Sunday, December 02, 2012

Joel Assogba: World Citizen

Interviewed by Axiom-Magazine, Nagoya, Japan
May 16, 2012 

Could you start with a short bio? Name, where you have lived, what you do for a living?
My name is Joel Assogba. I am an African-Canadian “Japanese”, with the spirit and soul of a world citizen. I ran a language school in Chikugo City (Fukuoka, Japan) where I taught English and French for 17 years. I am also a writer-illustrator and a passionate public speaker. I have published many trilingual books (Japanese / English / French) and articles in Japanese newspapers.
In April 2011 I moved back to Ottawa-Gatineau (Canada), where I am living with my Japanese spouse, Reiko, and our 3 beautiful children; Karen-Anne (16 years old), Georges-Eric (15 years old) and Erika-Joelle (12 years old ).
You truly are the personification of multiculturalism, having written trilingual works in the past (French, English and Japanese). Is there anywhere that you think of as “home,” or is the old cliche, “home is where the heart is” more suitable?
For me “Home” is the whole planet. It is easier that way, because when I start saying; this city or this country is my home, I go against my belief of being a “World Citizen.”
You lived in Japan for over a decade and even set up your own school there, did you ever feel truly assimilated into Japanese society?
Assimilation is not a concept that I like, because when people assimilate into a culture, then we cannot talk about multiculturalism anymore. I spent almost all my adulthood in Japan (17 years). I spoke no Japanese at all before moving to Japan, but after a year or so, mingling with my ESL students and their parents, I was able to speak the language fluently. After 4 years, I started giving 90-minute talks in Japanese to an audience of 200, 500 or even 1500 people (native Japanese) without referring to any notes.
I think I integrated (not assimilated) very well into Japanese society, and I proudly say to people that I am “Japanese,” too, even though I haven’t taken the citizenship. Even here in Ottawa, I am involved in the Japanese community; I have met the Ambassador, the Minister and several diplomats.
You have given many talks about racial awareness and bullying in Japan, perhaps most notably at the 2005 Expo; is bullying a universal problem, or do you think Japan has some unique hurdles to jump over? If so, what would they be?
Of course the number of bullied Japanese students who commit suicide is worryingly high, but bullying is a universal issue that needs to be addressed more seriously and challenged. It is very unfortunate that many teachers and parents still don’t act quickly before things get out of hands, and someone takes his or her own life. I believe schools need to work closely with homes and communities to prevent bullying from happening, but when it does happen, adults must let children know that it is not to be tolerated. Clear rules and consequences must be set up and applied.
You have written several children’s books which promote diversity and equality; how important are such books in making a healthier environment in school and at home?
I am the author-illustrator of two trilingual (Japanese, English and French in the same book) children’s books;
1)”The Rainbow’s Kids,”
2) “Wind of Freedom.”
And 3 bilingual ones (Japanese and English in the same book);
1)”What Color are Burdocks,”
2) “I’m not a Foreigner,”
3) “Respect for Life”
I have also published a bilingual project(Japanese and English); “平和・ピース・Peace”(96 pages) to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the A-bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I have designed and published two colorful posters to promote multiculturalism and prevent Ijime (bullying) in Japan. For about 12 years I traveled to more than 60 cities around Japan and gave more than 500 talks in Japanese on parenting, education, universal values, crime prevention, human rights, anti-racism, nonviolence and peace…
Children in many countries around the world (including Japan and Canada) grow up in classrooms that are increasingly diverse. There are different races, different genders and ever increasing acknowledgment of different sexual orientations. Children who are developing their sense of self may feel threatened when it does not match what is considered the “norm”. For this reason, it is crucial that teachers take a broad view on accepting diversity in their classroom. Parents also need to expose their children to a multicultural education.
There are countless authors of children’s books, do you think all of them know the full extent of their responsibilities? Or are there some books which are needlessly bias, or perhaps even discriminatory?
Many authors, editors and publishers of children books just care about money. Publishing is pure business today; as long as the book sells, the content doesn’t need to respect any human rules. Publishers don’t care much about the message the book conveys, and it doesn’t matter if it encourages bullying or racism. A perfect example for that is the picture book, “Ninjin-san ga Akai Wake” (“The Reason the Carrot is Red”). Written by renowned Japanese author of children’s literature Miyoko Matsutani, the story unfolds like this: A carrot and a burdock ask a white radish (daikon) out to a bath. The burdock jumps in the water but soon hops out because the water is too hot; it remains black. The carrot stays in the hot water longer and turns red. The daikon cools the bath with some cold water and washes himself thoroughly, which turns him shining white. At the end, the three stand beside each other to compare their color. The burdock is black and dirty because he did not wash his body properly; the daikon is white and beautiful because he did.
When I was talking about this story during one of my lectures on human rights issues at a PTA meeting in Fukuoka, one of the participants, a Japanese mother of an African-Japanese preschool boy, started crying and saying that her son was taunted, ridiculed and called “burdock” after his pre-school teacher read the aforementioned book to the class. When the little boy returned home that day, he jumped into the bathtub, started washing his body and crying, “I hate my light brown skin, I hate the burdock, I’m dirty and I want to be like the white radish!” How can this child have a positive image of himself?
We all felt sad after hearing this story, because the book associates the color black with dirt. The story’s underlying message is clear: “You’ll be black and dirty like burdocks if you don’t wash yourself well in the bath.” So children with darker skin will be victimized by the message it conveys. How can such a book still be in libraries and preschool classrooms in increasingly multiracial contemporary Japan?
I called the publisher, Doshinsha Publishing Co., and demanded the book be recalled, saying it was racist. The publisher disagreed. My demand to meet with Matsutani to discuss revising the portions of the book I considered objectionable was also rejected. Yoichi Ikeda, the editor of the book published in 1989, told me over the phone that the story was the author’s version of a Japanese folktale. “Matsutani is not promoting racism, she was just handing down to Japanese children our rich culture,” he said. “And anyway, there are not many black children in Japanese preschools.” Surprisingly, the book is quite popular and was even selected as one of the Japan School Library Association’s “good picture books.”
The author, editor and publisher, as well as Japanese educators who use the book, should face the fact that it insults many people in today’s multi-ethnic society. It’s important to have characters with a positive image, so children who identify with them can develop high self-esteem.
“Gobo-san no Iro wa?” (“What Color Are Burdocks?”) is my counterargument to Matsutani’s picture book. The story goes: One sunny day, a group of children visits a farm and harvests daikon radishes, carrots and burdock. They put the muddy vegetables in a bath but find the burdocks are still black after washing.
The children take the “dirty burdocks” to the bath again. The burdocks get upset and jump out of the water, saying, “We are already clean. Black is our natural color.”
Carrots and radishes join them, saying, “Yes, we are all clean,” and they all sing and dance together. “Black is beautiful, white is Beautiful, red is beautiful — all the colors in the world are equally beautiful!”
How well do you think the education system in Japan deals with international students? What kind of changes would you encourage?
It is very confusing in Japanese Schools. MEXT (the Ministry of Education,Culture,Sports,Science & Technology of Japan) tries to teach Japanese students kokusaika (internationalization), but no programs exist in which Japanese students can exchange their culture and customs with children new to the classroom and possibly Japan. The Central Educational Council of MEXT submitted a proposal for revision of the Fundamentals of Education Act on March 20, 2003 , but the purpose of the revision is to encourage Japanese to acquire an “international way of thinking” by cultivating “love for Japanese culture, tradition and patriotism” .
Also, the MEXT pamphlet Kyôiku no kôzô kaikaku (structural reform of education) emphasizes educational reforms to cultivate shakai-sei(sociability) and kokusai-sei (an international way of thinking), and to accomplish these reforms MEXT propose English classes in compulsory education, and other language classes and cultural exchange by studying abroad in higher education (2003). In these two policies, it seems that education in Japan is open only for Japanese, and that cultural exchange with other countries and studying English are the only ways for Japanese to develop kokui-sei. The Japanese educational policy of kokusai-sei is a peculiar system, a proposal for an international way of thinking made without consideration for the international children who live within Japanese society.
How did the audience generally react to your point-of-view?
From 1999 to 2011, I traveled to more than 60 cities and gave more than 500 talks; at kindergartens (for kids and their parents), elementary schools, junior high schools, junior colleges, universities, public halls, community centers, public libraries, etc.. I can’t even keep track on all the cities that I have been to.
I was very popular among grade-school children, the majority of parents and teachers. I have visited more than 250 elementary schools, talked to and mingled with more or less 100, 000 children. I love kids, and if we educators really take time to touch their hearts with universal messages of tolerance, diversity, compassion and respect for life; they won’t bully each other.
Most of my talks to adults were full, often with a range of 500 to 1500 people. Roughly, I have talked to more than 500,000 people in 10 years. Of course, not all the people agreed with what I was talking about. On many occasions, I have been yelled at and told to go back to my country if I “badmouthed” Miyoko Matsutani (the author of “Ninjin san ga akai wake,”). Miyoko Matsutani, (born in 1926), and considered as the “Mother” of Japanese juvenile literature. It seems like nobody has the right to counter what Miyoko Matsutani has written, even if it is not right. I vividly recall an incident that really flipped me off::
While talking to the kids, their parents and teachers about “Ninjin-san ga Akai Wake” and why I created “Gobo-san no Iro wa?” at an elementary school in Fukuoka, a mother stood up and interrupted my presentation; “Don’t badmouth our beloved Matsutani-sensei in front of our kids,” She furiously said, “You are a Gaijin and you don’t know anything about our beautiful culture…” She didn’t even get it all off her chest when the principal jumped in ;“Don’t brainwash our kids, stop your lecture, thank you.” Then the parents started leaving the hall, and teachers told the students to go to their classroom.
I never badmouth anyone, but every time that I find something wrong in our societies, I stand up with fearless courage to challenge it. Let’s not confound “criticism” with “badmouthing.” BADMOUTHING is charging falsely or with malicious intent; attacking the good name and reputation of someone, but CRITICISM is the practice of judging the merits and faults of something or someone in an intelligible (or articulate) way. After all, when the criticism is valid, it must be made by all means necessary, because it is the only way we can make the world a better place to live.
I was quite satisfied about the coverage I have received in the Japanese media, though. The three main national newspapers (Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi) and several other regional newspapers have written excellent reviews about the book and my social actions. Several radio and television shows also have allowed me to express my views on the issue of racism. Many public libraries purchased not only “What Color are Burdocks?” but my other books as well. I was honored to find out that seven of my publications are at Japan National Diet Library in Tokyo: (Search Joel Assogba)
The National Diet Library (国立国会図書館 Kokuritsu Kokkai Toshokan) is the only national library in Japan. It was established in 1948 for the purpose of assisting members of the Diet of Japan/National Diet of Japan (国会 Kokkai) in researching matters of public policy. The library is similar in purpose and scope to the U.S. Library of Congress
If someone has a child and they suspect that they are being bullied, what action would you suggest the parents take?
Just make sure that your kids tell you everything that happens at preschool or school (good news and bad news) every day after they come back home. Do not tolerate any racist comments. Kids need to take pride in their ethnic background while growing up, and do not forget to tell them very often; “You are very Beautiful!”
I believe in a good human nature, so I help my kids and other kids practice compassion, and nurture their good inner-selves with universal human values such as Peace, Love, Tolerance and Respect for Life.”If you want to be happy, practice compassion. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.” (Dalai Lama)
Lastly, what do you have planned for the remainder of 2012?
I will work tirelessly to fight against discrimination of all forms, e-publish a few books, promote my work, give talks at schools, community centers and public hall around the nation to preach universal values such as love, compassion, tolerance, diversity, respect for life, etc..
There is a kind of subtle racism going on now in Canada, especially in the media. When I moved to Canada in March 2011, I wasn’t active for about half a year. But after, I started going to schools to talk to children, parents and teachers about Anti-Bullying, Tolerance, Diversity, just like I was doing in Japan. I also started giving talks, and displaying my illustrated books & posters at book fairs and events to promote the values that I named above, in both English and French. These are values that Canada is proud of.
To find out more about Joel and his body of work, be sure to visit his website here, or you can contact him directly and get your hands on some of his books by emailing:

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