Staff writer

Although C.W. Nicol’s business card introduces him as a “Novelist/Naturalist,” it doesn’t take long to discover which of the two he’d rather discuss.

Just a few days after announcing the publication of his latest novel, “The Alliance,” Nicol barely gives it a mention.

But bring up the subjects of Japan’s forests or its whaling moratorium and the 59-year-old’s penetrating blue eyes become as animated as his colorful prose.

“I was told the Japanese have a deep love and respect for nature,” Nicol said in reference to his first contact with Japan’s rural areas in the early 1960s.

“But as time went on, and there was the Minamata sickness, the pollution problems, I began to see the half-truths.”

Nicol, born in Wales but now a Japanese citizen, has become one of Japan’s most vocal environmentalists, whose depth of knowledge regarding global environmental issues is more than just academic.

Between the ages of 17 and 22, he took part in three Antarctic expeditions. In Canada, where he lived for more than a decade and took up citizenship, he worked as an environment department official. Some years later, between stays in Japan, he spent two years as park warden in Simyen Mountain National Park in Ethiopia.

His views on such issues as the destruction of Japan’s virgin forests, which he refers to as being like “banks of DNA,” are not those of a passive idealist.

While Japan does have reforestation policies, it has failed to employ effective methods of tending woodland, Nicol said, adding that he has urged the government “to put money into the proper care” of forests here.

“If you put money into woodland and tend it, you get greater biodiversity, and you (thus) get more possibilities to earn money,” he said.

“There are foresters who think I’m trying to stop them cutting down trees — I’m not! I’m trying to preserve virgin forest. That doesn’t mean leaving it, it means active protection,” he said.

Nicol has put his money where his mouth is, purchasing an area of forest near his home in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, and employing a full-time park ranger to protect the rare wildlife, which includes six bears and dozens of bird species.

He also brings Japanese students, who are training to become rangers at the school he helped establish six years ago in Tokyo, to the park on field trips.

Japan’s severe shortage of park rangers is “another hobby horse I’ve been riding for the past 20 years,” Nicol said.

“Of all the civilized, richer nations, Japan has the fewest park rangers,” he said. “When I set up the Simyen National Park, we had 22 rangers. In a park of similar size in Japan now you have one. That’s a travesty.”

Nicol believes a solution to this problem is to create a new system whereby Self-Defense Forces elements are also trained to become rangers.

It is the sea, however, that features in his latest work, “The Alliance,” a historical novel centering around the “very amicable relations, especially maritime relations,” between Britain and Japan after the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty in 1902.

His interest in the subject stems partly from the naval ties within his family, which, he said, stretch back to the times of the 18th century British Adm. Horatio Nelson. He is also interested because of the large number of Japanese who went to Britain in the early 1900s to study, among other subjects, marine engineering.

The novel is part of a series, the last of which, to be published within the next few years, takes Japan up to the end of World War II.

This signals another opportunity for Nicol to get back to his favorite topic.

“This was a time when (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur (not only) ordered the remnants of the Japanese Navy to minesweep off the Korean coast, but also ordered the Japanese to send a whaling fleet to the Antarctic,” he said.

Subsequent research into whaling coupled with his experience aboard Japanese whaling ships “as an observer” has unearthed interesting but little-acknowledged historical facts, he said.

Although he expressed “strong reservations about whaling,” the “lies and half-truths” that have been thrown at the Japanese over its whaling practices encouraged him to “shout out.”

His research showed that in the 1840s, the U.S. whaling industry lobbied hard in Congress to get Japan “to open up for the safety of its whaling ships,” Nicol said.

A letter from U.S. President Millard Fillmore to Emperor Komei also requested protection for U.S. whaling ships, he said.

“That was the main reason for the Black Ships coming (to Japan),” Nicol said.

Yet while Nicol says he wants the U.S. “to look at history and not be so damned self-righteous,” he insists that whaling in the U.S. is not just a practice of the past.

“The U.S. continues to be a whaling nation, continues to bully everyone else about whaling and stands on the pedestal,” he said, adding that the U.S. is now the world’s No. 3 whaling nation in terms of tonnage taken — putting it ahead of Japan.

Since moving to Kurohime 19 years ago, Nicol has become increasingly aware of the difficulties Japanese, especially those living in rural areas, face in speaking their minds.

“If you speak out against a trend in society, such as the cutting down of a forest, you’re going to have some relative who’s involved somewhere — you’re going to be an outcast,” he said.

“But blue-eyed foreigners are outcasts right from the start. I’ve found it tremendous fun playing, if not Don Quixote, then Don Quixote’s donkey.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.