KOBE – A retired Japanese nuclear engineer who died of cancer in late December had been promoting a project to create a village for artists on a Philippine island known for witchcraft and mystery.
Many young people on Siquijor are unemployed due to the island’s dependence on tourism. Koji Kuwabara, who died a day after his 68th birthday, had launched the art village project as a way to teach local young people how to draw, and then help them sell their paintings.
Kuwabara joined Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. after graduating from Nagoya University, where he studied electrical engineering. He had been involved in research and development programs related to nuclear power generation throughout his career.
Kuwabara quit the company at age 59 and developed an interest in watercolor painting. During a short trip to New Zealand to learn English, he met Simon Jenkins, a language teacher also in his 50s, who spoke enthusiastically about his involvement in peacekeeping work in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Encouraged by Jenkins’ experience, Kuwabara decided to start a humanitarian project of his own in an English-speaking country close to Japan.
Kuwabara first visited Siquijor — an islet off the island of Negros in the southern Philippines known for its tradition of folk healing — in 2009.
During his time on the island, Kuwabara drew landscapes and printed them on postcards, which were displayed in a local hotel and souvenir shops, selling for 40 Philippine pesos (about ¥105) each.
As residents on Siquijor generally earn around 100 to 200 pesos per day, Kuwabara thought that teaching young people how to paint might allow them to become economically self-sufficient.
He shuttled back and forth between Japan and Siquijor for two years preparing to launch his project.
Kuwabara was visiting the island to meet with Mike Butler, owner of the largest resort hotel, on March 11, 2011, when the massive earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region.
Kuwabara sought Butler’s support for the art project because he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer in January that year, and was not sure that he would live to see the project completed.
Butler, who had migrated to Siquijor from Australia, pledged to support Kuwabara’s plan to increase jobs on the island.
While Kuwabara purchased 2,400 sq. meters of land on Siquijor, Butler built two homes there and opened a studio for young artists in his hotel. Two young people now live in the houses, each paying a monthly rent of just 1 peso.
Kuwabara was scared of what would happen to Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 2011 disaster as he was aware of some of the key defects in its risk management system.
“I was greatly shaken by the disaster and nuclear accident but decided that the role given to me was different,” he said of resuming his trips between Japan and Siquijor.
With the relapse of his cancer, however, Kuwabara could no longer go to church on Sundays, which had offered him mental and spiritual sustenance. He was also unable to attend the opening ceremony for the art village on Siquijor last Nov. 23.
“I don’t feel regret,” Kuwabara said. “The village may grow to have 100 residents or may be closed within a year.
“It doesn’t matter because everything is up to God, just as I was lured to Siquijor.”
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