KYOTO, Japan — On a beautiful spring Sunday during cherry blossom season, the new president of Kyoto Seika University welcomed students for the start of the Japanese school year. “You have left your home,” he told the 770 first-year and graduate students gathered in a gym on the hilly campus. “But this is also your home.”
In Bamanankan — the lingua franca of his native Mali.
And so Oussouby Sacko, 51, quickly dispensed with the elephant in the room: He is a black man in a homogeneous country that has long had an ambivalent relationship with outsiders.
Dr. Sacko, who is believed to be the first African-born president of a Japanese university, segued elegantly into fluent Japanese, invoking Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Malian writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ. The university, Dr. Sacko said, was “diversifying and internationalizing,” and he wanted the students to “recognize your difference from others.”
In this island country that is sometimes less than welcoming to immigrants, Mr. Sacko is an outlier. A resident for 27 years, he obtained Japanese citizenship 16 years ago and worked his way up through the ranks of a Japanese institution.
With a declining population, Japan is being forced to confront its traditional resistance to taking in foreigners. Last year, according to government figures, the number of foreign nationals living in Japan hit a record high of more than 2.5 million, with about 15,140 of them from African countries.