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Sunday, June 2, 2002

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C.W. NICOL

Straight talking from Citizen Nic

Writer and naturalist C.W. Nicol left his home in South Wales in 1958 at the age of 17 to join an Arctic Institute of North America expedition to the Arctic. Four years later, he made his first visit to Japan to study karate and Japanese, before heading back to Canada to take part in a further six Arctic expeditions as a technical officer with the Fisheries Research Board of Canada.

"Nic," as he prefers to be known informally, has also been a professional wrestler in Britain, a game warden and the first director of the Simien Mountain National Park in Ethiopia, and a whaling researcher for the Canada Council in Japan.

In 1980 he settled with his Japanese wife in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, where he has written many of his 100-plus books. He has also produced and presented a number of TV documentaries on environmental issues, and frequently tours the country talking on the subject. In the past few years, he has realized two long sought-after goals: Japanese citizenship and a 7th dan in karate.

From next week he will join The Japan Times as a columnist on the Nature Page, appearing on the first Thursday of each month.

Your association with Japan began with your passion for martial arts. How did that come about?

I was really badly bullied at school when I was about 12. There was a clique of 16- and 17-year-olds who had a penchant for bullying younger boys, and I was a mouthy little shit so naturally they didn't hold back. They garroted me with ropes, burned the end of my penis with cigarettes, stuck my head down the toilet, that kind of stuff. One day I couldn't take any more so I stabbed one of them with a commando knife. I couldn't use it very well, so he didn't die and I didn't go to borstal [a reformatory for young offenders].

However, I was sent to another school and I decided to enter the Sea Cadets. One of the things they taught us was jujitsu. Then I quickly got into judo, and that led to an interest in wrestling, and then karate. But there were no karate teachers in Britain at that time, so I decided I'd have to go to Japan.

I learned something through the martial arts that has proved very useful throughout the years: If you are bullied and you fight back with all you've got, the bullying stops.

And have you continued to fight back?

Oh yes, constantly! When I was in Ethiopia I had to face armed poachers and bandits trespassing in the national park. On several occasions there were situations where it was him or me. Once I was attacked by two poachers with iron-tipped clubs. One of them died. I did a roundhouse kick, but I was wearing boots. I'm no tough guy, but I will never back down.

Here in Japan, too, in the squabbles I've had with the yakuza, I never back down. They've never actually acted, but they've threatened to kill me and my daughter -- over the phone and during little confrontations at Tokyo Station.

Why were you threatened?

Because of the illegal dumping of medical and industrial waste in which they are involved. All I'm saying to them is that such dumping is going to make the Minamata disease outbreak [in the 1960s and '70s, which was caused by mercury poisoning and affected thousands of people in Kumamoto Prefecture] look like a picnic in the future. And the government should make sure that all this money that's running underground, which I have been told is millions and millions of dollars, should be brought out in the open to ensure it's used to deal with the garbage properly. I'm not hitting at the little guy in the dump truck; I'm talking about scumbag lawyers and politicians and gang bosses who are profiting from all this.

What drew your attention to the dumping?

It was around the time of the Nagano Winter Olympics, when big roads were built and dump trucks were driving through this area by the hundreds. There was a lot of protest here. Government officials were saying that the stuff dumped here was safe. We knew otherwise. With the permission of the landowner, we dug up one dump and it was at least 50 percent medical waste. It was revolting.

The runoff was going into a lake that provides local drinking water. I made a fuss about it when I did lectures and so on. I told doctors, I told everyone that their water is contaminated and they shouldn't rely on bureaucrats for protection: They're either too ignorant, too involved themselves or too scared. I spoke with politicians -- gave them the names of the companies involved and their yakuza affiliations. The dumping stopped, and they removed that dump.

What other major environmental issues are facing Japan today?

Garbage is the root of so many problems -- wasteful use of resources, corruption and so on. If you talk to most Japanese quietly they will say it's terrible. But they don't know what to do. The same can be said of Mr. Koizumi.

Also, the Isahaya Bay project in Nagasaki Prefecture is criminal. I went there before they started building and was amazed at the number of seabirds and migratory birds on those mud flats. I have never seen so many shellfish. It's so rich. OK, they've had floods there, but that method of flood control [by constructing raisable gates across the mouth of the bay] is ridiculous. It's obvious to anyone with an ounce of fisheries knowledge that it would kill the fisheries of the Ariake Sea. And why? To make more rice fields! A quarter of the rice fields in Nagano Prefecture alone are lying dormant and it's the same all over Japan. But what can you do when a fisherman signs off his fishing rights and local politics is so dirty?

You haven't mentioned whaling yet . . .

This has probably got me into more trouble with rabid conservationists than I care to mention (laughs) . . . but I think I have been largely misunderstood.

After my first trip to Japan, I returned to Canada in the early '60s to work for the Fisheries Research Board. We were responsible for monitoring and researching marine mammals. On a new whaling station in Nova Scotia there was a joint Norwegian-Canadian team ostensibly hunting fin whales. The meat they were taking was being used to feed mink and fox. There was a terrible wastage of meat and bones and terrible malpractice. I protested very strongly and was shipped out to the Arctic for my troubles.

But then there was pressure put on the government of Newfoundland to bring in Japanese to hunt fin whales. So they brought me back and asked me to be an observer. The Japanese whalers were hunting whales for human food, which meant one fin whale taken was worth five times more than one taken by the Norway-Canada team. There was no waste, and as far as we observed they abided by the rules. After that, whenever people said that Japanese are hunting whales for cat food and ignoring laws, and so on, I would speak out on what I had seen.

And that didn't go down too well?

No, especially as it was during my time in Canada that the antiwhaling thing started getting a bit ugly in North America. I remember being in Vancouver with my 10-year-old son and some young boy shouted into the car, "I hate Japs." I stopped the car and asked what he meant. He said he had been told in school that Japanese whalers were killing the last of the blue whales. That simply wasn't true. I went to the school and said racial prejudice is an ugly thing and it often begins with what people eat.

And basically this was my stance; marine mammals are a resource and there are a lot of people living in the Arctic who feed off them -- and as long as they abide by the rules I would defend their right to do so. It wasn't very long before in the anti-whaling people's eyes I was on the pro-whaling and therefore "bad people" side.

Is that still your stance?

Yes. But more recently, when I found out to my horror that the coastal whaling companies in Japan had been fudging data for years, I was deeply shocked. If you are going to take an animal or mammal, whatever it is, you have to have a quota or you will decimate the whole stock. In Canada there were observers 24 hours a day on every whaling station; it would be very difficult to slip something past. But in Japan it was apparently very easy.

So, do you feel the pressures being put on Japan are justified?

I think it is very hypocritical of Americans to point their fingers at Norwegians and Japanese when Americans in Alaska are taking bowhead whales, which are certainly more endangered than the minke whales Japan has been taking. It's pure hypocrisy to get all self-righteous and bash Japan and not even acknowledge that people are hunting whales in your own country.

[Note: This interview was conducted before the International Whaling Commission met in Shimonoseki May 20-24, when three-fourths of IWC members turned down a joint U.S.-Russian request for a take of 280 bowhead whales over the next five years.]

You have also been very vocal about the decimation of Japan's forests, and I believe you have even bought forest land in order to restore it.

When I settled in Kurohime and saw the cutting down of forests in the mountains, I spoke out against that. I went head-on with officialdom. I was encouraged by the Japanese media to talk about these problems . . . and was invited to give talks throughout the country about the destruction of forests and so on.

I really wanted to continue the harassment of politicians and officials, but at the same time do something positive. So 18 years ago I began to buy land and restore it to healthy woodland. All the money I earned I put into the land. I now have 18 hectares. I wanted to set up a trust, but I needed Japanese citizenship to feel secure in my rights to go on harassing scumbags, to set up a trust and show that I was not just making use of Japan's rather unique acceptance of mouthy foreigners. I wanted to show I'm committed, that this is my country, too.

From May 31, the land ceases being mine, but that of a trust run by a board of experts with set objectives: to increase biodiversity, to study the rehabilitation of woodland, the use of woodland for research and advanced education.

I suppose there are some people here who think you are crazy for not building on that land?

Oh yes! But the reason I decided to go into woodland restoration was that, at the peak of my feelings of resentment and desperation over the decline of woodlands here, I got a letter from a woodland park in South Wales asking advice on what kinds of Japanese trees might suit their park. They had an idea to plant trees from the countries to which Welsh people had gone and done something about conservation.

The name of the park was Afan, and I remembered it from my childhood days as a valley that had 47 coal mines -- a complete wasteland. I went to see it. They were making forests on pit tailings and re-greening the valleys!

About 2000 years ago Wales was 98 percent forest. When I was a kid it was 6 percent. Now it's 12 percent. They've doubled it! So I decided that I could do that here, and I wouldn't even have to do it on wasteland. I could just take badly abused and neglected forest and tend it and we could have all kinds of things there. Bears, for example -- there are at least six living there now. We are planting native trees, trying to bring it back to how it was 100 years ago.

What are some of the major obstacles to reforestation and other ecological projects here?

One is a shortage of good park rangers. There are only 200 in Japan, as opposed to around 4,000 in Canada. There is a national park near here that has maybe one. African parks, even other Asian parks and South American parks, have better staffing than Japan. So we established a school in Tokyo eight years ago. We had nothing but trouble from education authorities as there was no niche in Japanese education for teaching outdoor ecology or environmental studies.

Now ecology and fieldwork are encouraged, but it has been a long uphill battle. By the time we get a kid out of the Japanese education system at 18, well, quite frankly they can't even strike a match. Some kids are more experienced, but generally the level of outdoor skills is appalling. Having said that, some of our graduates are outstanding. We have one girl studying grizzlies in Yellowstone, we have people in Africa, Brazil . . . some working on ecotourism projects.

The number of park rangers here has increased, but overall they are not of a high standard. They should be stopping poaching, which is rife here. Recently, I was told that the Harry Potter boom has caused a huge demand for owlets. So we are zealously guarding a nest right now.

Any ideas for a quick-fix solution?

Well, we're not making much fuss in the streets anymore. Why not take all these riot police Japan has and put them in the parks and give them something to do?

Interview by ROB GILHOOLY, special to The Japan Times.


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