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Zachary Piper - Kochi (2001-2004)

Where were you in Japan as a JET and when?

I was a Coordinator for International Relations in Kochi Prefecture from 2001 to 2004, and I was very lucky to have two placements. For the first two years, I worked at the Umaji-mura Board of Education, and I worked at Kochi City Hall for my third year.

What sparked your interest in applying for the JET program?

I think I first became interested in Japan because of video games. I was enthralled with the original Nintendo, and I wanted to learn more about the people and the culture that created the games I enjoyed so much. That evolved into a broader interest in Japan, and so I started studying Japanese on my own in high school and then majored in Japanese Language and Literature in college. Signing up for the JET Program was the natural next step after graduating. It gave me the opportunity to strengthen my language skills and understanding of Japanese culture.

What are some of the things your prefecture is known for? e.g. food, hotspots, etc.

Kochi is the home of Sakamoto Ryoma, one of Japan’s favorite historical figures. He is famous for helping to end the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate, and Kochi has numerous museums dedicated to his life and accomplishments.

Temples 24 to 39 of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage (often referred to as “Ohenro”) are in Kochi. Two of my favorites were Hotsumisaki-ji in Muroto and Chikurin-ji in Kochi City.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Umaji-mura’s yuzu industry. They’ve done an amazing job of continuing to thrive despite being a remote village deep (deep!) in the mountains thanks to their cultivation of yuzu and impressive range of yuzu-based products. I’ve even been able to find their yuzu ponzu here in NYC!

And finally, a visit to Kochi is not complete without enjoying a dish of katsuo no tataki. Katsuo (skipjack tuna) is seared over a straw fire, and then served in thick slices with spring onions, garlic, and ginger in a light citrus soy sauce. All of the seafood in Kochi is great, but this dish is iconic.

Did you pick up any of the regional dialects? What are some of your favorite words or phrases?

I majored in Japanese and spent my junior year on exchange in Sapporo, so I was foolishly confident that I would have no issues while on JET. The joke was on me, though, because many of the people in Umaji only spoke Tosa-ben. They joked that when they tried to speak standard Japanese to me, it was just slower Tosa-ben. I started to pick it up after a few months, and that helped significantly with making friends and becoming more involved in village life. One of the phrases we all enjoyed was “Dare mo oran ki, okan ga?” which roughly means, “No one’s here, so should we finish?” A perfect expression for ending the work day a bit early.

I also participated in Genki Seinenkai all three years I was on JET, so that gave me a lot more exposure to Tosa-ben. Genki Seinenkai is a volunteer organization made up of JETs who write and perform a musical in Tosa-ben each year as a means to raise funds for a study abroad scholarship for Kochi students. It was one of my favorite experiences while on JET (I even married one of the other JETs who also participated in the shows).

If you were to return to live in Japan, would you choose to live in that same prefecture?

I admit that I’ve often thought about it! I’ve lived in major cities in the US since returning from JET (Boston, San Francisco, and now NYC), so it would be quite a change to return to such a rural location. However, I loved the natural beauty of Kochi: lush forests and rugged coastlines, perfect for hiking and camping. And of course the food was fantastic (I’m still searching for a katsuo no tataki that tastes just right). I think in my 20s I didn’t appreciate Kochi’s slower pace of life, but I would love it now that I’m older.

How has your connection in relation to Japan changed since living in Japan?

I thought I would work in a field directly connected to Japan after JET, but life is unpredictable and now I work in higher education administration. My connection with Japan has stayed strong, though. I’m on the board of directors for the JET Alumni Association of New York, and on the leadership team for the Nichibei Exchange, a grassroots network of lawyers, academics, writers, artists, consultants, and students who share an interest in Japan-US relations. My wife and I regularly go out for sushi and reminisce about our time in Japan and plan future trips for when our daughter is older.

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