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Naoki Nihei: Ethnic Kyrgyz people look like the Japanese

Naoki Nihei was born in Niigata Prefecture, Japan. He has been working in the development cooperation sphere for the past 15 years. Naoki Nihei worked for the headquarters of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Tokyo as well as in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. After Uzbekistan, he moved to the United States to work for the headquarters of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). After spending 7 years in Tashkent and New York, he arrived in Bishkek in January 2017.

After work in Tashkent, Naoki Nihei became interested in Central Asia and wanted to return to the region. By chance, UN office in Bishkek was looking for an international staff who engages in peace, conflict prevention and security sphere in supporting the Kyrgyz Republic’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is a global development target till the year of 2030.

Naoki Nihei told 24.kg news agency how Bishkek has changed since his first visit.

— What surprised you in Kyrgyzstan?

— Before moving here, I had several opportunities to travel to Bishkek. The first one was back in 2010, I came from Tashkent where I worked. Compared with the impression from my first visit, to my eyes, Bishkek has changed a lot, especially in part of many new department stores and new constructions of apartment buildings. For the past years, landscape of Bishkek has drastically changed. Of course, still in many parts, Bishkek is the same as before, keeping a shape of the Soviet time architectures and statues (for example big monument to Lenin.) I enjoy watching a Lenin statue in every town I visited so far.

Multi-ethnic diversity in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan impressed me a lot in general. In Kyrgyzstan, there are more than 80 ethnicities, and diverse faces of people in the streets. This is very amazing for me as Japan is quite homogenic country in terms of ethnicity (99% of population is Japanese).

Regarding the ethnic Kyrgyz, they all look like Japanese people in faces. It is very difficult to distinguish sometime if he or she speaks Japanese.

Naoki Nihei

I have many local Kyrgyz friends who study in Japan and many of them speak fluent Japanese language.

— What in Bishkek reminds you of your hometown?

— My hometown is Shibata city in Niigata Prefecture. It is a small size city in Japan with population of 100,000 people. Shibata is an inland area with agricultural fields, especially rice fields, except for urban settings. Mountains there are so close, so Bishkek reminds me of landscape of mountains from the window of my house there.

— What do you miss in Kyrgyzstan?

— In principle, I don’t miss Japan a lot, this is my 5th year in Central Asia including my time in Tashkent. Bishkek has a lot of places to hang out — close location to nature, cafés, bars, restaurants, discos and parks, so enough choices for me. In addition, there is an authentic Japanese restaurant «Furusato» (means «hometown» in Japanese) where a Japanese chef serves people in Bishkek with authentic cuisines in the central locality of the capital.

— What national dishes do you like?

— I like local noodles, lagman, especially boso (fried) as they look similar to one of the Japanese noodle called «yaki udon» but with a different taste. Shashlyk is always favorite in the region. In Japan, we have similar foods called «yakitori» — a kind of chicken shashlik but it has smaller size.

— What are you afraid even to try?

— Actually, I have never tried grilled entire body of a sheep, even though I saw many photos from friends. It is a special cuisine for celebrations in this country. I am afraid to bite the face part of the grilled sheep... I guess some day I may have a chance to eat that and so now I don’t imagine the taste.

— What is your favorite place in Bishkek?

— My favorite place is Spartak stadium, where I often go to see Kyrgyz football games. Sometimes I go there for running with a Japanese coach who was deployed to the National Athletic Association by the JICA’s Volunteer Program. There is another my favorite football ground in the premise of the National Academy of Physical Culture and Sports.

I am a football fan and often see the games of Kyrgyz Top-League as well as international matches.

Naoki Nihei

As you may know, on 20 November 2018, the Kyrgyz national football team will play with the Japanese football team at the Toyota Stadium in Aichi Prefecture. This will be the first match ever for the Kyrgyz Republic and Japan after the independence in 1991. I am looking forward to the day and the match and believe this will be a great opportunity for Kyrgyz Republic and Japan to strengthen friendship. I believe, in general, sports have a characteristic of power to support international friendship among the people.

— What has fascinated you in close acquaintance with the local population?

— As mentioned, I am fascinated with diverse ethnicity of population. Bishkek is a kind of cosmopolitan of all the ethnic groups, but places I have visited showed me diverse combinations of ethnicities. Every town, village have some ethnic roots and compositions, which are very interesting. It enriches cultural diversity of the country.

— And what disappointed you?

— In general, when I am abroad, I try not to be disappointed, as every society consist of different elements and historic, cultural background. Otherwise, I cannot avoid that feeling as every country is at a different stage of societal development and my work is to support the growing up of one country with a good experience of development. Japan could be a good model for Kyrgyzstan’s development pathway.