in 1985 to study Mandarin before embarking on a degree in engineering and architecture at Southeast University in Nanjing.

On a vacation to Japan after obtaining his undergraduate degree in 1990, Dr. Sacko found himself enchanted by what he observed as strong community ties and the hospitality toward guests. Although he had begun graduate studies in China, he was frustrated that a government minder always shadowed him when he conducted field research in local villages.

Dr. Sacko moved to Osaka, Japan, for six months of language lessons before enrolling in a master’s degree program at Kyoto University…  Dr. Sacko said he had hoped to return to Mali someday, but after a military coup in 1991, his employment options were limited. As he pursued a doctorate in Japan, he worked to understand a culture where people can say the exact opposite of what they mean. ‘You don’t always catch things from the meanings of the words,’ he said. ‘You have to go deeper.’

Along the way, there were some misunderstandings. After hosting a few parties at his apartment, his neighbors remarked that he and his friends always seemed happy and that they were envious. Dr. Sacko urged them to join his next party. Instead, they called the police. ‘The police said, ‘You are too noisy,’ Dr. Sacko recalled.  ‘And I said ‘But my neighbors like that!’

Dr. Sacko’s appointment could help Kyoto Seika appeal to more foreign students at a time when many Japanese universities are struggling to maintain enrollment.

‘He deeply understands Japanese culture and the way of thinking,’ said Emiko Yoshioka, a professor of art theory whom Dr. Sacko appointed as vice president at Kyoto Seika. ‘But he also is able to poke fun at the fact that he is a foreigner.’

In a practical sense, Dr. Sacko’s appointment could help Kyoto Seika appeal to more foreign students at a time when many universities across Japan are struggling to maintain enrollment.

Already, 20 percent of its student body comes from abroad, much higher than the 4 percent overall ratio of foreign students in Japanese higher education. Dr. Sacko said he hoped to raise Kyoto Seika’s level to 40 percent within a decade…Dr. Sacko said he had not experienced racism in Japan but said he was treated differently simply because he does not look Japanese. Despite his Japanese citizenship, for example, he says he is automatically routed to lines for foreigners at the airport when he returns from trips abroad. ‘It’s not because you’re black,’ he said. ‘It’s because you’re different.’

He said he considered it his mission to foster differences beyond race. When recruiting Ms. Yoshioka as vice president, he told her he wanted her for the job because she was a woman and a single mother.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article. 

KWL Chart

The K-W-L chart is used to activate students’ background knowledge of a topic in order to enhance their comprehension skills.

Directions: Have students use the KWL chart to list the information they already know about Japanese culture. Later in the Post- Reading segment of the lesson, students can fill in what they’ve learned about the topic.


II. While Reading Activities: Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. There has been a decline in population in Japan.
  2. Students were amazed when the African-born president segued elegantly into fluent Japanese.
  3. Mr. Sacko is an outlier.
  4. Dr. Sacko found himself enchanted by Japanese culture.
  5. There was a military coup in Mali in 1991.
  6. He pursued a doctorate in Japanese culture.
  7. Along the way, there were some misunderstandings.
  8. But he also is able to poke fun at the fact that he is a foreigner.
  9. Many universities across Japan are struggling to maintain enrollment.
  10. Dr. Sacko said that it was his mission to foster differences beyond race.


Reading Comprehension: Fill-ins

Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences  taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

In___with___, he was often ___to take___, which helped him improve his ___comprehension and ___ability. At night, he watched___television shows and socialized with ___classmates.

WORD LIST:  Japanese,  listening, Japanese, minutes,  asked, colleagues, meetings, writing,


 Grammar Focus: Prepositions

Directions: The following sentences are from the news article.  For each sentence choose the correct preposition from the choices listed. Note that not all prepositions listed are in the article.

Prepositions:  in, for, of, with, by,  on, at, to, as, into, across, around, over,  through, from, during, up, off,

Dr. Sacko says he believes Japan needs ___allow ___more outsiders.

Many Korean families have lived___ Japan___ several generations.

___13 other students___ Mali, he was assigned___ study ___China and landed ___Beijing___ 1985___ study Mandarin.

Dr. Sacko  went ___a vacation ___Japan ___obtaining his undergraduate degree ___1990.

Dr. Sacko moved ___Osaka, Japan, ___six months___language lessons___ enrolling ___a master’s degree program ___Kyoto University


III. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

KWL Chart

Directions:  Have students  fill in the last column of the KWL chart if they used one in the pre-reading segment of this lesson.

Discussion for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Place students in groups  and  have each group compose a letter or note to a  person mentioned in the article telling her/him their thoughts on the topic. Share the letters as a class.

1-Minute Free Writing Exercise

Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.  Review the responses as a class.


Category: Social Issues