Ousmane Sankhon was a diplomat when his cheerful character on Waratte Iitomo! gained him great popularity. Devoted to communication between Japan and his home country of Guinea, he received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays in spring of this year. Toshio Motoya spoke with Sankhon about how Japan should interact with other nations in the future.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You also recently invited me to your party celebrating your Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays this spring.
(S) I’m so glad you could attend. Thank you!
(M) It was a lively event with 400 guests such as first lady Akie Abe and other prominent figures in various fields. This honor, and your extensive network, speak to the great role you have played in Japan. When did you first come to Japan?
(S) In 1972, 45 years ago.
(M) That’s just one year after APA Group was founded in 1971.
(S) Yes. The Republic of Guinea became independent in 1958. We opened embassies in the United States, France, and Soviet Union, but there was still no embassy in Japan in 1972. Guinea has many mineral resources like gold, diamonds, and recently bauxite, while Japan has world-leading technological abilities. The Guinean Ministry of Foreign Affairs thought that communication between the two countries would be beneficial for both, so right after I entered the ministry I was sent to Japan to help open the embassy.
(M) Before joining the ministry, you received a government scholarship to study abroad at Sorbonne University in France. Is that right?
(S) Yes, I did.
(M) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs likely sent you to Japan because it recognized your great talents. Could you speak Japanese then?
(S) Not at all! I lacked sufficient language skills and knowledge when I arrived. For the next three years, when I finished my daily work at the embassy I studied Japanese at the Athenee Francais language school. This school teaches French to Japanese people, but as a native speaker of French, I went there to learn Japanese.
(M) So that’s how you became so proficient at Japanese.
(S) Yes, I was the first Guinean to learn Japanese and marry a Japanese woman. I auditioned for Waratte Iitomo! in 1985 and ended up appearing together with Kent Derricott, Dave Spector, and others.
(M) Many people are familiar with your career since then. Can you speak English as well?
(S) After I worked for eight years in Japan, I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1980. I worked at the Guinean embassy during the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan eras. I also studied at Georgetown University, and visited the White House twice. My most vivid memory is of the March 30, 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan. I was just 20 meters away from the Hilton Hotel where he was shot.
(M) That must have been a shocking experience.
(S) Yes, Reagan was lucky to escape death.
(M) Guinea’s official language is French. Do you also speak an indigenous language?
(S) Of course. The are many different indigenous languages in Guinea, of which I speak Susu. I am confident in my skills in four languages: French, English, Susu, and Japanese.
(M) You are amazingly talented.
(S) I knew nothing about Japan when I arrived, so I was glad to see the multiple things it has in common with Guinea. For example, the staple food in Japan is rice, and Guineans also eat rice three times a day. We grow rice on dry land rather than in wet paddy fields.
(M) Wet-rice agriculture provides larger harvests in the same sized area, but I assume dry fields are better suited to Africa, which has little precipitation. Most Japanese people used to be farmers, but today fewer people are needed because of greater cultivation efficiency, which frees up hands for plant work. In all countries, modernization shifts industrial focus away from agriculture. And as this industrialization progresses, people become financiers by amassing wealth.
(S) That’s true.
(M) I’ve heard you have many siblings.
(S) Yes, I have 21 siblings (laughs). Guinea is an Islamic country and men can have up to four wives. My father has three wives who have given birth to 22 children.
(M) I’ve heard that men have to treat their four wives equally. The whole family goes on trips together, rather like a small group tour. I imagine it was hard to have multiple wives without wealth and social position – many wives symbolized a man’s rank and abilities. When I visited Morocco around 30 years ago, I remember my guide was very happy to marry his third wife. He said that affluent men taking multiple wives was a type of social security to aid the poor. However, it seems like fewer men have multiple wives today.
(S) That’s right. You know a lot about the Muslim world.
(M) I have traveled to 81 countries and debated with eminent figures in them, from customs to politics, so I know a fair amount about all nations. However, I’ve never been to Guinea.
(S) Since you’ve visited the nearby countries, I am sure you know much about Guinea. National borders in Africa were originally drawn in an arbitrary way by the former suzerain states according to oil and other resources.
(M) They are the vestiges of conflicts between colonial powers.
(S) Africa was divided and colonized mainly by France and England – as well as Spain, Italy, Portugal, and other countries – until the mid-20th century. Only Ethiopia was never colonized, which is why the African Union (AU) Headquarters is located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
(M) The Ethiopian royal family continued until 1974, when Haile Selassie I, the last emperor, died. It was the second-longest monarchy in the world after Japan. I transferred in Ethiopia on my way to Jinja in Uganda, on the shore of Lake Victoria, known as the source of the Nile. I was surprised to see a monument to Mahatma Gandhi near the source. Gandhi had ties to Africa, and even worked as a lawyer in South Africa when he was young. Apparently, the monument was built when his remains were scattered on the Nile according to his wishes.
(S) You truly know things that even African people aren’t aware of!
(M) Still, the phrase “seeing is believing” is right. Actually going somewhere gives a different impression than reading about it in books. Reading the newspaper has been my hobby since elementary school, when I looked up all unfamiliar words in The Year Book of the Contemporary Society, and I gained knowledge in that way. By actually traveling across the world as an adult and observing more things, I’ve transformed this knowledge into wisdom. Another important basis of my thinking is my dialogues with important figures from various countries, including the vice president of Uganda; king of Bahrain; and Fidel Castro of Cuba, who passed away last year.
(S) That makes a great deal of sense to me. Someone who is a patriot is interested in learning about other countries. People who don’t love their own country cannot like other ones. Your stance of honoring your own country is the same as a diplomat’s.
(M) I think a diplomat’s job is to leverage good things from other countries to improve his or her own. That is probably why ambassadors to Japan build large personal networks in Japan, work hard to improve relations, form arrangements, and gather funds. I travel abroad to find things I can apply in Japan based on my sufficient knowledge of Japan’s great qualities.
(S) That’s wonderful. I feel that way of thinking will definitely make APA Hotel the world’s top hotel chain some day.
(M) Tension is growing due to North Korea’s reckless actions, and Japanese news on this topic makes it clear that the media has no sense of international politics.
(S) I think Japan should have more discussions about the Japan Self-Defense Forces, including deterrence against neighboring states.
(M) I agree, but the U.S. will certainly not permit Japan to have its own nuclear weapons. The only possibility is for Japan to enter into nuclear sharing with the U.S., like its agreement with the four North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries of Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Japan could gain deterrence by stationing American nuclear weapons in its territory based on this agreement. I think the U.S. Forces Japan could be reduced in that case, too. President Donald J. Trump, who espouses an “America First” policy, might approve a nuclear sharing arrangement with Japan.
(S) I think that’s a good idea. After North Korea launched a missile over Japanese territory, I spoke to a resident of Hokkaido who was extremely anxious. North Korea would probably stop these dangerous provocations if Japan had sufficient deterrence.
(M) A balance of power must be maintained to prevent war. In world history, wars have broken out in times and places where balance was destroyed, creating power vacuums. It is particularly frightening how the media agitates the people. I think China is afraid that its citizens, stirred up by the Chinese media that is contemptuous of Japan, might put pressure on the government to steal the Senkaku Islands by force. This incitement would be prevented if Japan had appropriate military strength, and I think the Chinese government is hoping for Japan to increase its strength.
(S) I agree.
(M) Japan has enjoyed constant peace for the past 70 years not thanks to Article 9 of the constitution, but because a balance of power has been somehow maintained in East Asia due to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. I think this situation will change as the U.S. becomes more committed to isolationism. Trump is called a racist, but his core supporters are still on his side because the white people are the poorest demographic in the U.S. today. The so-called “poor whites” that comprise 25% of American voters are Trump’s most enthusiastic fans. He won with 20 to 25% of the votes from the remaining 75% of the population. Trump is currently working to demonstrate that he is trying to fulfill his campaign promises, regardless of the actual results, to keep these core supporters and win re-election. Trump overreacted to the provocation of North Korea saying it would fire a missile near Guam, probably to distract from suspicions about Russiagate. I’m the only one who says or writes these things. I can likely do this because I comprehend a global viewpoint, which isn’t understood by regular people.
(S) There are also many people who aren’t in positions to say what they think due to their places of work, shareholders, or other reasons. Some businesspeople are afraid of impacts on their business.
(M) I am the owner and CEO, so I can say what I like without being afraid of what others may think. In January 2017, the Chinese government criticized my book that claims the Nanjing Massacre did not take place. Despite this, APA Hotel is constantly setting performance records. Not only have there been no impacts on our business, but this incident showed that sticking to one’s original intentions helps improve performance. As Tsuneyasu Takeda says, China chose the wrong person to pick a fight with. But I think that some people cannot express their views because many corporations simply sell products to or buy from China.
(S) I find it bizarre that China insists 300,000 people were massacred in Nanjing.
(M) The Japanese Army had unsparing military discipline, so it’s rather unlikely that it would have slaughtered nonresistant people in an occupied city.
(S) I respect people such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandala, and yourself.
(M) I had an appointment to meet with Mandela, but he wasn’t feeling well so I ended up talking with the chairman of his foundation. South Africa ended its nuclear program when the government changed over from the whites to the blacks. The Japanese media often says that no countries have given up nuclear arms after possessing them, but that isn’t true. However, there must be a significant reason, such as the white South African government dismantling its nuclear weapons because it was afraid of handing them over to the black government. North Korea currently has no reason to do so. To oppose such countries, today I think Japan should demonstrate a stance of wanting to participate in nuclear sharing.
(S) I think so too.
(M) The problem is that South Korea, which should be standing with Japan against North Korea, has an anti-Japanese attitude. It constantly describes highly paid prostitutes as “comfort women” to drag up this issue and tries to make the mobilization of Korean workers into a human rights issue, even though they were not forcibly transported and had the same working conditions as Japanese people.
(S) South Korea says different things each time a new president takes office. It also takes odd actions, like putting a comfort woman statue on a bus.
(M) Regarding the Nanjing Massacre and comfort women issues alike, the greatest culprit is actually the anti-Japanese citizens of Japan. They are truly the most treacherous of friends. They are the reason that Japan admits things that didn’t happen and is forced to pay money again and again. Japanese people have withstood this, unable to refute what is happening and assuming that people would learn the truth someday. But that’s a mistake – lies, if they are repeated, become truth. We must have proper discussions to discover what is true. Another problem is that Japanese education prioritizes rote memory rather than discussion. People who are good at memorizing go to the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Law and end up entering the bureaucracy, legal circles, and media, which is why these discussions lack depth.
(S) I agree entirely. I have grandchildren in Japan and think of myself as an “Edokko” (a person born and raised in Tokyo). That’s why I comprehend what you are saying.
(M) You say that because you are more Japanese than the Japanese. Many Japanese people can’t understand these things. Japan should have nuclear weapons to maintain peace, but as things stand it cannot. First, we must reform the constitution and abolish the Three Non-Nuclear Principles. The Trump administration is favorable to Japan, so Japan should accomplish these two things while he is in power and enter into a nuclear sharing agreement. If not, we will someday be unable to maintain a balance of power in East Asia, where all our neighbors – China, Russia, and North Korea – are nuclear states. The U.S. opposes Japan having its own nuclear weapons because the former Japanese Army was too strong, and it fears the revival of this force.
(S) I think so, too.
(M) I have a high regard for the former Japanese Army, which developed several fighter aircraft in a short period of time and won continual victories in China. At war, one should choose an opponent over which one can triumph. During World War II, Japan should have first declared war on England, which was driven into a corner by Germany in Europe. Next, it should have fought for independence in Asia. Independence movements in India and many other countries would have joined up with the Japanese Army, and I think we could have won the Battle of Imphal and other fights. It was Navy Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s idea to attack the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. He had lived in the U.S. for a long time and knew too much about it; he started the war with the U.S. because he thought it was a good timing to do so. If Japan was to attack Pearl Harbor, the strike should have been more thorough. Perhaps the Japanese Army limited its attack to warships without hitting docks and other facilities out of fear of civilian damage, but the U.S. easily repaired its ships afterwards, so we must say this was a major blunder. Ideally, Japan should have carried out a joint army/navy operation to strike the warships and even occupy the base to gain control of docks and fuel tanks. It could have commenced cease-fire negotiations from a more advantageous position, using Pearl Harbor as a base to attack the Panama Canal and stopping the Atlantic Fleet from easily traveling in the Pacific Ocean.
(S) I see. I always learn a great deal from you.
(M) At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(S) Japan has been very good to me. But to raise one point, I think it is important for young Japanese people to know a lot about their own country. I learned many different things about the Japanese way of thinking, and I feel great empathy with the philosophy of Bushido.
(M) They should also learn that Japan is a truly unique nation.
(S) Yes. I hope they will take this sense of pride across the world and work with people who have different ways of thinking. Our five fingers each have different shapes, and they all play different roles. Human differences are important in the same way – each person should each play the role that best matches him or her.
(M) Japanese people used to have pride, but they have become servile and masochistic over the 70-plus years since World War II. It is essential that Japanese people recover their pride and then esteem people from other countries.
(M) Thank you for our meaningful conversation today.
Born in the Republic of Guinea in 1949. After graduating from the University of Conakry, he received a government scholarship to study abroad at Sorbonne University in France. He entered the Guinean Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1972 and came to Japan for the first time. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1980, returned temporarily to Guinea, and then moved to Japan again in 1984. He made his debut as a TV personality on Waratte Iitomo! in 1985. Afterwards, he worked in this industry while also making efforts to enhance friendship between Japan and Guinea and Africa. In May 2017, he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays for his achievements