Saturday, December 29, 2012

Joel Assogba: dad on a mission

By Tokyo Families | COMMUNITY CENTER

Joel Assogba is a writer-illustrator, a freelance columnist, author of trilingual books in Japanese, English and French, and also a passionate public speaker.  Above all, he is a father --  with a big mission.  TF talks to Joel. 

TF:  What brought you to Japan in 1994? 
Joel: Among other reasons, the interest in medieval Japanese classic literature. I love KAMO no Chomei, a Japanese author, poet, essayist, and philosopher so I decided to come to Japan to learn more about his work. 

TF: Tell us about your family and journey in Japan in the last 17 years. 
Joel:  My 17 years in Japan have been quite memorable.  My daughter Karen-Anne (now 17 years old) was born in Chikugo city, my son Georges-Eric (now 15 years old)  and my daughter Erika-Joelle, 12,  were born in Kumamoto city. My wife Reiko, our three precious children and I used to live in a crowded small apartment in the town center for 5 years before we moved into a beautiful two-storey house we bought in a wealthy neighborhood.  I ran a language school called “Queen’s,” in Chikugo city (a small city located 40 minutes by express train from Hakata, Fukuoka) where I taught English and French.  There were too many social issues in Japan (bullying, racism, all forms of discrimination, violence, injustice, poverty…), but not many people were willing to stand up and challenge them. Everything seemed okay, and there were more bystanders than evildoers; “The world is dangerous not because of people who do harm, but because of people who look at it without doing anything.” (Albert Einstein)

I have always spoken in public in protest against injustice, to comfort the oppressed and will continue to do so for the rest of my life not only for my children but for future generation.    

TF: Japan is an aging society and needs more people like you and your children. What made you decide to leave Japan to settle permanently in Canada
Joel:  More than any other economically advanced nations in the world, Japan needs mass immigration for its survival. So it should make an effort to keep long time residents and families by truly promoting multiculturalism and cultural diversity, but it is the last thing Japanese leaders have on their agenda. My children were born and raised in Japan.  Japanese is their native language, but they were always treated as foreigners.  We were not really welcomed as true members of the society, so living permanently in Japan as foreigners was against my philosophy of cultural diversity. Everyone has the right to move freely to any part of the world, keep his ethnic and cultural identity, but not be considered as a foreigner once settled in his/her adopted nation. I have worked hard in promoting these values  all those years living there and still doing it from Canada by writing articles in Japanese newspapers, getting involved in the Japanese community here in Ottawa  via the Embassy of Japan. 

It has been only a year since we moved to Ottawa-Gatineau and it’s amazing how my children have quickly adapted to the multi-ethnic and multicultural environment.  They have just bloomed and are quite happy to live in Canada. Their English has improved a lot, and they are starting to pick up some French as well. I was moved to tears when my eldest daughter, Karen-Anne, wrote me a wonderful note on Father’s Day, I quote: “Dear だD (the way she wrote “Daddy” when she started writing at 3). Thank you for thinking of our future and bringing us to Canada. I think it was the right decision and I have no regret.” 

TF:  You have published a book about “Ijime” or bullying of multiracial children. What inspired you to write it? 
Joel: It’s a bilingual book in Japanese and English (both languages in the same book), and the title is “Gobo san no iro wa・・・?/ What Color are Burdocks?”.  My children were often teased by other Japanese kids because of the color of their skin.  “Black and dirty as burdocks”  was one of the terms that often came up.

My children got quite upset when I once brought home a picture book, “Ninjin-san ga Akai Wake” (“The Reason Why Carrot is Red”) from the local library.  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 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 the story, because the book associates 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 an increasingly multiracial contemporary Japan? I called the publisher, Doshinsha Publishing Co., and demanded that 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 story 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 counter-argument 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 fi nd 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!” 

TF:  Lastly, what is family to you? 
Joel: Family is a basic unit of every society in the world, and no nation can rise higher than its homes.  When families break up, homes collapse and as a result,  the whole community, society and nations fall apart. As a father, I would like to stress the importance of a father fi gure in a family. 

If the mother is the ruler of the family, the father is the foundation and chief corner stone. He plays many roles, some major and some minor. Strong nations, communities, and neighborhoods are made up of strong families with a father in the home. 

A father provides guidance, empowerment, and mentorship to his family. They are protected from hurt, harm, and danger, with his life if necessary.  Engaged fathers challenge their children to be strong and successful in their life and affairs. As a father, I believe in my role as a stabilizer, protector, enabler, provider, and disciplinarian in the family. 

Joel Assogba gives talks on anti-bullying, SOS racism, cultural and ethnic diversity.  He may be contacted

To support and sign Joel’s anti-racism petition, go here 

Here are some of Joel Assogbo’s books and posters that are available on the market: 

Children’s Book: The Rainbow’s Kids (Trilingual: Japanese/English/French), a  message book to promote Peace, Daddy Publishing, ISBN 4-9900918-0-9, August 2001, Japan. Price 1800 yen + 350 yen (handling fee) 

Children’s Book: Wind of Freedom (Trilingual: Japanese/English/French), a message book to promote Equality, Daddy Publishing, ISBN 4-9900918-1-7, February 2002, Japan. Price 2048 yen + 350 yen (handling fee) 

Children’s Book: What Color are Burdocks? (Bilingual: Japanese/English), a message book to promote Diversity, Daddy Publishing, ISBN 4-9900918-2-5, November 2004, Japan. Price 1850 yen + 350 yen (handling fee) 

Peace (Bilingual: Japanese/English), a book to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Daddy Publishing, ISBN 4-9900918-3-3, August 2005, Japan. Price 1500 yen + 350 yen (handling fee) 

Children’s Book: I am not a Foreigner (Bilingual: Japanese/English), a message book to promote to fi ght against racism and promote Multiculturalism, Daddy Publishing, ISBN 4-9900918-4-1, March 2006, Japan. Price 1000 yen + 350 yen (handling fee) 

Children’s Book: Respect for Life (Bilingual: Japanese/English), a message book to fight against bullying and promote Life, Daddy Publishing, ISBN 4-9900918-5-X, September 2008, Japan. Price 1900 yen + 350 yen (handling fee) 

Poster: Multiethnic and Multicultural Japan, a message poster to promote ethnic and cultural diversity in Japan, Daddy Publishing, March 2003. Price 1000 yen + 350 yen (handling fee) 

Poster: Bullying: Zero Tolerance (Bilingual: Japanese/English), a message poster to fight against bullying, Daddy Publishing, August 2007. Price 1900 yen + 350 yen (handling fee) 
You can place an order by e-mailing

For people who want to check the books out before buying them, they are at the “National Diet Library in Tokyo” 「国立国会図書 館」, 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, at (On the web site, search Joel Assogba or ジョエル・アソグバ)