C.W. Nicol

This is the fourth installment in an ongoing discussion with C.W. Nicol, one of Japan’s most influential and outspoken environmentalists.

What is inhibiting progress on environmental solutions in Japan, despite it being one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries?

I wish I could give a quick and easy answer to this. When I was working for the Canadian Department of the Environment back in the 1970s we had four hundred times the budget of the Japanese Environmental Agency. When I was a game warden in Ethiopia, drafting maps, making records of wildlife, chasing poachers and so on to create a new national park in the Simien Mountains, I had a superb Ethiopian Assistant, graduate of a wildlife college in Mweka, Tanzania, and twenty armed Ethiopian rangers. A Japanese national park used to have just one ranger. Now (probably because people like me bitched so much) they have two, but they have little or no training as rangers. Former Prime Minister Kan visited Germany and when he came back he said that there were around a million people in Germany working with the forests. In Japan that number is about fifty thousand and nearly all are sixty-five or older.

Just last year there was a little ceremony with children releasing salmon fry into the Torii river, which runs right by my study window. All the children and the other adults came wearing winter gear and boots. The official in charge of education in our town came in a dark suit and shoes. When invited to give a talk he waffled on about how everybody was busy because they were consolidating several schools. The children here came to share a dream of bringing salmon back to this river. He didn’t have a blithering clue.

I‘ve been developing and nurturing a woodland here in Nagano since 1986 and getting a lot of media attention. I’ve had to deal with a new local forestry officer every two years. The same goes for rangers at the nearby Joshinetsu Highland National Park, a park that spans mountain and volcanic areas in Nagano and the neighbouring prefectures of Niigata and Gunma. In 1994 I helped set up a college with special two year courses aimed to train national park rangers (some of our graduates have indeed become rangers) as well as people to do environmental assessment work, to be guides in eco-tourism ventures and so on. We graduate between sixty and eighty people a year. We don’t know who the local ranger is, even though we regularly get permits to do studies and trips in the national park. The ranger does not move around or get out in the field, and he or she never shows their face during our very active field courses. This would never be so in Canada, America, Africa, even Britain. Japan has fewer park rangers than any other technologically advanced country, and nearly all of them are ‘deskers’ not rangers. Very few have had any training in fieldwork (I met one at a seminar who worked in a Japanese park that I knew had a lot of deer poaching problems, and this chappie didn’t know the difference between a shotgun and a rifle, let alone how to use one).

In Japan, people who do field work are generally looked down upon by the universities and various agencies. That’s so wrong! This reflects on education as a whole, which does not train young people to get out and solve problems on the ground.

At the same time, when it comes to solar energy, Japan is very advanced. Now the laws have come around to allow people to sell back unused electricity to the grid. For decades the power companies were basically monopolies, with their top officials ‘descending from heaven’ when they retired from government posts to jobs in the companies or agencies that they formerly were supposed to regulate. This was a huge problem across the board, in all fields.

When we first starting setting up our trust (before the laws changed), I was advised that we should employ a retired official from the Environmental Agency in order to get the stamp of approval from the government. We were also told that this person probably wouldn’t want to live in the rural countryside. That’s why we initially became a prefectural trust, to avoid such conditions. Although much stricter, I’m very glad that the laws were changed to prevent this practice.

Most young Japanese have practically no survival or outdoor skills. They can’t use a knife or any basic outdoor tools. They can’t light a fire. They have no rope-work skills. They don’t know how to set up a tent or an emergency shelter. No idea of first aid. This was not so when I first came to Japan in 1962.

With children in Japan spending more and more time with their noses stuck into cellphones, electronic games or some kind of screen, more and more are afflicted with a disorder called ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ – a term I found in a book written by Richard Louve, “Last Child in the Woods.” Being totally out of touch with nature, and not playing with or in nature when young, children’s brain development changes. They become unable to concentrate or sit still for a while. They throw temper tantrums and can’t get along with others. This becomes very serious in a teenager or an adult.

This year I’m seventy-two years old, but while sitting here writing this at my desk, if a bird or a squirrel should move in the woods in the big window right in front of me, I’ll be aware of it. If I turn to my right to another window and there’s a heron on the river, I’ll spot it right away.

People have to be aware of the environment to find the energy and will to do something about it, and you won’t get that awareness from a screen. If I’m walking in the woods I’ll spot a mushroom within twenty metres, an animal or a bird within two hundred, and if I stop I am quickly aware of the insects or spiders at my feet. I automatically see or search for what links things. In a far more superior way, that’s what native peoples and ancient hunters did.

I have an old friend who became a top submarine commander with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Agency. He now has retired from the force but is working on the production of a new submarine, which, he assures me, is among the most technically advanced in the world. Japan is very good at stuff like that. However, I would be far more impressed if coastal fisheries were restored, or if salmon, char and sweetfish could once again migrate and spawn up all those dammed and concrete-lined rivers and streams. Oh, it can be done! Salmon now swim up the Thames in London, which used to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Japan has done a remarkable job in decreasing air and water pollution over the last thirty years, and in designing energy-saving equipment, small devices, automobiles, etc. If only this furor over nuclear energy will bring about more change. People need to speak out to force change, and children need to get an education that can give them the understanding and courage to do so.

I am almost totally frustrated with Japanese bureaucrats and politicians, but give the young people the chance, and encourage them, and then many will shine through. Professor ‘Taka’ Takatsuki, a good friend whom I met first when he was doing field research on deer about twenty years ago, and who now brings his students from Azabu University to do fieldwork in our woods, taught me a phrase which I like: it is “Ichigu o terasu”, which means to shine light in a dark corner. With many lanterns, the whole room becomes bright. In Japan we need enlightenment, we must try to go on increasing the number of small sources of light, one person, one idea at a time.











今の若者はいつもケータイやパソコンの画面とにらめっこで、ゲームや各種アプリなどに没頭している時間が多くなっているために「自然体験不足障害」(自然欠乏症とも)という症状に陥る人が増え続けています。この新語とはリチャード・ルーヴ著“Last Child in the Woods”の中で出会いました。子供の頃から自然の中で遊んだ経験をほとんど持たないで育つと、脳の発達に障害が出るというのです。何事にも集中できず、我慢が出来ない人間になるのです。キレやすくなり、他人とうまく付き合うことが出来なくなります。この傾向はティーンエイジャーから大人まで大きな問題になっています。







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