Why Japanese nuclear expert built art village in Siquijor

By Kenichi Iinuma, Kyodo

Posted at Feb 09 2015 12:43 PM | Updated as of Feb 09 2015 08:43 PM

Why Japanese nuclear expert built art village in Siquijor 1
Koji Kuwabara talks about his project to create a village for artists on Siquijor, an islet off Negros island in the southern Philippines, at his home in Kobe, western Japan, on Nov. 26, 2014. Photo by Akiko Matsushita, Kyodo

KOBE - A retired Japanese nuclear power 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 are unemployed on Siquijor, where most jobs are related to tourism. Koji Kuwabara, who died a day after his 68th birthday, launched an art project to teach drawing to local young people to help them sell paintings.

Kuwabara joined Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. after graduating from Nagoya University, where he studied electrical engineering. He was involved in research and development programs related to nuclear power generation throughout his career at Mitsubishi.

Kuwabara quit the company when he was 59 and began studying watercolor painting. During a short stay in New Zealand to learn English, Kuwabara met Simon Jenkins, a teacher of the language in his 50s, who enthusiastically talked about his involvement in peacekeeping work in Georgia.

Encouraged by Jenkins' experience, Kuwabara decided to start a voluntary program in an English-speaking country close to Japan.

Kuwabara visited Siquijor for the first time in 2009. The islet off the island of Negros in the southern Philippines is known for its folk healing.

Kuwabara drew landscapes on the island and printed them on postcards, which were displayed in a local hotel and souvenir shops, selling for 40 pesos each.

As residents on Siquijor generally earn around 100 to 200 pesos per day, Kuwabara thought that young people could support themselves by selling paintings. He shuttled between Japan and Siquijor for two years to prepare for his project.

Kuwabara was visiting the island to meet with Mike Butler, owner of the biggest resort hotel, when the massive earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern Japan region of Tohoku in March 2011.

Kuwabara sought Butler's support for the art project because he had been diagnosed with bladder cancer in January and was not sure how long he would live.

Butler, who had migrated to Siquijor from Australia, pledged to support Kuwabara's plan to increase jobs on the island by teaching drawing skills to young people.

While Kuwabara purchased 2,400 square 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, the first residents, each paying a monthly rent of 1 peso.

Kuwabara was scared of what would happen to Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 2011 disaster because he was aware of 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," Kuwabara said in reference to his resumption of 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 on Nov. 23 last year.

"I don't feel regret," Kuwabara said.

"The village may grow to have 100 residents or may be closed within a year," he said. "It doesn't matter because everything is up to God, just as I was lured to Siquijor."