One tiny experience in your life may floor you and open the door to an entirely new world. Though rare, it sometimes happens when one stumbles upon a totally different culture.

This is what Lin Kobayashi, 40, experienced when she was in high school in Canada, motivating her to establish the International School of Asia, Karuizawa, the first all-English international boarding school in Japan, last Aug. 24.

“It was a shocking experience,” said Kobayashi, one of the founders of ISAK, referring to her summer trip to Mexico with a friend from the Canadian school.

“I knew there was poverty and starvation in the world through books and media reports. But I witnessed poverty just behind my friend,” she said in a recent interview.

Her Mexican friend and her four brothers all had good command of English, thanks to their parents’ focus on education. She said her family was middle class in Mexico. Yet she was the only one in her family who went to high school — after earning a scholarship.

Having gone through public school in Japan before attending the boarding school in Canada, education was something Kobayashi and her friends in Japan had always taken for granted. But her experience in Mexico, Kobayashi said, made her realize the importance of equal opportunity.

“I was shocked that the family you were born to decides if you have a chance to get education,” in Mexico, she said. “That was when I honestly understood how Japanese kids are privileged, and that was when I faced the reality that not many people in the world are like that.”

This realization prompted Kobayashi to work toward improving education for children from low-income families in the hope that knowledge would empower their escape from poverty.

After studying developmental economics at the University of Tokyo and completing a master’s degree in education at Stanford University, Kobayashi went to work for UNICEF in the Philippines between 2006 and 2008.

But the reality surrounding street children in central Manila shattered her optimistic belief that education was the key to changing everything.

“Even if primary education is free, young kids are sacrificed to child labor and can’t go to school. Even if they receive an education, they are so poor they sell their votes at elections. Due to this reality, I started to think that merely educating the poor is not enough,” she said.

ISAK’s stated goal — developing transformational leaders for the greater good of Asia and beyond — is closely linked to what Kobayashi has experienced in her visits to underdeveloped nations. She is now convinced of the importance of educating youngsters who can change society.

There is a reason Kobayashi founded the school in Japan.

“After (studying and working for) 20 years, I realized that Japan was suffering from a long-lasting recession. Japan has a high level of education in general, but the country has cruised without direction for many years due to a lack of leadership,” she said.

“Japan also needs change-makers, not only in politics, but also in big business and entrepreneurship,” Kobayashi said.

Another reason she founded ISAK in Japan was to attract students from all over the world to make the school sustainable, she said, adding that Karuizawa provides an appropriate and safe living environment for students.

“(We’ve told our students that) leaders are not meant to be positions or titles. Anyone can become a leader if they practice with their own drive,” Kobayashi said.

In Japan, leadership is naturally grown through club or student union activities. But not many schools cultivate a sense of power in students so they can take the initiative, she said.

The school’s efforts have borne fruit.

“What I am surprised at in a good sense and most pleased at is that our students themselves are the ones who take our school’s mission and vision sincerely and take action,” Kobayashi said at a library where several students were studying on sofas.

Through orientation, summer camps and semiannual projects, when students learn what leadership is, they understand that it is not one’s natural talent but something they attain through practice.

And the students themselves know they have changed during the nine months so far.

“My attitude has changed significantly,” said Tairi, a 17-year-old Japanese who would only identify himself by his first name. “In the past, I only did what I was told to do. But now, I think what I can do before being told,” he said before lunch.

“And I won’t do anything for myself alone,” he said, adding that students in Singapore seemed more self-centered during his 2½ years studying there.

Mao, a student from Nagano Prefecture who also did not reveal her last name, said she has become more outgoing since enrolling at the school.

“I rather liked staying at home,” the 16-year-old explained. “But now I enjoy spending time with my friends from other countries. I also improved my English vocabulary as well as my ability to write essays,” she said after a history class, where students from the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia had explained why the way Japan’s textbooks explain the war matters to other parts of Asia.

Out of the 49 students who have enrolled since August, less than a third are Japanese. Their varied backgrounds help them learn about the hard truths of life in and outside Japan.

When snow fell in Karuizawa for the first time last winter, most of the students were excited. But one from Tajikistan said she had bad memories of snow.

In her county, boys would threw snowballs at her on the way home from school because not many girls attend junior high school.

“(If the students hadn’t heard her story, they) couldn’t have imagined the inequality, discrimination and bullying against girls in her home country,” Kobayashi said.

“It will give them a strong impression, as if it were a first-hand experience. This happens only because this school has diversity,” she added.

Unlike international schools filled with the children of wealthy expats, diversity is ISAK’s best feature. The school offers scholarships to people from nations both rich and poor.

And that’s a good thing, because studying at ISAK isn’t cheap. Aside from the ¥600,000 one-time entry fee, a year costs about ¥3.92 million, including tuition, board and facility fees.

To cover the costs, over half of ISAK’s students are on full or partial scholarships funded by individuals and companies, including Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. and YKK Holding Asia Pte, Ltd.

Kobayashi said she hopes to increase enrollment so she can hire more teachers and expand its offerings to include courses on ecology, economics and civics.

Key events in Kobayashi’s life

  • 1994 — Graduated from Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific in Canada.
  • 1998 — Graduated from University of Tokyo.
  • 1998 — 2000 Worked for Morgan Stanley Securities Co.
  • 2005 — Earned master’s degree at Stanford University.
  • 2006-2008 Worked for UNICEF in Philippines.
  • 2012 — Selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
  • 2014 — Established ISAK.

“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. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .