[Global to Local] Violet Pacileo: Building Healthy Bodies and Strong Bonds in Rural Kochi

In 2020, Violet Pacileo left her fast-paced Tokyo life to promote health, well-being and community revitalization in an aging and low-income rural community.

Violet Pacileo swapped a career in Tokyo’s fast-paced financial sector for life in the tiny town of Otoyo in Kochi Prefecture. There, she and her husband have recently established their CrossFit gym and retreat. With roots in Japan and the UK, the bicultural entrepreneur talks about the challenges of building a business in the heart of the Japanese countryside, and her vision for helping to revitalize the area where her mother grew up.  

What was your career path prior to moving to Kochi?

After graduating from university in the UK, I started my financial career with Japan’s largest investment bank in 2005, working in the stock market. I took a break for a few years when we moved to the USA, then started my own financial consulting firm in 2018 in Tokyo.

Please tell us about your connection to the town of Otoyo.

I was going back and forth between Tokyo and Otoyo to see my mother, who moved back in 2000 to look after her own parents then ended up staying after they passed away. My husband, Carlo, and I were going down to help her manage her land.

What led to moving there?

After several years, my husband offered to move down on a permanent basis with our children, to help maintain the land fulltime. I continued juggling life in Tokyo and Otoyo for a couple more years, and then I joined them in 2020 when the pandemic hit.

What do you love about life in Otoyo?

Some things I love are my own family history in the town, the quiet and pitch black nights, and having the Seto Inland Sea just an hour away for stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). And zero market competition in anything you decide to do – love that!

Bringing Health to a Struggling Community

What issues is Otoyo facing?

There are many, but a major one is the aging population. The people that stay there end up running the town and making big decisions. So the town gets left behind in terms of modernization, economic growth, and innovation. Traditional biases stick and new ideas – or newcomers – are not necessarily welcomed. Those in leadership roles don’t like being challenged by outsiders.  It is also a low income area, coming in 34th out of Kochi Prefecture’s 34 towns. Its national rank is at rock bottom too, coming in at 1,735 out of 1,741 municipalities in the entire country.

Violet and her husband Carlo at their CrossFit Otoyo Strength gym (Photo courtesy of Violet Pacileo).

Tell us about your business, CrossFit Otoyo Strength.

CrossFit incorporates aspects of weightlifting, gymnastics, and cardio, all performed at high intensity relative to your own abilities. I fell in love with the concept and the sense of belonging to a community and making people stronger. When you live in an aging town, you see first-hand what poor life choices and lack of exercise can do to people later in life. This can all be avoided/reversed by adding strength training into your daily routine.

What challenges did you face in launching a business in a rural town?

Running a start-up is never easy. On top of this, we are in the most economically-challenged town in Kochi. Financially, the past two years were probably the worst it could ever get for our family. Every entrepreneur will tell you, being dirt poor is just part of starting a business. I don’t really think about it. I left my life in hedge funds to live stress-free; I want to keep it that way.

How did you go about getting buy-in from the local community?

I presented my idea over and over again to different groups. I talked to everyone who would listen from banks and the chamber of commerce, to university professors, the mayor, and even the governor! I phoned and emailed media outlets too, trying to create hype around what I was doing.

Aerial view of the CrossFit Otoyo Strength gym alongside the Yoshino River in Otoyo Town, Kochi Prefecture (Photo courtesy of Violet Pacileo).

How do you envisage your business benefitting the local community going forward?

First and foremost are the health benefits of a stronger and healthier population, leading to less spending on healthcare. (Incidentally, Kochi Prefecture has the highest obesity rate for elementary school children in Japan.) This extends to mental health, too. Thinking positively leads to optimism and innovation, and therefore growth in the economy. Also, opportunities for sports tourism will attract visitors.

Tackling the Gender Gap

As a woman, have you run up against stereotypes about what your role "should" be?

Japan ranked 116th out of 146 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Gender Gap Report in terms of gender equality. This ranking mainly talks about Tokyo, so imagine going back 50 years in time (or more): that is Otoyo.

How have you been addressing this?

I am focusing on a few things. I see children as the next generation of leaders. Therefore, I teach local children about unconscious bias in primary and junior high school classes, and I try to reach teachers and parents too. I’ve also teamed up with Kochi Prefecture’s Gender Equality Bureau to provide three free seminars on unconscious bias to local people in this mountain region. Initially, I looked around for experts to bring in to give seminars, but found there were none in Shikoku. The organization I spoke to asked me to become a certified trainer, so that’s what I did. I've now been approached about lecturing at an upcoming gender diversity event for universities in Shikoku. As for my own staff, if a person has children or other obligations, I give them the flexibility to work when they can—as long as the job gets done, I don’t mind when they do it.

Violet demonstrating her weight-lifting prowess (Photo courtesy of Violet Pacileo).

Now that your business is up and running, how do you see it developing?

I hope we get on the map for the global CrossFit community. Otoyo is a perfect place to take a trip: go rafting, hiking, enjoy the river, unplug and workout! It’s also ideal for digital nomads, who can work with a river view from our BBQ terrace and stay in our Tiny House accommodation. I love seeing gradual improvements in our local members’ fitness. Inactivity is, honestly, a global pandemic. We need people to get out and move to stay healthy. I want this town to be known for having one of the healthiest and strongest elderly populations in Japan.

Do you have words of advice for anyone thinking of moving to Japan’s countryside?

Be patient and courteous, and don’t force your city lifestyle on the locals. The standard response from those who have never seen the outside world is usually "no," but don’t ever take no for an answer. Find someone who understands and create a community of people with a similar mindset.

Find out more about Violet and CrossFit Otoyo Strength:

CrossFit Otoyo Strength's website: www.otoyostrength.com

Follow on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/crossfitotoyostrength/?hl=en

Louise George Kittaka is a bilingual writer and content creator from New Zealand. She writes for numerous media platforms and also lectures at Shirayuri Women’s University in Tokyo.