C.W. Nicol

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

What can youth in Japan do to respect and care for the environment?

The March 11th, 2011 disaster showed the willingness of a great number of Japanese youth to drop what they were doing and head to Tohoku to volunteer with relief and cleanup jobs, often in the worst conditions imaginable. I’d answer that question by saying if you demonstrate an urgent need, then give youth the chance and some direction, they will respond. Not all of course, but the best ones will. The aspect that worries me is that very few are prepared with the skills to do fieldwork.

This loss of outdoor skills has been going on for a long time. In the early 1980’s, when I first came to Kurohime, Nagano, I had many interviews with outdoor magazines. I suppose they found it unique a foreigner would live in the mountains, go hunting in the snow, like cooking wild game, have an outdoor sauna, go on many arctic expeditions and so on.

On one occasion an editor and a photographer came to my place with a very famous Japanese kayaker named Noda Tomosuke, a guy who had paddled down the Mackenzie and Yukon rivers—a real outdoor guy. They wanted to take photos of the two of us talking around a campfire on a grassy clearing next to my house. That was fine, but the editor’s idea of a campfire was more like a Boy Scout jamboree bonfire. He kept piling on the wood, especially small dry sticks that would give lots of flames and sparks. This irritated me because I was at the same time supposed to be roasting a pheasant on a spit, and you need a nice quiet fire with hot coals to do that.

As it drew close to evening, and the talk was pretty well over, I thought that my guests, including the editor and the photographer, might like a sauna followed with a cold beer. I asked the editor to go and light the wood stove in the sauna and handed him a lighter (I didn’t expect him to use steel and flint, or to spin a stick in a hole on a slab of wood). Anyway, off he went while the photographer took more shots of Noda and me sitting around the blazing fire.

Half an hour passed, and we were pretty well through, but there was still no smoke coming from the sauna chimney. When I went to see what was going on I found the editor crouching in front of the sauna stove, the door open, turning the lighter flame on and off, on and off, at the end of a seven-inch diameter log. I used that sauna every day, and there was a box of very dry kindling and old newspapers right by the door. That editor was about thirty and working for one of the most famous outdoor magazines in Japan, yet he had never lit a fire in his life and had watched me light the fire in the backyard. I guffawed, then gave him a right rollicking, and got a roaring fire going in the stove in minutes. The kindling and wood were stored in the sauna, so they were tinder dry.

That’s not the end of it. When we got to the pension, having had a sauna, cold beer, then wine, roast pheasant and whatnot, the editor found that he couldn’t make out a word on the tape of our supposed conversation because of the loud crackling and popping of that campfire. We had to do it all over again the next morning, without the fire mind you. That editor would be sixty or so by now. I don’t know if he has any offspring, but if he has he wouldn’t have made much of a teacher of outdoor life or survival.

In one of our earlier talks, I mentioned the lack of trained park rangers in Japan. I even wrote a proposal to the Minister of the Environment about it and handed it to him personally (I was serving on an environmental panel which the minister attended). Remembering the quality of my former assistant park warden in Ethiopia, a young Ethiopian who had completed a two-year course at the College of African Wildlife Management at Mweka, Tanzania, I suggested a ranger training college be set up in Japan. I believed that Japan would be an ideal place to do this with it’s wide range of habitat, sea ice in the north, coral seas in the south and so on, with two species of wild bears, 67% of the land covered with trees, good communications, excellent public safety and so on. The minister liked the idea and used his influence to put me in touch with the Wildlife Institute of Japan. Together, we started the college in 1994. First-year students would do field training here in Kurohime, Nagano, and the second year students would do field training in Yakushima, which had just become a World Heritage Site (I was on the panel for that too, so I had some great contacts).

I named the college “Nature Conservation College”. I also argued that buildings and classrooms be built in Kurohime. However, my Japanese co-founders insisted that the college have its headquarters in Tokyo, where they took over the buildings of another failing technical college. Part of the reason for this is that they needed to get the approval of the Ministry of Education, and “nature conservation” or “environment” were not recognised as valid fields of study at that time. They had a hell of a struggle, but finally got the college recognised with the name of “Tokyo Kogaku Kankyo Senmon Gakko,” translated as “The Tokyo Technical College of the Environment”. This year, 2012, we enrolled our 19th class and have just graduated sixty or so students from the 17th year.

From the start I insisted that the students be taught the use of basic tools, including chainsaws; that they be housed in tents while on field work, do all their own cooking on either open fires or camp stoves, learn not only field biology, but also first aid, rope work, kayaking and canoeing, cross-country skiing, snorkeling and much more. I would have taught them to use firearms for hunting or culling, and to butcher deer or wild boar, but that was too much.

Our graduates became park rangers, entered the Forestry Agency or found work as active foresters with the various local Forestry Associations. Others became professional guides, found jobs all over the world, from Argentina to Montana in wildlife projects, or with companies selling outdoor goods. Several became “environmental officers” with various large Japanese companies, and one at least became a professional fisherman with his own boat in Tsushima.

Very few students have any outdoor or survival skills at all before they come to us, but the best ones are more successful at getting jobs after graduation than the graduates of major universities. The Environmental Agency still only has on a couple of hundred or so rangers, so their recruitment is low (and the graduates that I have talked to are mostly frustrated because they get moved about all the time and are expected to spend nearly all their time at a desk). A lot more people in Japan are just beginning to see the need for young people to be able to work with the environment.

That’s the bright side of things. Sadly the ability for the majority of young people to work in nature or do the most simple of outdoor things is getting worse. In 2011 I made a television documentary in our sister forest of Afan Argoed in South Wales. A young Japanese actress was selected to be the other reporter, pairing the young beauty with me, the grizzled old beast. At our fist meeting, when I showed her a beech tree with lots and lots of ripening mast I was surprised to find out that she didn’t know the Japanese word for ‘beech’ (buna). Later, I was shocked to find out that she didn’t think there was any difference between one tree and another, and that trees were all the same. That would be like a Canadian youth not knowing the difference between a maple and a cypress. Yes, of course there are lots of city folk like that, but would they be selected to be a reporter on a nature and forest documentary?

Following the 2011 disaster we invited 27 people, young and old alike, from the town of Higashi Matsushima, which had the greatest loss of life and property per capita, to come to our woods for three days and two nights. At the end of it, a young town official, who had seen the destruction, lost so many friends and relatives, waded through icy water in search of survivors, pulling out the dead, came up and thanked me.

“I have seen the future, thanks to you and these woods,” he said. He asked us to help them rebuild and relocate a new combined elementary and middle school to some densely wooded hillocks near where one school had been destroyed (six schools were destroyed in total). We went to see the area and proposed some planes for the new school.

In our proposal, which the town readily agreed with, there would be several separate buildings, all made principally of natural wood. The school would be heated in winter by a wood-pellet boiler. They would be well insulated with natural materials, and windows will be double or triple glazed. Each class should have a large flat screen by which the principal, or anybody else, can connect. Indeed, with the internet, there is no reason why a class could not connect to other classes all over Japan, or anywhere in the world.

From each window in the school there will be views of well-nurtured, pleasant woodland, of little valleys with ponds and paddies. It will be a national school, so they will have to follow national curriculum, but what better way, for example, to learn about photosynthesis than in the woods? Or to start discovering history in an area renowned for Jomon period sites and an old Kamakura-era castle? The school will be safe from tsunami, but the sea is close by. Our official trust is undertaking the initial environmental survey of this, and we received funding from a major supermarket chain to do it. The town and the local Board of Education want me to be closely involved.

There are problems, however, like a faction of die-hards who want a ferro-concrete box-like building, just like the ones that were destroyed. Some even want the destroyed schools rebuilt in the same place. These are the same people who agree to the insane plan to build a massive sea wall which would need so much fill-dirt that they will have to strip the forest from the nearby hills, then move the soil from the hills with countless trips by dump trucks. The scenery will be ruined and so will the fisheries. In many of the coastal bays that are rich in fisheries in Japan there are underwater seeps of cold, mineral rich freshwater. The weight and size of the proposed sea wall will surely stop this underground flow.Other great sea walls failed to stop the tsunami anyway. The cost of these sea walls will be astronomical. We have to fight that for many reasons, but one of the reasons for me is that I want to be part of a new program to have children be close to nature. The school could be a model for the rest of the country.

Maybe I’m dreaming, but I was dreaming when I first came to Japan to get a karate black belt at the age of twenty-two.* I was dreaming when I set out to create a national park in the northern mountains of Ethiopia, but I did it. I was dreaming when I endeavored to create a woodland trust. There is nothing wrong with dreaming and I have found that when young Japanese come together and meet a grizzled old codger like me who is as keen on wildlife and nature as he was when he was their age, their eyes light up. Give the youth of Japan a chance. It would be good if that chance came early.

*I wrote about my experiences in a book called Moving Zen. I was awarded the Japan Karate Association 5th dan and the Shotokan Karate International Federation gave me an honorary seventh dan. Now, with my creaky knees, when asked what rank I am I answer “Jo-dan” (a pun on the Japanese word for “joke”).
























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