Back in the 1980s, there weren’t many foreign faces seen regularly on Japanese TV programs. You could probably count them on one hand. Certainly, one of the most colorful characters was Ousmane Sankhon, a former diplomat at the Republic of Guinea Embassy in Tokyo. Since making his TV debut in Japan in 1984, his witty style and exotic robes have made him a popular personality on Japanese TV and on the talk-show circuit.
Sankhon’s smiling face is showing up on posters in Seven-Eleven convenience stores for Seven Bank’s ATM money transfer service, which the bank and Western Union launched in July. Using the Internet/mobile banking network of Seven Bank, you can send money anytime 24 hours a day from ATMs at about 15,000 locations nationwide.
“I have been sending money back home ever since I came to Japan,” says Sankhon, 62. “But having to go to a bank was always time-consuming and it used to take a day for the funds to be transferred. This new service is good for me and I think it will be good for all foreigners living in Japan. It will help to make Japan more open.”
He is promoting the service on TV, radio, in newspapers and at conferences, lectures and African-themes events around Japan.
Sankhon first came to Japan in 1972 as an embassy first secretary. He made his TV debut in 1984 on Tamori’s long-running noon variety program, “Warette Itomo.” “In those days, there was myself, Kent Gilbert, Kent Derricott, Dave Spector and Chuck Wilson. We were the first ‘henna gaijin’ to appear on Japanese programs,” he recalls.
Early on, Sankhon says he did have to put up with a lot of ignorant remarks about Africans. He was asked if black people could get a tan, whether they lived in trees or with lions (he actually saw his first lion at a zoo in Japan) and so on. “I got asked a lot of stupid questions and had to resist that. I was able to use that as an opportunity to talk about our cultural diversity. On the other hand, I didn’t know much about Japan either when I first came here.”
Sankhon, who has 22 brothers and sisters, says he has become very comfortable in Japan. “In Japan, I have five cousins and one younger brother. I have five children, two here and three in Guinea.”
Although he doesn’t appear on TV these days as often as he used to, Sankhon is still a busy man, especially with philanthropic activities and charity issues. He gives lectures all around Japan to explain his activities. “I created a fund to build schools in Guinea from charity funds. I am also a certified home helper.”
Since the disaster on March 11 (which was also his birthday), he has been visiting Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures twice a month to help the people there. He never even thought about leaving Japan. “I know a lot of foreigners did for various reasons. But Japan has been good to me. I have to do what I can.”
He is optimistic that Japan will bounce back. “I think Japan’s economy will recover. Politics is the problem. But I do encourage foreign people to come to Japan.”