C.W. Nicol

C.W. Nicol immigrated to Japan 50 years ago, eventually taking Japanese citizenship and becoming one of the country’s most visible, popular and outspoken environmentalists. In this series to run over several issues, we ask Mr. Nicol about the state of Japan’s environment today.

When I first came to Japan in October of 1962 I had just spent one and a half years with the Arctic Institute of North America’s Devon Island Expedition. There were just five of us on the over-wintering party, on a high arctic, ice-capped Canadian island, supposedly the largest uninhabited island on Earth (apart from us) with 55247 square kilometres. Within ten days of coming off the expedition, by ice breaker then a couple of planes, I was in Tokyo and quite overwhelmed.

My purpose in coming to Japan was to learn martial arts (I’d practised Judo in Britain since I was fourteen) and I had precious little knowledge of Japanese wildlife or the natural environment. I was quite astonished to learn that so much of the country was covered with forests and that there were two species of wild bears. However, it wasn’t long before friends, both foreign and Japanese, started to take me out of Tokyo to the mountains and small islands, and I fell in love with the country. Back in the early 1960s I wasn’t at all surprised that the rivers running through major cities were polluted, but I was delighted that once you got into the mountains, the rivers and streams ran swift and clear, and that wild char and salmonids were taken by local folk, not just by the titled or the rich as was the case back then in Britain. Then I found that ordinary country folk could have a hunting license and could take pheasant, grouse, ducks, hares, wild boar, bears and deer—a far cry from the hunting situation in Britain, where, as a youth, I could have been thrown in jail for shooting a pheasant or a duck (rabbits and pigeons were fair game).

I thought that the Japanese countryside was absolutely beautiful, and in my 1963 diary I wrote that ‘Japan is heaven for kids’. Back in those days kids in the country played in the streams, in the woods, and knew the names of the wild things around them. That is very different from today, when only a few university students can give the names of ten types of native trees.

However, it was obvious back then that air pollution was becoming a problem, although it didn’t really sink into me, with my experiences of smog in Britain as a youngster, when everybody was burning coal. I was very naive about environmental problems in my early twenties.

That changed when I came back to Japan in 1970, having spent just over two years in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, where I was the first Game Warden of the Simien Mountain National Park. It was very obvious that air and water pollution were very serious indeed. In those years police cars would drive through Tokyo warning people over loudspeakers to close their windows because of the photochemical smog. News was breaking of the ravages of industrial pollution, too.

Despite this, in the 1970s I found most Japanese infuriatingly complacent about the decline in environmental quality. For example, I had a cushy English conversation job, which paid me ten thousand yen for two hours, twice a week. That was a lot of money then. This was with low and mid-level management staff of a large international pharmaceutical company. I compiled a couple of lessons about air and water pollution and the effects on human health, did a little research and found (just a little) of the steps that their parent firm was making about the problem. The senior manager in the class spoke up and said “We need to learn daily conversation. Pollution and such things are of no concern to us.”

I was furious and told him that he was a fool and that I didn’t have time to waste with fools. I quit the job from that day on. No company official would come out with such an idiotic statement nowadays.

The 1970s, despite that company idiot, were the time that more and more Japanese began to worry about air and water because it was beginning to affect their health. The ugly monster was proving more and more to be the construction industry, especially under the influence of former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakue and his clique. They were creating enormous environmental damage. By the end of his rule, and the influence he left behind, 98% of Japan’s rivers were dammed, with little or no thought of fish runs. Also, with more money to spare, Japanese farmers were using herbicides, pesticide, fungicides and whatever-icides with gay abandon. Another horrible problem was that the Forestry Agency was clear-cutting the old growth forests all over the country and replacing them with mono-culture conifers. That problem was largely because the Forestry Agency officials paid their salaries and expenses from the sale of the timber they cut—and wow, did they cut! Also, it had become government policy soon after the war to replace the biodiversity of natural forest with conifers. Although many people were complaining, the government still paid subsidies to plant conifers. And of course, the yen was getting strong so it was easy to buy cheap lumber from abroad.

I became seriously aware and vocal about the destruction of old growth forests in Japan when I came to live here in northern Nagano in 1980. I got Japanese gun and hunting licenses and joined the local hunting association, not because I wanted to kill (although I didn’t mind having the occasional hare, pheasant or duck to eat) but because it was from local hunters that I would learn the most about the mountains, forests and wildlife. The clear-cutting of centuries-old forests was just awful, and it was nation-wide. That is still going on now in 2012, but it has abated because more and more Japanese are making a fuss about it. Also, the Forestry Agency has run up a huge debt and no longer has an independent budget from tree-cutting. In fact, in a few days time the Forestry Agency is making an agreement with our woodland trust to let us jointly manage 29 hectares of national forest that is currently nearly all single species of conifers which have been untended for the last thirty years. This is land adjacent to our woodland, which we have been tending for the last twenty-six years. This is a major change.

The Environmental Agency and Japanese industry have made huge efforts to cut air and water pollution, and, I am sure, will do more. However, as Aileen Mioko Smith has pointed out, water pollution problems such as the Minamata disease are by no means totally solved and we have a long way to go.

Here in Nagano, and no doubt, all over the country, there was a serious problem with uncontrolled and poorly monitored dumping of industrial and medical waste. Such dumping was often run by companies under the control of the yakuza. That has become a bit stricter, especially around here, where we made one hell of a fuss and wouldn’t bow down to the late-night telephone threats and all that bullshit. When Tanaka Yasuo (no relative of Tanaka Kakue) became governor of Nagano he did a lot to curtail the dumping of toxic waste in the mountains. It’s still a problem though, despite the many efforts made in recycling. Industry is doing its best but the disposal of garbage is still a major money-maker for the yakuza and they don’t care what corners they cut, or what harm they do. Sadly, all too many local politicians are in their pockets. It could be solved, the technology is there, but vast sums of money are made by just dumping the stuff in a little valley somewhere and covering it with dirt.

Having fought armed poachers in Ethiopia, I don’t scare easily and my friends and I keep our guard up. I know that he got a lot of muck thrown at him, but former Prime Minister Kan Naoto is a good, dedicated man, and he was doing his best for the environment, forestry and related fields. I hope he picks up the baton again.

I would say that Japan has made progress in air and water pollution, in recycling and energy saving, but the incestuous links with politics and major construction is still an enormous hurdle to overcome. Tanaka Kakue’s influence is still going on and still a nightmare.

Please read the next Koe Magazine for the continuation of this series. For more on Mr. Nicol’s foundation: www.afan.or.jp

C.W.ニコルさんが日本に移住したのは、50年ほど前のこと。ついには日本国籍を取得し、率直な発言で人気を博す有名な環境保護活動家である。Koe Magazineでは、今日の日本の環境についてニコルさんに尋ねた。そのお話を数回に渡って掲載する。














(このシリーズは、次号のKoe Magazineに続きます。お楽しみに。)

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