Ethiopian Ambassador Markos Tekle Rike, 34, says he has always felt a special connection between his country and Japan, although he did not have any personal interest in this country before he arrived here 2½ years ago.
Japanese products and ways of thinking, he says, were very popular in Ethiopia when he was growing up.
“Toyota cars were very popular in Ethiopia from the 1980s until quite recently. About 10 years ago, almost 85 percent of all cars were Toyota. Japanese culture and philosophy had also been introduced into Ethiopia,” he said.
Study of Japan was so widespread in Ethiopia in the early 20th century that the term “Japanizer” was coined to refer to a school of thought that compared the country with Japan and encouraged young and educated Ethiopians to create a modernization movement something like the Meiji Restoration.
Rike said he read a book in elementary school written by a successor to a Japanizer that depicted how Japan managed to rebuild after World War II and become one of the world’s most advanced economies.
The ambassador said that after arriving in Japan, he found several commonalities between the countries that seem so far apart, both in location and culture.
For example, there exists in Ethiopia a music genre that sounds similar to Japanese enka (ballads) with similar musical beats, he said.
Also, a “coffee ceremony” popular in Ethiopia resembles Japan’s traditional tea ceremony in many ways, he said.
Typically done at home, the neighbors come together to drink coffee and exchange views or information.
“Coffee is ground and prepared manually in front of the people. The coffee ceremony is a way of socializing,” he said.
Over the past several years, many of Africa’s economies have enjoyed rapid economic growth, and Ethiopia has shown it’s one of the fastest growing countries in East Africa.
According to the International Monetary Fund, its gross domestic product grew over 10 percent annually from 2004 to 2009.
Pointing to the fact that Ethiopia is not an oil-producing country, Rike stressed that his country’s growth differs from many other African nations in that it relies not on mineral resources but on agricultural production, including coffee, sesame and roses.
The country’s exports are almost entirely from the agricultural sector and include coffee — its biggest export. Ethiopia produces more coffee than any other nation on the African continent.
“Especially in the last half century, there was conflict, war and drought. Ethiopia was striving to develop and prosper,” Rike said.
Citing the recent meeting of the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, held in June in Yokohama, Rike said he was happy to find a growing interest here toward business opportunities in Africa.
“This is what we have long awaited as an outcome of TICAD. During the meeting, Africa’s image improved in general in Japan. More and more Japanese private-sector (firms) are thinking and planning to invest in Africa. That is a very positive thing for us,” he said with a smile.
Rike was born and grew up in Yaye, in the Sidama Zone in the south.
After attaining a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science and international relations at Addis Ababa University, he then went on to teach at several educational institutions.
He taught at a vocational school and an information technology college for three years, and served as dean of Hawassa University’s faculty of social sciences and as a lecturer in the department of governance and development studies from 2006 to 2010.
“I really enjoy teaching. I would like to go back to teaching when I return to Ethiopia,” he said.
He was posted as ambassador to Japan when he was 31. According to Rike, the Ethiopian government appointed him at such an unusually young age for a head of diplomatic mission to Tokyo because it wanted to bring “new ideas and energy” into the present system.
“It was a shift in government focus. The government wanted to bring new blood into the system. They said they wanted active and young people in executive and ambassadorial positions,” the ambassador said.
Until then, most of the ambassadors to other countries had been either retired state ministers or governors, Rike said.
Rike resisted the proposal at first, because he did not have any previous diplomatic experience, and also because he was nervous that he could not take up the position as envoy to Tokyo, one of the most important diplomatic posts for his country.
However, he was convinced by the government, who stressed that he was right for the post in this age of economic diplomacy — as an ambassador who can promote trade, bring more investors to Ethiopia, and make more public communication and diplomacy.
“I want to promote more tourism in Ethiopia,” he said. “Not a lot of Japanese know about Ethiopia and its nine UNESCO World Heritage sites. We want more Japanese to come and visit them,” he said, adding that he is now working to connect Ethiopia and Japan with a direct flight, which does not exist at present.
Rike arrived in Japan with his family a few months before the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, and was officially appointed to his present post at the end of March the same year.
He said he and his family — his wife and eldest daughter — spent the whole time in Japan right after the disasters hit, when many staff members from other embassies were encouraged to fly back to their home countries amid fears of radiation fallout due to the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
During that time, he said he really saw firsthand “the resilience of the Japanese people.”
“The Japanese people faced challenge, tried to avoid panic and (aimed to) recover,” Rike said.
His youngest daughter, who was born in Tokyo last year, was named Masami — a Japanese name whose kanji means justice and beauty — so that the family will always remember Japan wherever they end up in the future, he said.