When Doga Makiura arrived in Rwanda in 2012, the 18-year-old was amazed to find not the stains of the 1994 genocide, but a tidy airport, impressive high-rises and welcoming people.
“I was astonished that a country so hopelessly mired in the aftermath of (genocide) could have recovered so miraculously,” Makiura recalls, of the nation where 800,000 people died. “I was enthralled.”
He was visiting Rwanda in August 2012 as a member of e-Education Project, a nonprofit organization run by young people that aims to give students in poor nations worldwide access to education through DVDs.
He spent nearly a year in Rwanda, undertaking a series of initiatives to change the lives of local high school children and farmers.
Makiura is now aged 20 and is a first-year student at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.
In a recent interview with The Japan Times he looked back on his life, from the days when he strained against Japanese school regulations to how he became a tech-savvy social entrepreneur with an ambition to shake up Japanese politics.
His education began at the prestigious Gakushuin Primary School, an institution patronized by Japan’s high society and whose students are marked out for greatness. It is where the royals have sent their children.
But Makiura says as a child he always fought back against restrictive rules.
“I was what you might call a troublemaker, always hating rules and getting mixed up in some weird prank,” Makiura said. “I couldn’t stand the idea of becoming like my peers (at Gakushuin), who seemed content to tread a path to elitism prepared for them.”
By the time he turned 12, Makiura had decided to leave what he called a “draconian school” and start afresh in a public junior high school. But it took Makiura only a year to quit that, too, when he decided to move to the U.K. to study.
He had already attended summer school in Britain and the United States. From those experiences, the young Makiura knew there were “those types of kids in the U.K. or America that you rarely see in Japan,” and wanted to see “how much I can compete with them.”
So at the age of 13, Makiura split with the Japanese educational system and enrolled in Cheltenham College Preparatory School, where he spent the next three years before moving to Strathallan School, a boarding school in Scotland.
“I just don’t like to be in the same environment too long. I love a change,” Makiura says with a mischievous smile.
In summer 2012, upon completing two years at Strathallan School, Makiura met Atsuyoshi Saisho, a representative of e-Education Project, who tapped him to set up a project in Rwanda — a nation enjoying a sharp economic recovery.
Little did Makiura imagine he would grow so fond of the country that he would even publish an e-book in 2013 to explain the Rwandan miracle to Japanese readers.
Rwanda is a tiny country of around 11.3 million people. The 1994 genocide, driven by ethnic hatred between the Tutsi and Hutu peoples, defined the nation’s image at that time and for years afterward. Makiura says its recent economic rise went largely unnoticed — at least in Japan.
Rwanda today boasts an annual GDP growth of approximately 8 percent. It was recognized in 2012 by the World Bank as the eighth easiest country in which to start a business. Child mortality has plummeted, too, with the deaths of under-5s in 2012 nearly a quarter of the levels of about 15 years ago.
During his tenure starting in August 2012, Makiura found that students in rural high schools were scoring far below their urban peers in university-entrance chemistry laboratory examinations. Rural students, he found, lacked basic equipment, let alone education laboratories.
Makiura spotted a solution. He and his team of local volunteers approached a renowned Rwandan chemistry teacher and asked to videotape his lectures. Makiura then burned the footage onto DVDs and delivered them to rural schools for students to watch. In 2012, students’ chemistry scores rose by an average 46 percent.
Aside from the e-Education project, Makiura succeeded in creating a business model mutually beneficial to rural farmers and refugees from neighboring Congo.
Every year farmers had to dispose of surplus crops, mostly maize, because every harvest some of the crop would be too difficult or costly to get to market. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Congolese refugees were often short of food, relying on UNHCR staff for a solution.
“We visited more than 30 rural farmers’ cooperatives, purchased more than 100 tons of unsold crops and took the food to the Congo refugees,” he said. The project not only saved the refugees from a food shortage, but helped boost the farmers’ incomes.
When he first arrived in Rwanda, Makiura was vexed by the inertia of Rwandan officialdom. At one point, it was taking such a long time to get a response he decided to initiate an informal approach to get the project moving.
“I would go to restaurants, bars and sauna parlors favored by those high-ranking officials and approach them directly. After some small talk, I would talk about my project and ask them if they could push the officials in charge of it to get back to me soon. Sometimes, the guys I befriended would sign my paper directly,” he said.
Makiura’s interest in philanthropic activities took root in 2011, a year before his journey to Rwanda, when he visited India as an English teacher and encountered poverty-stricken children in the slums. He entered the village thinking the children there must be unhappy because of the poverty, only to find the reality was the opposite. They would play in the schoolyard with big smiles.
Moreover, their desire to learn was far stronger than he had expected.
“They were very eager to learn. They would make it to my class with perfect punctuality, shower me with questions and take notes vigorously,” Makiura recalled. “I couldn’t help but wonder why in richer nations like Japan children and students alike look considerably less happy.”
Besides his desire to find out the reason behind this “paradox,” Makiura also says his studying experience in British boarding schools, where students were freely encouraged to pursue their interests, laid the foundation for his current devil-may-care mindset, in which “I never hesitate to try new things. I just do them,” he said.
And just like that, Makiura seems unafraid to stride toward his ultimate goal: to become a politician.
Driven by the entrenched culture of political schadenfreude, Japanese politicians, he says, seem disappointingly satisfied with their sneering and sniping and hardly seem to care about policymaking. There is little wonder, he said, that few of his friends and peers wish to become politicians.
In Japan, to be a politician is considered one of the least desirable career options among teens. In a Diet session in April 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced a poll by TV Asahi that placed “politicians” at No. 141 on a list of most favored career paths for Japanese teens, pipped by “tattooists” at 140.
With Japan facing an inevitable rise in the power and influence of its neighbors, “politicians play a very important role in guiding our nation and I think they need to change fundamentally,” Makiura said, pointing out that their decision-making process needs to be sped up dramatically and made more transparent.
In a nation where passivity and introverted thinking prevail among young people, Makiura is no doubt the antithesis.
“I want people my age to be always skeptical of what they see and hear, and what is taken for granted. Abandon your stereotypes and think for yourself — that, I believe, will be the first step for them to take action.”
A young life, filled with experience
1993 — Born in Tokyo
2007 — Leaves for the United Kingdom and enrolls in Cheltenham College Preparatory School
2011 — Teaches English in India, studies poverty
2012 — Graduates from Strathallan School in Scotland, begins e-Education assignment in Rwanda
2013 — Enters Britain’s University of Bristol
“Generational Change” is a new series of interviews that will appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about change in society. This week’s story appears Tuesday because there was no paper Monday due to the press holiday. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to email@example.com .