Outside magazine, May 1999
He's Big, He's Bad, He's...Japanese?
Running wild with C. W. Nicol, proud citizen, silly celebrity, and stubborn environmentalist
By Jeffrey Bartholet
We're in basho territory, yet nothing seems quite right. It's not just the giant Plains Indian tepee that's standing in the midst of this Japanese forest of beech and sycamore, cedar and chestnut. Nor is it the Welsh name given to the place--Afan Ar Goed, meaning Valley of Woods. Stranger still is my companion. What would Basho, the great haiku poet who wandered the Japanese countryside in the seventeenth century contemplating the wondrous evanescence of all living things, make of contemporary Japan's most famous naturalist--a bearded, lumbering bear of a man named Clive William Nicol? Snow-crusted forest / Big boots clomp-clomping. Hey, wow! / The guy from TV!
Hmmm. As we tramp through these woods near Mount Kurohime, in Nagano Prefecture, we stop to ponder a small stream, lined with cement by order of Japanese bureaucrats. On the far side is a forest of spindly cedar trees, planted by government foresters after the area was clear-cut decades ago. On our side is what Nicol calls his legacy, 45 acres of damaged woodlands that he bought piecemeal over the last 14 years for well over $2 million in hard-earned book royalties and television appearance fees. "Listen," says Nicol, as he tilts an ear toward the cement gully at our feet. "You don't hear the gush and tinkle of the water through rocks, the music of a stream. There are no eddies and pools for the fish. It's dead."
The stream is government property--a lost cause. But together with a hired woodsman and other Japanese nature lovers, Nicol is nursing his forest back to health. Since he started buying up this land in 1985, he and these cohorts have reintroduced several species of trees, built beehives, constructed two ponds, and cataloged 93 species of birds, more than 700 species of insects, and 20 types of violets. The woodpecker population has quadrupled, foxes hunt here, and bears have come down from the mountains to feed. Kingfishers have nested near the ponds, which also have attracted frogs, ducks, and wagtails. Walk through his woods in the spring, Nicol assures me, and you'll hear birdsong and other signs of abundant life. But from the neglected government forest, where saplings were planted willy-nilly and fight one another for sun and nutrients, you'll be lucky to hear anything at all.
Preaching the environmental gospel in the chilly quiet of his woods, Nicol is as serious as an oak. But I won't have to wait long for his doppelg„nger to appear, the shameless showman and larger-than-life "nature guy" with the booming voice, hearty laugh, and mischievous twinkle in his eye. Many Japanese call him Aca Oni, or Red Devil, a sobriquet that recalls shipwrecked Europeans of centuries past--the sort of rapscallion gaijin who features in a James Clavell novel. The name suits Nicol, partly because of his ruddy face and russet beard, but also because he loves to play the backwoods barbarian, wild and free in the land of the lockstep salaryman.
Being the nature guy is a great gig, and not just because it has made Nicol a millionaire many times over. It's also great because if you are the nature guy, you can expend your considerable charm being the plain-speaking troublemaker who's trying to turn Japanese environmentalism inside out--or from a more global perspective, outside in.
C. W. NICOL'S NOTORIETY IS THE KIND THAT MIGHT ONLY BE possible for a foreigner in Japan. He's published scores of books, most of them in Japanese translation, including many children's tales, novels, essay collections, and a couple of cookbooks. He also does television documentaries--at least one a year for the past 18 years--that have taken him around the world, to Africa, Antarctica, and back to his native Wales. His early-eighties whiskey ads, among his many TV commercials, bolstered his reputation among salarymen as a good drinking buddy--as did his CD, Whiskey Songs. In 1986 he was named Japan's "sexiest foreigner in jeans," an award even more dubious than it sounds. (Nicol points out that Konishiki, the 600-pound Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler, got the same prize last year.)
"I don't know if any foreigner in America could have this sort of cult following," says Richard Forrest, a Seattle-based consultant currently working on a book about Japanese attitudes on the environment. "He's someone who looks the part and can act the part--by drinking with the boys and getting rowdy before a conference, and then giving an impassioned speech in fluent Japanese that can touch people's hearts."
Nicol has considered Japan home for more than 20 years, and yet he's also the first to admit that he'll never be fully accepted as a Japanese. (Like other foreign residents seeking to become naturalized, he had to fight the inimitable Japanese bureaucracy--in his case, for seven years--to win citizenship. He finally succeeded in 1995, giving up his British and Canadian passports in the process.) Still, as an ethnic outsider with high-profile credentials, Nicol can attack Japanese policies in a manner that few (if any) Japanese can get away with in this famously consensus-minded society.
What exactly Nicol has been able to achieve is less clear. He gives lectures to students, Rotary Clubs, companies, and community groups; makes speeches at protest rallies; and also serves on a prime ministerial panel about the Japanese environment in the twenty-first century. He has been a persistent critic of the powerful Construction Ministry, which has built dams on more than 90 percent of Japan's rivers, and he helped preserve the last patch of virgin forest near his home by making a personal plea--together with a veiled threat of noisy protest--to the chief of the national Forestry Agency.
The Japanese state is a formidable foe, and by far its strongest components are those, like the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, that manage the economy with scant regard for environmental considerations. "The Japanese government is like a huge ship plowing its way forward, whether to war or economic power," says Nicol, "and it takes a long time to get the ship to respond and change direction." The three big national environmental groups--Wild Bird Society Japan, the World Wildlife Fund Japan, and the Nature Conservation Society Japan--have reputations as well-meaning but largely toothless opponents of ecological depredation. Global environmental organizations still complain that it's tough to sign up members in Japan, much less organize meaningful protests.
Given this milieu, just how effective can a TV nature guy be as a Japanese enviro-guru? Some Japanese say the show is the substance--that through his books, his documentaries, and even his TV ads, Nicol has helped to make nature "cool." But that begs the question: How did Nicol, of all people, become a Japanese role model to begin with?
LISTENING TO NICOL'S ACCOUNT OF HIS life, the first thing you need to know is that he regards himself, first and foremost, as a storyteller. That's not to say that what he tells you is false, only that when you listen to Nicol weave his unlikely yarns, it's hard not to slip into the attitude of an Islamic scholar parsing the traditions of the Prophet, striving to separate what is verifiable from what is not.
The Red Devil was born in Neath, a coal-mining town in South Wales, in 1940. He was still an infant when his father was captured by the Japanese in Singapore and never heard from again. (Given Nicol's subsequent path in life, one suspects that the disappearance of his father left complicated oedipal traces.) His mother remarried a decade later, and Clive took his stepfather's surname. The family moved to England, and at school, Nicol was an awkward kid with a Welsh accent who was an easy target for "sadistic little bastards." Stories of the abuses he suffered resonate in a country where adolescent bullying is common and children who are "different" have a particularly rough time.
Given his background, it is perhaps not surprising that Nicol was drawn to Japan. The bullied kid was determined to get tough and began studying judo at 14. He also developed a powerful desire to leave the United Kingdom. At 17, he signed up with a former biology teacher on an expedition to the Canadian Arctic. "I forged my stepdad's signature, got a passport, and wrote a letter to my parents saying that I was going camping," Nicol recalls. "I was gone for eight months." He returned to the Arctic twice over the next five years, falling in love with Inuit culture, the Canadian wilderness, and the far north. During one of his stays back in England, Nicol briefly attended college and worked odd jobs--including a stint as a pro wrestler with the ring name Nick Devito. At the age of 22 he finally made his way to Tokyo, where he spent two years earning the first of his five black belts in karate and married a Japanese practitioner of jo-jitsu, or stick fighting. The couple had three children.
Marriage and fatherhood had little effect on Nicol's wanderlust. Connections made during his Arctic travels led him to a job with the Canadian Fisheries Research Board. (His responsibilities included observing Japanese and Norwegian whalers, an experience that would prove pivotal to his later career in Japan.) At 27 he was off to Ethiopia, where he took up the position of chief game warden at a proposed new national park in the Simien Mountains. It was as much a law-enforcement job as a conservation post; one of Nicol's first policy decisions was to force his staff to end the practice of executing suspected bandits and tossing their bodies over an escarpment.
Without intending to do so, Nicol was assembling one of those unlikely lists of miscellaneous jobs and travels of the sort that used to crop up in the book-jacket biographies of authors of manly novels. In fact, during this period he began to write, and his two years in Ethiopia provided material for his first book. From the Roof of Africa, published by Knopf in 1972, was written in Japan between bouts of study in the fisheries program at Nippon University. Next, Nicol and family bounced back to Canada, where he worked in a series of jobs at Environment Canada, a government agency. At the same time, his interest in traditional peoples, from the Inuit to the Simien Amhara of Ethiopia, merged with his involvement with environmental issues. His particular passion became Japanese whalers: He had sailed with these men and considered the criticism of them to be largely chauvinistic and unfair. In 1978, now divorced, Nicol returned to Japan and took up residence in Taiji Wakayama, an old whaling town on the Pacific coast of the island of Honshu, where he began researching a historical novel.
Nicol refined his views during long voyages with Taiji Wakayama whalers. "What I said was that Japan had hunted whales for hundreds of years and that coastal whaling was a matter for the Japanese to decide," Nicol says. "Endangered species shouldn't be taken, but there's nothing wrong with hunting minke whales, for instance. I became public enemy number one as far as some conservationists were concerned." But in Japan this public stance won him goodwill, and by the time his historical epic Isana (the word means "whale") was published in Japanese translation in 1986, he was known as a champion of Japanese tradition. The novel, set in the midnineteenth century and featuring a heroic Japanese whaler who travels the world as a spy for his noble samurai lord, became a huge best-seller in Nicol's adopted country.
Yet as Nicol's fame widened, he used the legitimacy he gained from his sympathetic position on whaling to attack Japanese policies in other areas. When not playing a jolly Paul Bunyan type in television commercials (a part-time career since the early eighties), he was fast becoming the country's leading green gadfly, blasting everything from Japan's foreign aid and trade policies--which funded habitat-destroying development programs and encouraged deforestation in other Asian countries--to its domestic management of forests, rivers, and wetlands. In a go-go economy where everyone was desperately trying to fit in, Nicol had done something unprecedented: He'd become a loud, environmental iconoclast who was also a well-loved national celebrity.
A RECENT PUBLIC-OPINION SURVEY IN Tokyo revealed that Nicol has a 70 percent recognition rate, a figure most rock stars would covet, and a number of those surveyed made the astonishing observation that C. W. is "more Japanese than the Japanese." If the public tends to regard Nicol the TV star with a mixture of fascination and amusement, however, the challenge for Nicol the naturalist has been to somehow turn that passive interest into active conservation.
Nicol's most consistent message is that Japan is a place of scenic grandeur and profound natural beauty that deserves more loving care and attention than it receives from a populace too busy getting and spending and achieving. Each time Nicol and I drove to and from his house, we passed a small day-camp nearby that has a playground surrounded by a wooden fence. "Kids come from the city and their parents pay money to have them play inside that fence," he said on one of our outings. "I've never found a kid's footprint in the woods around here. Japanese children might study the difficult characters to write the names of a pine or a beech or an oak, but put them in a grove and they won't be able to tell one from another."
In the early nineties, Nicol announced that it was a scandal that for all of Japan's 28 national parks there were only 128 park rangers on patrol. Moreover, he did something about it: In collaboration with the government's Wildlife Research Center and the Toyo Technical College in Tokyo, he established a two-year ranger training course that since 1994 has enrolled nearly 100 students each year and has served to staff Japan's parks with acolytes of Nicol's environmental convictions.
"I long for the return of beautiful Japan, a nation of natural beauty," Nicol declared in a 1997 speech in which he also described Japan as a country "polluted with money." Part of that pollution comes in the form of graft and corruption; accordingly, the most recent target of Nicol-san's outrage has been the yakuza, or Japanese mob. Three years ago, Nicol received a tip that a notorious front for a criminal syndicate was dumping medical waste and toxic chemicals not far from his home in Nagano Prefecture. He and some of his friends spent about $8,000 to get chemical tests done, discovered that dioxin was leaching from the site at dangerous levels, and then waged a public campaign of media interviews and sit-ins before health officials eventually backed down and ordered the removal of the waste last summer.
"I was the guy who usually stood in front of the cameras and said that the organization dumping the waste was run by the yakuza, working in collusion with government agencies," Nicol told me when I visited the site with him in December. The cleanup was still in progress. An idle backhoe stood sentry near a pit the size of a small house, its dirt walls flecked with blue, yellow, and white plastic. "We found catheters, plasma bags, syringes, and bottles of old medicine," Nicol added. "If this happened in the U.S. or Canada, people would be in jail now. We're not making a fuss just to make them remove the stuff. We're trying to get the country to change its ways." He says that some of the local yakuza have threatened environmentalists at public meetings, but he's considering hitting back. "I'm the only guy in town who can afford to hire a lawyer to fight a court case for ten years, and I will," he declared. He promised he's going to "sue the bastards" just as soon as he finishes his next novel.
When Japanese citizen groups need someone with star quality to attract attention to their campaigns--against the construction of yet another dam, for instance--they often call on Nicol, who is generally happy to oblige. But he admits that he sometimes grows weary of giving the same speech over and over to students and civic groups. "They always want me to talk about harmony with nature, my time in the woods, natural balance," he says. "I want to talk about the Japanese navy or tell dirty stories, but no, it's got to be harmony with nature."
Nicol doesn't always resist some of his un-Japanese impulses, and his behavior has consequences. "Mount Fuji is very famous," says Taisitiroo Satoo, 80, who runs the Wildlife Research Center in Tokyo. "But what Japanese really appreciate is the view from very far away." In other words, like Mount Fuji, Nicol is someone the Japanese enjoy from a distance. "Because he's not their neighbor, many Japanese appreciate him," explains Satoo, who is a friend of Nicol. "But when we find that kind of person in our neighborhood, he is not taken to be a good citizen."
When Nicol threw a party one night during my visit, some of the Japanese he invited didn't bother to send regrets--including his next-door neighbor, who doesn't speak to him. Among those who did attend were a potter, a hunter, and the owner of a local microbrewery whose daughter went to college in Boston. Yet most of the Japanese left before things really started hopping. The remaining guests included two Aussies, a Kiwi, a New York transplant who used to hang out with Allen Ginsberg, C. W.'s Canadian son-in-law, and myself. Nicol was beating a Celtic drum, inviting his guests to wrestle with him, and soon, inexplicably, railing against Muslims.
After his merry tirade was over, Nicol smiled in my direction. "Just wanted to get you riled up!" he shouted, and before long he was singing a bawdy tune about the mating practices of hippopotamuses.
It was a memorable performance, but it wasn't the first time I wondered how much of a stranger Nicol actually remains. "To me, he's still an outsider," says Hiroshi Matsumoto, executive director of Tokyo's International House, which promotes cultural dialogue between Japan and other countries. "We Japanese have something inherent. To try to be pure Japanese is something different from being an ordinary Japanese."
Taisitiroo Satoo told me about a time when Nicol blasted government plans to cut a beech forest near Mount Kurohime. A lot of citizens agreed with him in principle, but the cutting of beech trees was a local industry that employed many people. Even those Japanese who agreed with Nicol couldn't, by the conventions of Japanese society, be so direct about denying the lifeblood of others. "In a way, he's like a boy, a kid--he says everything straight," says Satoo. "He says that good is good and bad is bad. I admire him because he does what I cannot do."
There's the rub. How can anyone be an effective rabble-rouser in a country without rabble? Nicol believes that Japan is changing--that even at the top, there's a growing awareness of a natural heritage worth protecting. But he also risks becoming one of those quixotic characters the Japanese laugh at as well as with. (Partly for that reason, his Japanese manager won't let him book appearances on most TV talk shows.) Of course, Nicol likes a laugh as much as the next guy--why else would he accept a silly honor like his recent appointment to the post of honorary curator of a "whiskey museum" on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido?--but he also wants to be taken seriously and to leave some kind of lasting legacy. So he has begun making arrangements to put his beloved 45 acres of forest into a trust to be managed in perpetuity by like-minded Japanese. If nothing else, he hopes the beech and sycamore, and the bear and the fox, will remain long after the blustering Red Devil has fought his last crusade.
Jeffrey Bartholet has served as a Newsweek bureau chief in Nairobi, Jerusalem, and Tokyo.