African-born president of Kyoto Seika University was told his parties sounded fun, but there was a hidden meaning.
Usually, cultural guidebooks’ dissertations on Japan’s penchant for indirectness over sincerity are exaggerated. The long-winded explanations about tatemae (outward display) and honne (true feelings) often treat the subject as a purely Japanese social convention, as though no one in other countries says “This tastes great” when being served an average-quality home-cooked meal, or “Thanks for inviting me! It was fun,” to spare a host’s feelings after a dull party.
Still, it is true that, comparatively, Japan does more to avoid direct interpersonal confrontation than many other countries, and so being able to read between the lines is helpful, especially so if you live in Kyoto.
As the Japanese school year starts, Kyoto Seika University has a new president: Mali-born Oussouby Sacko. Sacko, who is thought to be the first African president of a university in Japan, has lived in Japan for 27 years, becoming proficient in the language while acquiring a post-graduate degree in the country, marrying a Japanese national, and raising two children.
But while he’s firmly integrated into Japanese society now, even Sacko has run into difficulties deciphering the meaning behind some of his fellow Kyotoites’ words. In speaking to reporters from the New York Times, Sacko recalled that after holding a few parties for friends at his apartment, some of his Japanese neighbors commented that they were envious of how cheerful Sacko and his friends were when they got together. Seeing an opportunity to bring his neighbors into this happy circle of acquaintances, Sacko said they should join him and his friends sometime in the future.
However, at Sacko’s next party it wasn’t his neighbors who showed up, but the police, responding to a noise complaint from those very same neighbors.
Yes, the subtle implication behind “You and your friends seem to have so much fun at your parties” was actually “We can hear you and your friends having fun at your parties, even if we’re inside our own homes,” and by extension “Keep it down!”
While some might be tempted to point the finger at Sacko for not being able to take the hint, even a number of Japanese Twitter users felt a chill go down their spines at the thickly veiled complaint.
“Well, that’s Kyoto for you.”
“Man, Kyoto manners are just a pain in the butt to deal with!”
“Geez, that’s sneaky.”
“Even a Japanese person would have gotten tripped up by that.”
“If they wanted him to be quieter, they should have just said so.”
Still, the experience hasn’t soured Sacko on Japan in the slightest, and his unique background should serve him well as president of Kyoto Seika, where foreign-born students make up 20 percent of the student body, roughly five times the national average.