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Almost 20 years ago Sayaka Kuriyama was a popular Shibuya shop manager and ganguro gal with a dark tan typical of the late 1990s fashion trend.

Fast forward to March this year and the former fashionista left for Africa in her current role helping people with serious diseases.

“I want to save as many people as possible,” the 35-year-old, who obtained a medical technician license in Mozambique last year, said during an interview in Tokyo before returning to the Southeast African nation.

As a medical technician, Kuriyama’s tasks include diagnosing patients, administering medications and assisting doctors, who are in short supply in Africa.

A native of Omaezaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, Kuriyama graduated from a junior college in Tokyo and first worked at a clothing shop in the trend-setting Shibuya 109 shopping mall. She later served as manager at another shop.

Back then, Kuriyama darkened her face at a tanning salon and wore the heavy makeup of a ganguro gal, sporting rebellious fashions in contradiction of traditional concepts of beauty.

She experienced a change in life when a close friend from her hometown died of breast cancer when they were both in their mid-20s.

“I wondered what life means and realized I have to do something to change,” Kuriyama said.

Inspired by an essay written by a Japanese living abroad, Kuriyama turned her attention toward developing countries she knew little about.

She left Japan in 2006, intending “to come back in just a few months.” But it turned into a much longer trip.

After visiting Southeast Asia, Turkey and other countries, Kuriyama temporarily settled in Ethiopia, working at a medical facility as a volunteer, during which time she found many young women, even girls, dying from AIDS and tuberculosis.

Kuriyama felt devastated and doubted there was anything she could do, but she developed a burning desire to study medicine.

After traveling to other parts of Africa, she returned to Mozambique and established the organization Chicamushizio to offer vocational and educational support to women and children.

Kuriyama also entered a local medical school in 2012. She passed a medical technician exam and returned to Japan at the end of last year — about nine years after she first left without any plans.

“I feel deeply blessed with what I have and hope to return the kindness I received from others to . . . many people,” Kuriyama said.

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