Advice from a Former Swashbuckler (now an Old Bear)

“Reading and watching the news can be so damned depressing. I am sure that many of

Here’s the Big Bear.

you, like me, are sick to death of hearing about plummeting economies and useless, senseless wars. It is much more fun to nurture woodlands, land and streams, to collect delicious mushrooms by the bucketful, to gather firewood and make charcoal to render harsh winter more comfortable, and from our own little fields to harvest potatoes and parsnips, cabbages, broccoli and brussel sprouts, leeks, turnips, carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplants and what-have-you–all to be shared and enjoyed and to bring nothing but good to the land.”

That’s “Old Nic” speaking,  from a 2008 entry in “Old Nic’s Notebook”, a nature blog carried by the Japan Times that I have recently begun reading with great interest. Described by an interviewer as “….a character straight out of a swashbuckling 18th century novel”,  C.W. Nicol has lived an extraordinary life, and I only wish I had discovered him sooner.  You do Karate? Old Nic, whose interest in the discipline is what drew him to Japan in the first place, is revered world-wide in Karate Circles; his book, “Moving Zen-One Man’s Journey to the Heart of Karate” has been read and re-read by Karate aficionados.  You dream of one day visiting an African game preserve?  Nicol has not only visited, but has worked to establish a National Park in Ethiopia, where he served as a game warden for two years. You’re a fan of Moby Dick?  Love those old whaling museums in Nantucket?  Well, Old Nick has lived in Taiji (the setting of the controversial film “The Cove”), sailed to the Antarctic with a whaling fleet, and written a historical novel, “Harpoon”, while onboard ship. The novel sold well and set him up as a writer upon his return to Japan.  Born in Wales, he has also had Canadian citizenship (from his days of study at McGill University), and is now a naturalized Japanese citizen, having continued his studies at Nihon University. He is fully fluent in Japanese. He has published in both English and Japanese and, in 1980, won the Japan Broadcasting Writer’s Award for his screenplay of a TV drama written in Japanese.

This is all well and good (you say), but why is this timely? Why would I choose to write about a man who describes himself as a big old bear from the deep woods when it’s the 6 month anniversary of the Tohoku Triple Disaster (“Daishinsai” in Japanese) AND the 10 year anniversary of the 9-11 terror attack on New York City?  Well….precisely because these two events are being covered in such detail; for the past few days there’s been nothing else on TV in Japan, and newspaper editorials and facebook posts seem obsessed with squeezing out the last drop of meaning from the disasters.  I will let them squeeze away, and instead introduce you to Old Nick, whose writings are, in fact, very relevant to the issues at stake in Japan’s disaster recovery process.

Let me start with the first article from “Old Nic’s Notebook” that made me sit up and take notice (I had been briefly skimming the blog whenever I got the  weekend edition of the Japan Times from the train station, but hadn’t had any jaw-dropping revelations. Probably hadn’t been concentrating hard enough, in my eagerness to get to the book and movie reviews).  It was last Sunday’s post, entitled “Children-and their children-must be saved from Nature Deficit Disorder”.  “Aha!” I thought. “Fukushima!” (for those of you who have not been following, children in the emergency preparedness zone in Fukushima have not played outside in months), and I dug right in to the article. I was well-rewarded. Nicol begins by reminiscing about his first years in Japan (he arrived in 1962), and how the

Found in the river: what a prize! ( that’s my river-loving daughter)

Nagano Prefecture countryside was a place for children to play. He writes of his joy in observing children catching tadpoles, frogs or beetles, helping in the rice fields, and gathering sticks for firewood. Now, he says, the rivers in his district are empty of children; because of a drowning in Miyagi Prefecture (two boys out frog-catching), the local elementary school has forbidden children to play in the river at all.  As Nicol stated, these things happen, but still children are probably in more danger crossing the road every day (Japanese children ALL walk to school, sometimes navigating extremely narrow streets shared with cars , bicycles, and motorbikes) than they are playing in the river.

Well, before you start feeling sad or indignant, let me inject some humor (though there’s a poignancy in this story as well).  Nicol was so disgusted with the school’s ruling  that he began plying his friends’ son (his “little buddy”) with the promise of money to disobey the rule and go down to the river to play.  “His parents and I encourage the little chap to ignore this order,” he writes. “I have offered to give him pocket money if he will just write down simple observations, such as the birds or fish or dragonflies he sees out there. That way, should some sneaky twit play teacher’s pet and report him to the school, he could claim he is doing a holiday river-assignment research task for me. If the school then tried to push him around I will give them, and their bosses, a right Celtic bollocking.”  Well!  You can understand why I liked the man immediately. The poignant part of the story is that the little boy absolutely refused to disobey the school rule, no matter how hard Old Nic (and his own parents) poked and prodded. This is unsurprising  given Japanese children’s reluctance to go against the grain or stand out in any way, but still disappointing.

As a side note, I was curious to know how Nicol could declare his intentions to give the school board a “bollocking” with such confidence. Most foreigners here are low on the totem pole; their voices go unheard, or are heard with condescension rather than respect. That’s when I began digging around to find out who the man actually was, and how he came to be writing the “Old Nic’s Notebook” column. Here are some tidbits of what I learned.

After his swashbuckling days, C.W. Nicol decided to settle in Japan. Some years ago, he was asked, in an interview by a Karate devotee, why he

Nagano is over 70% forest land. (photo by Kenji Minami)

never returned to his native Wales.  Word for word, here is his reply:  “I am as proud to be a Japanese citizen as I am of being Welsch. A Welsch Japanese.  As a country for wildlife, it is amazing . For example, more the 70% of Nagano Prefecture is covered with forest, in which there are bears, wild boar, monkeys, deer, and so many other creatures.  If you don’t include Alaska, Japan has a longer coastline than the United States.  We have sea ice in the North, coral seas in the South. I look out of this study window to see Mount Kurohime…the Black Princess..a dormant volcano, forested to the top….Really, Japan is a beautiful and varied country if you get out of the big cities.” (interview w/Shaun Banfield, 2009).  Nicol has also written of his first impression of Japanese farms in the Nagano area, which he likened to gardens, because of their beauty. He admired the Japanese ability to strike a balance between nature and human culture, and their respect for the land they worked. He decided to buy land in the Kurohime district of Nagano, and thus began his settled life in Japan.

Within two years, Nicol began to see changes in the Japanese attitude toward forest land (“sato yama” in Japanese).  After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, woodlands fell into neglect, many becoming tangles of brush rather than well-tended havens of bio-diversity.  At the same time, a forest in his native Wales was being revived and restored after suffering the effects of years of coal mining.  Nicol, drawing inspiration from the restoration of the Afan Argoed Forest in South Wales, became determined to do the same for forest land in Nagano.  With the money acquired from the sales of his historical novel and other writings and appearances (he had already become somewhat of a celebrity in Japan), he was able to buy up a succession of neglected and abused land plots in the Kurohime area. The land was originally called  “Yurei no Mori”, or “Ghost Forest”…..well, that name was thrown out immediately. Re-named after the forest in Wales, Nicol decided to make his land in Japan a “twin” of the Afan Argoed forest.

Nicol and Princes Charles, taking a stroll through the woods.

To make a long story short, he and his head forester, Nobuyoshi Matsuki (who has lived in the forest since age 15)  still live in their forest.  It is now officially a “woodland trust”, recognized and protected (Nicol became a Japanese citizen in 2002 in order to legally establish the trust), and has been visited by the royal families of both Japan and Britain ( I loved Nicol’s blog entry describing Prince Charles’ visit as “The Proudest Day in my Life”).  More to the point, he and his co-workers have so far brought back 22 endangered plant and animal species, and have established a college that trains young people to work in eco-tourism, wildlife conservation, and research; according to Nicol, they graduate around 80 students a year. The woodland is a flourishing mixed-growth forest, made up of oak, chestnut, walnut and other species, and access to the public is strictly controlled to preserve the fragility of the eco-system. Nicol remains in close contact with the staff of the twin forest in Wales, and the two woodlands share resources and information.

Because of what he has done to repair the damaged eco-system of Nagano, C.W. Nicol has become a well-loved and respected figure throughout the country.  If he decided to give the school board of his hometown a “bollocking” , they would undoubtably listen. He has earned the right to speak his mind bluntly.  In fact, in other writings he has mentioned his own personal war against Japan’s “yakuza” (think “mafia”) , because of their practice of dumping toxic wastes in deserted forestland.  Believing  that his status offers him a certain protection (though he tries not to tempt fate), he is unafraid to be quoted in his criticism of Japan’s underworld criminals.  Though he talks tough, he is also modest, often referring to himself as a “stupid man” or “a big old bear, bumbling through the woods”.  In dipping into the many C.W. Nicol you tube videos (all but one in Japanese, with no sub-titles), I was quite surprised to note that his speaking manner in Japanese was actually very gentle and unassuming.  A big old gentle bear in Japanese, whose strong opinions seem softened by his direct, open gaze, and pleasant speaking manner.  Quite a contrast to his written English!  He often writes of his propensity for strong drink, so perhaps he does let loose in rough Japanese when off-camera at an izaka-ya (drinking hang-out) with his buddies.

Most unlovable-looking insect brought home by my children: Kabuto- Mushi.

Back to the Japan Times article from the “Old Nic’s Notebook” column.  In his Sept. 4th post,  Nicol promotes a book by another Welschman entitled “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder” (Richard Louv, Algonquin Books).  The book proposes that “children in nature are becoming an endangered species,” and this has been brought home to me repeatedly as I’ve watched my own children growing up in rural Kanagawa prefecture.  Technically “rural”, the population of Kanagawa has been steadily growing, and its schools and community centers for seniors are now packed to overflowing.  In the twenty years that I’ve known my neighborhood (in the city of Hadano), its grassy empty lots have all disappeared, and every inch of space has been taken up with buildings.  That grass was where my kids spent afternoons catching grasshoppers, crickets, or butterflies and finding wildflowers. No grass means fewer insects, and no wildflowers at all.  I never even catch a glimpse of a dandilion, and those things are supposed to be ubiquitous.  I rarely see kids running around outside with their insect nets and plastic bug cages, covered in sweat but determined to score a prize beetle or cicada before the day’s end.  Man, my own kids caught some strange and unlovable-looking insects in their day, and had a blast doing it.

Now let’s talk about rivers. Old Nic would be happy to know that the river in my

neighborhood is still clean, and populated with wigglers of all sorts, and that my children (now eighteen and twenty) still love

My daughter Ellen’s wild river adventure!

hanging out there. My daughter, especially, still considers the river a “big adventure”, and looks forward to a chance to splash around and check out the wildlife.  This July, while cruising the internet, she found a “River Wildlife Adventure Tour” advertised, and decided to sign up. The river was quite a distance away and her friends were all uninterested or unavailable, yet this did not deter her. She would go alone (for the record, her grandmother protested loudly, and was convinced she would drown), and it was no big deal. So off she went.  Arriving home that evening, imagine how surprised we were to hear that the “tour” had in fact consisted of only herself!  Two park rangers led the expedition, and she and a ranger from a neighboring park (who had come to help, but ended up as a participant) were the only trekkers to show up. Since the tour was a “reservations only” deal, the rangers must have known about the lack of interest, yet they jovially went on with the show, taking the entire day to teach my daughter about the fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects they encountered (“some really rare ones, too!” she said) and recommending books and articles for her to read.  Again: a lucky chance for my Ellen (she was given royal treatment), but how sad that a “river adventure” did not appeal to anyone but her. Parents would rather have their kids inside playing video games? Or maybe they were all off at Disney World. If so, too bad for them; the poor suckers shelled out several hundred dollars, while my daughter got an adventure and an education for free.

Mothers are leaving Fukushima for Tokyo….Bye, Dad!

Now back to Fukushima. The ecosystem has been changed and damaged (not just from the dispersal of radiactive particles, but from the tsunami as well.  NHK news reports that there will not be cicadas on the coast of Tohoku for many years, as all their larvae were washed away), and families and communities have been broken up.  Because nature has become something to be feared (those radioactive particles cling stubbornly to grasses, moss, leaves, and soil and reappear with each rain shower), children are either taken away from their communities or sealed  inside their homes and schools.  New reports tell of mothers who have fled to Tokyo to raise their small children, choosing to live apart from their husbands or parents, and of children who remain close to the Fukushima evacuation zone and can no longer play in community parks or swim in the school pool. Mothers must be driven to distraction keeping their children inside on sunny days, and consumed with worry when they do go out.  Nicol writes in his blog, “Children need to play in nature with other children in order to properly develop their brains and characters, their power to make decisions and to work with other people. They need nature to teach them to listen and hear, smell, feel, look and see.”  He recognizes Nature Deficit Syndrome as a very real condition that carries serious consequences for society as a whole, and his woodland trust is attempting to counteract the situation.

For the past eight years, the Afan Woodland Trust has brought abused and neglected children, as well as visually challenged children, into the woods for three days of play and direct contact with animal life in the forest. Three days seems like just a taste of a very rich and tempting dessert to me–enough to linger in your memory and make you want more. Hopefully those kids will return every year, and seek out bits of nature wherever they find it during the other months. This year, Nicol has extended the program to include the children from Tohoku who have lost homes, schools, family, or friends. Or the combination of all of these things. Listen to his description of the program: ” These children will be encouraged to play in the streams and ponds, to swing on a rope in the trees and run

Japanese Dormouse: Yamane. Much easier to love than those horned beetles.

around in woods that are the domain of bears, boars, deer, raccoon dogs, badgers, foxes, civit cats, martens [my daughter saw a martin on her river trip] , weasels, squirrels, dormice [would love to see one!], moles and shrews…..not to mention frogs, toads, newts, salamanders and snakes. And needless to say, there are insects and spiders galore there, too……The kids just love this experience away from electronics, and many of them cry when they leave because they don’t want to go.”  Hey, sign me up, too!  I’d happily throw my responsibilities to the wind for a chance like that, especially if I didn’t have to cook dinner after traipsing through the woods all day long.

So that’s an introduction to C.W. Nicols, and a reminder of what is at stake here. The ocean has been violated ( and I don’t want to hear any more explanations of its vastness, and how potentially harmful radiation will be dissolved and dispersed. What’s wrong is wrong, and it’s not a matter of degree), the ground has absorbed poison and is being used as a dumping ground for even more poison–tons of it, neatly bagged and labelled).  Because the earth, the ocean, and the air are the ultimate victims, every living thing dependent on them will be affected in some way, some sooner and some later. And a generation of children may very well grow up not having known or experienced the natural world because of decisions made by adults.  There’s no denying that something terribly wrong has occurred. And as an indicator of just how twisted people’s  thinking has become, I was stunned to read the comment of a man  (on one of the many Tohoku-related blog sites) who belittled the potential after-effects of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. “Even if people do get thyroid cancer,” he wrote, “that’s a form of cancer with a high recovery rate.” ……Do I need to remark on how strange and surreal the situation has become?

In the 2009 interview by Shaun Banfield,  Nicol speaks about the “heart” of Karate. What he says also applies to our responsibility as adults in regards to children, and to all of nature as well. Here it is: “[we must]…have the courage and morality to stand up and protect those creatures who are weaker, more vulnerable, unable to protect themselves. To speak out against evil. Never to be a bully. To never stop studying.”  The nuclear industry in Japan is a powerful force, and one that has caused as- yet- unmeasurable damage across the globe, both physical and emotional.  Until now, those who have fought against it in Japan have been labelled as crazy, “meiwaku” (someone who makes a disturbance), or embarrassing.  Slowly but surely, these labels are disintegrating, and people are finding the courage to speak out. Whether it will be enough, or come in time, has yet to be seen.  I am doing my best to keep studying, to pass on what I learn, and to be open to what I learn from others. My own children have moved safely into adulthood, and I feel a responsibility to ensure that other children do as well.

Let’s turn away from Fukushima now and take a walk through the woods with C.W. Nicol. This short clip was filmed in his woodland trust in Nagano, and should refresh your heart and serve as a reminder of what’s left of the natural world that we are yet called upon to preserve and protect. Learn from the Old Bear, and thank you again for reading.


4 thoughts on “Advice from a Former Swashbuckler (now an Old Bear)

  1. Indeed, the decisions we make that effect the people around us, or the people who make decisions that affect us are usually done with little regard and yet have a wide effect on the outcome of the future.

    The nuclear engineers doing everything they can to protect the industry they love.

    The school teachers trying to prevent accidental death at the expense of education.

    The parents who are more concerned with their children growing up rather than having them grow up well.

    The people who market us a well defined and controlled experience such as Disneyland.

    And the people who try to open our eyes and allow us to judge the world for ourselves rather than relying solely on other people’s experiences of it.

    Japan may survive if the entire population is hiding indoors playing video game systems powered by nuclear energy, but each and every person needs to decide for themselves if that is what they want…for themselves, not as a standard of living for everyone.

    If humanity is to survive, it must value itself, be willing to take risks, and know when to back off and rethink things. This isn’t a one time deal for decisions to affect future generations for all time, it’s an ongoing process of constant reevaluation.

    Or as we say back home…”That’s life…”

    Another excellent article.

  2. When Ed and I visited Japan over 20 years ago, we came away with the strongest memories of the quietly beautiful natural places, the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, the zen gardens, the mountainside walking trails of Miajima, and the pools with Koi everywhere. We even spent time clearing fallen limbs and twigs from along Couch Brook to create our own little philosopher’s walk. Our dream for our land, while we are stewards, not “dominionators” was to is to preserve and protect varied habitats, forests, brushy areas, stream and flood plains, open spaces with prairie flowers and old apple trees, a place where our children and grandchildren may come and renew themselves. I think for the most part it has worked. Yes, I do believe in the Nature Deficit Syndrome.

  3. I have had a small measure of assistance with the recovery of watercourses in this woodland and it has been a great privilege to do this. There really is no substitute for soul well-being than being at one with nature and anyone spending time in Afan (Japan/UK) or any natural woodland will experience this same feeling of uplift and joy I am sure. Very well researched and written.


    Don (Fish Biologist, BC Canada.)

    • Thank you for reading, Don. My Dad and Grandfather were both woodsmen, and would have loved to have spent time in Afan, checking out the differences and similarities in species. C.W. Nichol’s column in the Japan Times is also a joy to read, and I look forward to it each month. So glad you got the chance to work in Japan, and spend time in nature-rich Nagano. Best to you from here on in!

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