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From Rags to Rìběn 日本

From Rags to Rìběn 日本

Dr Oussouby Sacko, dean of Kyoto Seika University in Japan is quite unlike the dean of any other Japanese university. He speaks Japanese with an unmistakable French lilt. He studied in communist China in the 80s…And he’s Black.

Starting life in Bamako, Mali, the accomplished architect never imagined he’d make a permanent home in the east – let alone become the first African-born dean at one of Japan’s 768 universities.

Dr Sacko’s Asia story starts not in Japan, but a little further left in the communist China of 1985.

China was, as he puts it, “still very much a developing nation”. It had been courting African nations (and their people) since the 60s, building on the ‘Bandung spirit’ of 1955. Three decades later, an adolescent Dr Sacko was amongst one of the first three waves of African students sent to China for a fully-funded education.

Was it exciting? Nerve-wracking? Life-Changing? How did he feel?  “Totally disoriented actually”, he tells us during a panel discussion as part of Black Livity China’s first annual conference. “ You don’t have enough orientation from the Chinese side. They will tell you where to go, show [you] where you are staying– but you don’t get any information about what you are doing in China. We had to organise ourselves as Africans”.

Malian students in China

Dr Sacko speaks about his China years mostly in the present tense –  almost as if he relives each incident and experience as he talks about them. And listening to him, it’s easy to see why they left such an impact. Miles from home, he recalls African students looking, hoping for support from their local Chinese counterparts at the time. But interaction of any kind was firmly discouraged and, as they’d later find out, punishable.

“There’s this barrier between Chinese and foreign students. We use different shops, live in different dorms, go to different canteens. We are warned ‘Don’t pollute Chinese students’ minds’.” A fear of foreign & liberal ideas poisoning local minds was rife. All foreigners were suspected negative influences.

So, when, in 1988 African students in Nanjing began to form friendships – and even physical relationships – with local people, Dr Sacko found himself embroiled in a series of events that would go down in history.

There seemed to always have been anti-blackness in China. “Your blackness is a problem for Chinese people because they are calling you Heigui, Black devil. And then of course people walk up to you and rub your skin and say ‘wow it doesn’t fade’. To most Chinese, we were those mysterious people brought in by the Chinese government and exposed to China”.

But in Nanjing, a small number of Chinese, often women, had moved from curiosity to admiration. Locals disapproved, and university staff developed measures to prevent mixing. When an African student dared to challenge university security he was severely beaten – word soon spread and anger built on both the African and Chinese sides. Local police prohibited the movement of African students for days. “They told us we can’t leave because there are 3000 Chinese coming for us.”  

The scattered African embassies in Beijing at the time offered little support. Dr Sacko recalls receiving a robotic statement from the Malian Embassy: “Whatever happens between Africa and China or African students and China, China is our long-term friend.’

After more than a week on lockdown, authorities eventually arrested and deported 7 African students in a suspected move to appease locals. Remaining students were pushed to return to campus but for some the ordeal was too much, and they chose to leave China voluntarily instead.

Dr Sacko persisted, going on to finish his education in China, but the experience encouraged him to seek greener pastures upon graduation – eventually finding them in then-rival Japan.


“The challenges here they don’t compare at all,” Dr Sacko laughs. What’s the main difference? We ask and get the swiftest response yet: “Between China and Japan? In Japan they are really respectful. Too respectful even.”

Dr Sacko doesn’t dismiss the existence of racism and ignorance in Japan, an equally homogenous nation. In fact, he’s made it his mission to speak out about such issues publicly.

It took 9 years for him to master Japanese and begin to work his way into Japanese academia, becoming a professor in 2001 and eventually Dean in 2018. This is all in spite of initially facing suspicion on grounds of his Chinese education. “I really became one of them – in their eyes and my own – but I always try to leave my impact too. I return to Mali twice a year and I have brought my classmates and colleagues with me as part of that.” 

Dr Sacko with Seika Students in Mali, delivering giving a class a the National Engineering University (ENI), 2002

This, Dr Sacko believes, has all been made possible by something else that he feels separates the two countries “Here [in Japan] I could do something I was [never] allowed to do in China –  integrate”.

The images in this article are part of Heiritage. Heiritage, taken from the Chinese word ‘Hei/黑’, meaning Black, and the English word Heritage is a unique archive preserving the visual/photographic history of African, Caribbean, Afro-latinx and Black other people in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. If you would like to find out more, or are interested in contributing please get in touch

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