Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Don Kibbler AM as originator of the Japanese Gardens, Cowra
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Russell Lea, Sydney, on 27 February 2003 (AWM S03078)
TERRY COLHOUN: Don, first of all, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in the project. I look forward to discussing with you some of your experiences in the total Cowra–Japan relationship. I would like to begin by going to the beginning. You were born in Cowra, I think.
DON KIBBLER: Yes, in 1936, that’s right.
COLHOUN: You grew up there, so what was your first awareness of Japanese in relation to Cowra?
KIBBLER: Well, I guess my first awareness was when I would go up with my brother catching rabbits around the prison camp and we saw Japanese through the barbed wire. I guess that’s the first Japanese I ever saw. Apart from that I didn’t have much to do with them right up from then until about the early 1970s.
COLHOUN: Do you still have any memories of how you thought about these strange people behind wire, as they would have been to a little boy.
KIBBLER: Well, of course, you’ve got to remember we were at war at that time and we were taught, very rightly so, I guess at the time, by propaganda or otherwise, that Japanese were our enemy and they were a bunch of monkeys, sort of thing. That was what was taught to us, and to be very wary of them, that they weren’t very nice people.
COLHOUN: When did you start to change your mind about that?
KIBBLER: I guess I started to change my mind, I think it was about 1972, I can’t be sure of the exact date without looking it up in my diaries, but when some Japanese people came to Cowra from Japan and they were looking around New South Wales to build a factory. I happened to be President of the Tourist and Development Corporation at the time, which was a voluntary body, and they wanted to look around and see the opportunity to have a factory.
COLHOUN: How did that idea work out?
KIBBLER: Well, it worked out very well at the end of the day. Unfortunately, for all sorts of reasons, it wasn’t particularly easy to get it into the shire at the time. So, with a lot of other people’s help, it wasn’t just me, of course, the Cowra Council were right behind it, and so were local business people. They said they would employ about 120 people and they are still there to this day and they have been a very successful business. I was just one of a number of people that encouraged them to come there and convinced them it was the right place to be.
COLHOUN: I think at that time Cowra had two local government bodies.
KIBBLER: That’s right, yes. We had the Cowra Municipal Council, which was bounded by the town area, and outside of that was the shire of Waugoola, which was more or less the farming community that was serviced by the town.
COLHOUN: Where was it intended to build this industry? Was it in the shire or in the town?
KIBBLER: We wanted to build it where it was the most convenient to build it. The only way that we could get water from the town to it was to put it within the town and sewerage, of course, which was a big thing. However, in retrospect, it probably would have been better had we have had more encouragement from the shire to have it out in that area and we could have extended the pipelines, because it did prove a bit difficult for a while, having it within the town, because of the odour.
COLHOUN: What sort of business was it?
KIBBLER: Wool processing. They actually get the raw wool and take all the grease out of it and then comb it and put it into what they call knots, I suppose, ready for the spinning mills throughout the world where they are exported to. But it’s been a very successful business and some of my very close friends now are associated with Kanebo. As a matter of fact, one of the managers there, Steve Kawamata, decided to retire into Cowra and I was able to support his application for resident status, which was a good thing and he still lives in Cowra with his wife and his children are married to Australians.
COLHOUN: You say that you were, in fact, on what was the Tourist Development Committee at that time. You were a member of the Cowra Council?
KIBBLER: No, I wasn’t a member of the council at that time but I was President of the Tourist and Development Corporation, which did get some support from the council in the way of monetary support as well as the business community. It was our job to encourage business and tourism into Cowra and that’s how come I became involved.
COLHOUN: Had you thought in terms of Japanese business before this point?
KIBBLER: We’d sort of given it some thought because we knew that the Japanese were expanding overseas because of the problems they had in their own country but we hadn’t really contacted any or come face to face with them. But, the guy that first came, Ken Takeuchi was his name, and I think the final blow was, the final convincing stage was, we put on a very big spread for him at the Chinese Restaurant and it was a sort of a welcome really and I think that he felt very comfortable and thought “Well, Cowra will do us.” That was really my first contact with Japanese of any consequence, yes.
COLHOUN: What was the general attitude to Japan in Cowra at that time.
KIBBLER: Well, I guess it was like any other country town at that time. It was a sort of “take it or leave it” attitude. A lot of people still hadn’t got over the war. After all, it was only 18 years since the war had finished, something like that, 1945, sorry, it would be 24 years since the war had finished, and I guess a lot of people still felt resentment but a lot of people didn’t and they could see the value of encouraging business development with Japan and also getting closer to our former enemy. I guess probably at that stage a fifty–fifty attitude; fifty for, fifty against. That has, of course, changed now.
COLHOUN: Had the Japanese War Cemetery started at that point?
KIBBLER: Yes, the Japanese War Cemetery was already there. I hadn’t had much to do with that at all. It was completed in 1964 and there is quite a story about the cemetery, but later on, I think it was 1973, around about the same time as Kanebo came, is that the guy who is Emperor now, Akihito and his wife Michiko, they were then Crown Prince and Crown Princess, they came to visit Cowra in either 1971 or 1973, yes.
COLHOUN: What was the response to their visit?
KIBBLER: It was quite a good visit, from my memory. A lot of the schools turned out, which was pretty easy for them to do, and they got a very warm welcome. There was no problem that I can recall, and there certainly wasn’t, didn’t appear to be any opposition to them coming. I think it was probably a turning point too. Those two things happening at around about the same time certainly would have made the Japanese people feel comfortable in Cowra when they visited.
COLHOUN: You said there was a story attached to the War Cemetery. Is there something on a personal basis you feel you should document?
KIBBLER: Yes, I think it probably needs to be recorded, Terry, that there was a guy by the name of Toshio Yamazaki came to Cowra. He just explained to us – this probably was about 1985–1986 – and he explained to myself and some others there – he started to explain to me and some other people came along and he said he was commissioned by his Government after Japan, and he was one of the first people to come to Australia when diplomatic relations were re-established and one of his jobs was to find out what happened at Cowra. He said “You know there’s a story to tell and I can tell you a little bit now but some time I’ll tell you the whole story.” As a consequence to that I was in Japan in I think it was 1989 and one of the trips I made over, or 1988 it may have been when I was collecting funds for the Cherry Tree Avenue, but he knew that I was in Japan through the Embassy and he telephoned me at the New South Wales Government Office, which was very close to his office, by the way, and he said he wanted to tell me his story, as far as the Japanese Cemetery was concerned. I thought it was pretty important so I took two Japanese interpreters with me, one a man by the name of Ken Yonomoto, who was Ken Nakajima’s nephew, and the other guy was Mark Nihara who lived here in Australia, but he happened to be in Japan at the time too. So, I wanted to get the story right, because it seemed to me the way he was carrying on it was very important that it be told. He said that when he came to Australia he came up to Cowra to find out what was happening and he got a little bit of the story. There wasn’t much history written anywhere at that time but he realised there were a lot of Japanese soldiers buried in Cowra. So, he contacted the Health and Welfare Department in Japan, which is called the Kôseishô, when he went back. You have to understand that the Buddhist belief is that the bones go back to where you are born and there are no Japanese War Cemeteries in Australia or anywhere else in the world, Cowra’s the only one. In Japan they’ve just got the Yasukuni Shrine which soldiers are enshrined in, and he said he wanted to get the bones back. Well, his response from the Department of Health and Welfare who are responsible for that part of Japan’s culture, that is taking the bones back to where they came from, from all over the Islands, and there are even people today picking up bones in New Guinea and that, and some soldiers have told me that they have captured Japanese with a finger or something in a pocket and they understood that they were trying to take a part of them back to Japan. This would have been off bodies. However, he went on a bit further and he said “They told me that there were no Japanese ever in Cowra, that if they were prisoners they became non-persons.” So the Kôseishô would not support it at all. He came back very disappointed and went back to Cowra again and had another look around and he thought he would try the Kôseishô once more and he still got the same knock back. Poor old Yamazaki, he didn’t know what to do, so he told me. Anyhow he went back to Cowra again. He noticed that the Australian soldiers’ graves were well cared for and actually that the Australians had mowed the grass on the other part. The Australian RSL people in Cowra had looked after the graves too. Anyhow, he went back to his own department, the Gaimushô, which is the Department of Foreign Affairs in Japan, and said “Look, I can’t get money from the Kôseishô to build a cemetery at Cowra, they won’t take the bones back, what are we going to do? We don’t look too good, because the Australians look after their graves, which is right next door to it.” So, Japanese bureaucracy being what it is it’s very difficult and to get money from one department that shouldn’t be giving it is not an easy thing to do. However, the Foreign Affairs Department decided that they would provide the funds for the cemetery. This is the reason that Yamazaki says the cemetery is there is because the Kôseishô refused to recognise that there were any Japanese ever in Cowra.
COLHOUN: He, of course, was talking about the prisoners, not those who were subsequently brought to Cowra, having died in an air crash, say, over Darwin or Northern Australia. They were just really talking about the prisoners of war.
KIBBLER: At that time, yes.
COLHOUN: Yes, those who had died in captivity.
KIBBLER: So, after a lot of negotiations they went to the Prime Minister. He wrote a letter to the council in Cowra, or the shire, I’m not sure which. Somebody else might correct me on this one but he also wrote a letter to the RSL, I have seen a copy of the letter that he wrote to the RSL in Cowra, and said “Do you mind if we have a cemetery in Cowra?” Of course, they didn’t mind at all. It was consequently then decided that all the Japanese that had died in Australia during the period of war would be buried in Cowra. That included the internees, that is the people, civilians, that died from natural causes, as well as those that crashed in Darwin or were killed somewhere in Australian soil, and that’s why the cemetery is where it is today.
COLHOUN: Well, apart from the cemetery and the Kanebo industry, what was the next development in this stream of Cowra–Japan activities?
KIBBLER: Well, it’s about that time after the cemetery was dedicated and the Mayor then in about 1969–1970 was Ab Oliver and the Japanese Government thought it would be very appropriate if the Mayor of Cowra visited Japan, especially after the cemetery had been dedicated. So, he went to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Foreign Affairs Department and while he was there he was invited to discuss the opportunity with Seikei University for a student exchange. I’m not very familiar with those details, but I understand that’s how it came about. That student exchange now between Cowra High School and Seikei University still exists today.
COLHOUN: I think that started with students going to Nara.
KIBBLER: Possibly it was, because I think one of the first students was Catherine Bennett. You may talk to Barbara Bennett about that.
COLHOUN: I will be talking to both of them. But, Catherine was in Nara High School.
KIBBLER: That’s right. Of course, it could have come from that but, as I said to you earlier, I am not exactly sure of those details.
COLHOUN: What about the Japanese Garden, when did that come along?
KIBBLER: Well, in 1971–1972 we had a very, very nice guy working for us, a very enthusiastic young man. He was our Tourist Officer for the Tourist and Development Corporation and he was always full of enthusiasm. He was a very, very nice fellow. He worked for the radio station 2LF I think it was prior to that.
COLHOUN: What was his name?
KIBBLER: Peter Carruth, and Peter said to me one day, he said “You know, the old ES&A Bank is up for sale. I wonder if we could lease it or buy it or something and recreate the breakout as you walk in the door, like with guns firing and all that sort of thing?” I said “I don’t know about that, it’s a bit early days. Maybe it’s not suitable.” So, we sort of tested the water a bit with a few people and decided that that wasn’t suitable, but he was very enthusiastic about doing something about Japan. I had a car museum at the time, down near River Park. I collected old cars and fixed them up in my spare time and he came down there and he said “We should still be doing something about Japan.” I looked across at the park and I said to him “Well, that idea is not going to work, what about we build a Japanese garden?” And that was how it came about. Peter left not long after that. I thought “How are we going to sell this idea?” I think the Mayor at the time was a fellow by the name of John Capps. We put it up to council and they said “Yes, well, you know, we don’t mind you building it but there’s to be no ratepayers’ funds put into it” and that was put on council’s minutes. I thought “Well, that’s fair enough. If we can raise the money that’s all right.” How do you sell the idea of a Japanese garden? I figure the only way you could sell it was to have a bit of a plan. Whilst there was a bit of land next to the baths and I thought “Well, we’ll try that. It doesn’t matter where we put it. We have got to find out whether people will accept it.” We contacted a lady by the name of Mrs Shibiako who still lives here in Sydney and asked her if she could come up to Cowra, have a look and design a Japanese garden of some kind and then we would have a model built that would fit in the back of an old Falcon station wagon I had so we could cart it around and people could see what we were trying to do. Whether it was put in where we thought in the first place or wherever it doesn’t matter. We were trying to sell the concept of a Japanese garden. Mrs Shibiako came to Cowra. She drew up the first plan and had a model made. Actually the model, I don’t know what happened to it, I think it might have got thrown out along the way but it cost $850 at the time to have the model made. It was in a Perspex case that fitted in the back of the station wagon. So, the next step was to contact the Department of Tourism to see if they would support it. They said “Well, we’ve got to do a feasibility.” They came up with a feasibility of 50,000 a year would make it viable. Really, over the years, that’s proved to be spot on. You can criticise Governments if you like but in this case they were right on the button. To get 50,000 people there at a reasonable charge we just seemed to break even each time. However, that was early days. After that I had a freehold hotel in Cowra and the guy that was leasing it, unbeknown to me, went broke overnight. The Sergeant said to me “If you don’t go and run your hotel or put somebody else in it I’m going to have to close it.” So, I had 24 hours notice to be a publican. So, I said to the other fellows on the board “Well, I’ve got to get out for a while, but I’ll come back. Let’s keep the ideal gelling.” At that time a fellow by the name of Doug Heilman took over as Chairman and whilst he thought it was a good idea he stayed, I think, for about a year and, of course, the next guy that came in was Graeme Drew. Graeme is a pretty good operator too, a very nice fellow and a good person, and he put quite an effort in to get the first stage underway. I think, all credit due to him to do that and the others on the board and on his board, and I think Neville Armstrong was the first official Chairman of the committee to go ahead with the Japanese garden. I came back on to the board about a year later and stayed there, but Graeme Drew stayed as Chairman, but we had a very good committee, quite a lot of people on it that were keen to see it happen and the first money, as I understand, from memory, was raised from the Department of Tourism in New South Wales when they said “Okay, well we’ll put $50,000 in” and the Federal Government said they would put $50,000 in and Yoshio Okawara at the time, he contacted Shigeo Nagano who was the then Chairman of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan and the Keidanren and he collected from his members a further $125,000.
COLHOUN: Mr Okawara was the Ambassador, was he?
KIBBLER: That’s correct, Yoshio Okawara – and that was the sort of first money that came along to get the job done. But also, whilst the council at that early day said they wouldn’t put any money in they did make a loan available, part of it – $50,000 I think from memory was interest and $40,000 was deferred debt with no interest. Of course, that’s all been paid back by now. I think it would be very appropriate to talk to Graeme about those early days.
COLHOUN: Graeme being…
KIBBLER: Graeme Drew, if I go a little bit further with that and say go up to – the first stage was finished and opened in 1979 and just after that I became Chairman again. We were in big big trouble. A drought hit us in 1980 and we finished up I think there was about $9 left in the bank in 1981, no water, just a very small part of the garden finished and a $90,000 debt. It looked like the end of the world, but anyhow Gordon Austin, who was also on the committee, said to me “Well, you know, Don, it’s your idea. You’d better fix it.” I thought “Oh, well.” At that time I was just in the throes of selling the newsagency. I had sold the hotel. I thought “Oh, well, I’ll give it a go.” It was a bit hard to get people to join the Corporation then because it looked like it was all going to be a failure. However, we managed to get enough people on board, and a fellow by the name of Tony Mooney came on board at that time and Brian Smith, and all the committees while I’ve been there have been very good and all the board and the whole lot of them. I remember Ab Oliver saying to me “Well, Don, why don’t you go – not much money left, go and buy a lottery ticket. It doesn’t look like much else to do.” I thought, “No, we will do something.” A few things we did – formed a committee to water what was built there, and the trees, mind you, they were about four inches high, because we couldn’t afford to buy big ones. They were only little ones. So, they all had to be watered by hand for a couple of years and went down to Canberra and talked to the Ambassador at the time Fukuda, and said “Is there anything you could do?” He said “I’m afraid not, we don’t have money to give away for those sort of things.” I spoke to Mr Hayden, who was Minister for Foreign Affairs and his comment was “Well, Japan is not my favourite country,” and didn’t say “yes’, “no” or anything. I thought “There’s a couple of other avenues yet.” Mr Fukuda had said “Well, you know the Chamber of Commerce in Sydney and society there have got all these big trading companies. They might be able to help you out.” So I came down to Sydney and explained it to the then Chairman of Nissho Iwai Corporation, Mr Kurahara. He said “How much money do you need to get out of immediate trouble?” I said “About $10,000.” Without going into a lot of detail, by the time we got back to Cowra the $10,000 was there. Then we approached the Australia–Japan Foundation and told them the problem and they said “Well, look, we can allocate” and they had a good look at it and they said “We’ll allocate you $17,500 if that will get you out of trouble.” That was fine. I did ask the council at the time, and it was while I was on the council – no, I wouldn’t have been on the council – put it to the council to lend us an extra bit more money to buy souvenirs but they couldn’t see their way clear for whatever reason. No matter what committee you get anywhere there will always be a couple of people that will object, but anyhow that’s all right. They said “No, we can’t do that.” Fortunately, I’d just about sold the newsagency and Harry Gordon’s book, “Die Like the Carp” was left as a remainder. I managed to buy all those for $2 and there were several hundred, might have been a couple of thousand of them, and we sold them for $9 so we made a bit of money pretty quick. Collectively, those things together got us out of the immediate problem and managed to get some of our debt paid. Then something happened – I think Fraser’s Government came into power and they had what they called a “Wage Pause Programme” so we applied for a loan for that and $50,000 was forthcoming. It was a funny thing though, it ended up going to the council, I found out, and they had sent it back because they didn’t know what it was for and it took me another three months to get it back again. That’s one of the funny things that happened, whether it was by design or not, I don’t know. Anyhow, that’s how it happens. Although we had to employ people that didn’t have a job, we had to employ two Aborigines, and that’s actually how we got the Pottery House built, as well as maintaining the garden for that period. A lot of voluntary work has gone into that place. It didn’t look quite so bad then. We were just going along. I said to the board “Look, we want to go over to Japan and see if there is any response to finishing the thing because it will never work. There is not enough done. We’ve got to pay the debt off and everything else.” We said we would go at our own expense, representing the corporation and the garden and two fellows came as well as myself. That was Jimmy Davidson and Tony Mooney. We all paid our own expenses. Unbeknown to me, a Japanese man in Sydney had written to the main financial newspaper in Japan, the Nihon Keizai Shinbun, and he’d actually said that the garden was in trouble and that volunteers had kept it alive by watering it. We arrived in Japan and there were people ringing up everywhere and it was on the front page of the paper. We couldn’t read any Japanese and rang the Embassy to find out what it was. Sir Neil Curry was the Ambassador at the time and he started to laugh and he said “You fellows can’t read Japanese. What it says is you’ve come over here and you need some help,” etc., so everywhere we went then people wanted to do something. It was a fortunate time to be there really because it was the time when negotiations were starting to make a sister relationship with New South Wales and Tokyo, and because the New South Wales Government was giving the koala bears to Tokyo Government, Tokyo had to do something in return. So, before we came back to Japan we were contacted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Bureau of Construction Chief and the Governor’s Office and said “Could you come and visit us?” So, we did. They said “Now, we want to something that we can do. What can we do?” They said “We actually can’t give you money.” We showed them the plan and everything that Nakajima had designed and they said “All right, we can give you the Bonsai House, the lake,” and so on and that came to a total at the time, I said it will cost about $500,000. Then I thought carefully and I thought “No, we had better make this fifty million yen,” because our dollar was going down and the yen was going up. So, at the end of the day the fifty million yen, instead of $500,000-odd was something like $700,000 and that really was one key to how we had enough money to finish the thing. Senri International Exposition, who had contributed some money to the first stage, that’s the Expo Fund in Osaka, we went and visited them and they at that time agreed also to contribute another thirty million yen. So, that meant there would be enough money to finish it if we were careful how it was built. It finished up that it looked like we could finish the thing. It took about another two years after that. This was 1984. It took another two years to actually finish the project. We had the official opening for the final completion of it in I think it was October 1986. So, a lot of things happened along the way, of course, but there it was finished.
COLHOUN: You have mentioned two names in relation to the design of the garden. The first was Mrs Shibiako in Sydney who did the model design and then you mentioned Mr Ken Nakajima. Who actually designed the garden?
KIBBLER: It was designed by Ken Nakajima at the end of the day. Mrs Shibiako only sort of helped us to produce a concept to sell the idea, where Ken Nakajima, who was recommended by the Ambassador Okawara – was a very fine architect. As a matter of fact his family and I became very close over the ensuing ten years or so and I actually attended his funeral last year.
COLHOUN: What is in the garden – it’s not just a lot of flowers and shrubs and a lake and so on, there are certain buildings. What’s the total concept now?
KIBBLER: To explain the garden itself to you, and this was explained to me by Ken Nakajima when it was finished, he said, “Come here, I want to show you something because nobody understands what this garden is about.” He took me up to the back of the Pottery House and a little place he called “Kibbler’s Lookout”. We sat there with him and his son and Ken Yonemoto who spoke very good English. He related this story to me. He said “You understand the bones couldn’t go back to Japan, of the soldiers that are in the cemetery.” I said “Yes, I understood that.” He said “You have to understand what the garden is about now. About 400 years ago when the first Shogun overtook the rest of the Daimyos in Japan, and there were 49 of them, in order to keep control of those Daimyos, as a Shogun, he took 250 family hostages of those Daimyos or Warlords, and he built a little city within Tokyo, which was then called Edo. He put a wall around it and he put all the families in there. They were his hostages over the Daimyos but he also told his Daimyos that they could come and visit them but when they came to visit they had to draw pictures of where they had come from. Of course, after they had all visited and he looked at all the pictures he finished up with a picture of Japan.” So, his secretary said “Let’s build a garden based on these pictures to keep everybody happy.” Every little bit of Japan is depicted within this garden so that the families will all think they are home. That was the first Japanese landscaped garden. That’s what the Japanese word “landscaped garden” means – a landscape of Japan in miniature. You could build one one metre square if you wanted to but if you kept the elements in it that are inside the Japanese Garden at Cowra then you could recreate a landscape of Japan. A few of the elements are these: there is a mountain and the water runs from east to west. There are rocks which are in Japan. Then, as the water comes down from the rocks or from the hill they come into a mountain lake where the Tea House is, however the Tea House is really called in the Japanese way and the position it is there a resting house or Togo-no-chaya. From there the river winds down towards the ocean which is the stream going to the second lake. The ocean is represented by the bottom lake in a Japanese garden with a lot of stones to represent the beach. The buildings around it represent the city on the edge of the ocean. If you look at the garden carefully you can see all this from that point where he was describing it to me. Also, there are two or three main features. One of them is the hedges – the reason that they are cut the way they are is to represent the rolling hills coming from the sharp hills. So, you’ve got the big hill in the background representing the mountains and then you’ve got the smaller ones coming down towards the ocean. Also, there are two rocks there – yogo seki and shugo seki. Shugo seki is the holy rock, because back before actually the written word in Japan they had what they called the Fudoki. In Fudoki, if you have a look at the book, it’s just pictures, and it shows the rock almost identical to the one in Cowra, and I have seen it. I’ve got photographs of it. It is identical all right, but there is a picture of people praying under the rock for rain and when they prayed water came out from the rock. So, that rock is positioned, or it was already there, but the water is positioned pumped up from the bottom lake to come out from under that rock. That was another feature that really got Ken in. He felt that Buddha had put that site there ready and the idea of the garden was Buddha’s idea that made us do it. That’s what he told me and he felt that God had a hand in it. I have explained to you that it is a Japanese landscape; I explained to you that the bones couldn’t go back to Japan, so the Japanese belief is that the bones, the spirits of those soldiers live in the garden because it is recreated as a landscape of Japan. The idea of leaving the gum trees there was so that the Australian spirit soldiers will also feel comfortable. But, to the Japanese way, and we can believe it or not believe it if you like, but this is what’s been told to me and it seems to – Japanese can create things to make anything what it seems, but it seems to me a fairly reasonable explanation. It is certainly the explanation of a Japanese landscape garden that is part of history in Japan. The rest of it you can believe it or not believe it, but they do believe it. I have often thought to myself after it was finished “Now, if we reversed the whole situation and Australia had started a war with Japan, and Japan had beaten us and there were 2,000 Australian prisoners in Japan and they tried to escape but the Japanese shot them – 300 of them – and we didn’t take their bodies back but the Japanese built an Australian garden, how would we feel?” This didn’t occur to me until long after it was finished and after Ken Nakajima had explained it, but it certainly makes you think.
COLHOUN: How big is the Japanese Garden?
KIBBLER: It’s 4.7 hectares, so it would probably cost you something like ten million dollars-plus to build today. There is a lot of concrete in it and there is not only the garden itself, after that explanation I’ve given you, you would have to remember that the garden can only have things in it, that would be, if you wanted to keep it authentic, that are authentically in a Japanese garden, a Japanese landscape. So, you keep all those things. But we have also got a Cultural Centre and many artefacts that have been donated by various people in Japan and Australia.
COLHOUN: Let’s move on to some of the other activities that you have been associated with – the Cherry Tree Avenue.
KIBBLER: Yes, well after the garden was finished several times a few Japanese people, particularly a fellow by the name of Ken Takura, who is actually the fellow that put the article in the paper I was telling you about in Japan, he said “Look, you know, why don’t you raise the money to put a cherry tree avenue from the cemetery to the garden?” I said “Look, I’ve just spent four or five years of my life doing this. I just can’t afford to do it.” He said “Look, if you just come over to Japan once I’ll help you.” I went to the council and said “If we raise the money we could do it.” The Shire President at the time, Cyril Treasure, he said “Yes, as long as you raise the money for it we’ll do it.” Mind you, it had to be $1,000 a tree, which sounds like an awful lot of money but you’ve got to remember the tree is the smallest part. It was almost $1 million to put the water supply in. It’s no good putting the tree in without the water. Then we had to build the road that exists. There was no road there across from the camp to the garden. That was another $120,000. So the trees themselves were the cheapest part and then there had to be a maintenance fund, so something had to be put aside to build a fund up to maintain them. $1,000 a tree sounds like a lot of money but when you put all those things in it it’s not very much money at all – $500 of that is just for the water supply.
COLHOUN: Has the avenue of trees been successful? How many have you got there?
KIBBLER: We’ve got almost 1,000 now, however, I’m very concerned about the condition of them, whether or not it is the maintenance is not correct or whether it’s the soil or the type of tree or the climate, but certainly they are not thriving the way that they should, unfortunately, and we did have enough trees at one time but council informed me that they got some disease and they had to burn them all. So we had to buy more each time. One interesting thing, I was talking to my wife one day and I said “It’s a pity we couldn’t get younger people interested in the relationship between Cowra and Japan.” She said “You’re putting the name of the donor on the tree, why don’t you ask a child in Cowra to put their name with it?” That’s where the idea came from, which is what we do.
COLHOUN: Do they take an interest in that tree?
KIBBLER: Not as much as we would like, but they do for the short term, but not in the long term. But, maybe some will come back and look at it, yes?
COLHOUN: Has this avenue of trees been the inspiration fro the Cherry Tree Festival?
KIBBLER: Yes. What happened then, that was the inspiration, once that was done. Once again, I would have to say that Tony Mooney’s idea, together with Ken Takura to have a Sakura Festival each year and he organised the first two years festivals, which were very, very successful. That has become a yearly event. Some go very well; some don’t. One of the problems we have is being sure of the timing. You’ve got to work around when the blossoms come out, which seems to be between the 6th and the 15th October. That has a bit more significance to the Japanese people too. You probably know, as most people that know Japan, would be aware, that the cherry blossom represents the soldier which blooms and then dies. Of course, having the Cherry Tree Avenue going from where they are buried to where their spirits live has other significance for the Japanese people.
TERRY COLHOUN: You had, I think, some involvement in the establishment of a Peace Bell in Cowra.
KIBBLER: Yes, but I didn’t have a lot to do with it. What happened there, about, it must have been 1986 or 1988, and we had a fellow working for us by the name of Maurice Beard and he – at that time Rod Blume became President of the Tourist and Development Corporation and Maurice Beard was working in the garden and he said “Oh, I’ve had a phone call from the Foreign Affairs Department. They want to know if we want to put a peace bell in Cowra.” Anyhow, he let Rod know and Rod thought it was a good idea. I said it would be a good idea so we told the Foreign Affairs Department “Yes.” The reason they said that they wanted to put it in Cowra because Mr Yoshida (the Peace Bell founder) in Japan had first of all asked for it to go into the Cenotaph in Sydney, and that was apparently not suitable from the RSL point of view, etc., and the same thing applied to the War Memorial.
COLHOUN: That’s the Canberra War Memorial?
KIBBLER: Yes, the Canberra War Memorial and he thought “Well, they are two prominent positions for it.” So, the Foreign Affairs Department rang Cowra and suggested that maybe it was the best place to put it. Nobody else seemed to want it. Anyhow, that’s why the Peace Bell is there. I think that Tony Mooney did speak to Mr Yoshida in Japan before it was actually donated and I don’t think he was that keen on having it in Cowra. He didn’t know anything about Cowra, a little country town, whereas the Cenotaph in Sydney or the War Memorial would have been a much more prominent position.
COLHOUN: The Peace Bell is alongside the Council Chambers in the middle of the town. There is a similar – what seems to me to be a similar bell in the Japanese Garden. What is that?
KIBBLER: There is a difference. The two bells are different. The bell in the Japanese Garden is a small one which was donated by the Inazawa Rotary Club in Japan. That’s a replica of the bells that they ring in Japan for 108 times on New Years Eve for the 108 sins of man. I don’t know what all those sins are, but it seems to be an awful lot of them. We could probably add a few too but they ring that every year in Japan 108 times for 108 sins, whereas the bell which is called a bonsho, the one in the Cowra Garden, that’s a temple bell, but the one in the town, the main Peace Bell, that’s constructed out of coins melted down from every country in the United Nations. The first one was put at the United Nations and that’s – although it looks similar, if you look at it carefully it’s got different meanings on the outside of it – all those little bubbles and things on it have a different meaning. The one in the garden is concerned with the sins of man and those sins can be explained by the markings on it, where the Peace Bell, that can be explained by way of each one representing the countries all being joined together.
COLHOUN: Apart from the Japanese Garden there is a Picnic Park, the Nagakura Park, what is that?
KIBBLER: There was a man by the name of Mr Nagakura who was the Chairman of the Kyushu Electric Power Company. He was also Chairman of the JR Rail in Kyushu. He was getting on in years and he, while he was Chairman of the Kyushu Electric Power Company he came to Cowra with a rugby team through the good graces of Jim Millner, from Washington Soul Pattinson, who actually owned Queensland Mines at the time and was doing some business with the Kyushu Electric Power Company. He also organised a gift from each of the electric power companies in Japan as a gift to the Cultural Centre. When he was getting on, quite a few years later, around about 1992, I guess it would be about 1991–1992, he asked me to come and visit him. He wanted to do something. I did and he said “I would like to make a donation to Cowra and I don’t quite know how to go about it.” So, we checked things out and discovered the only way to make it a lasting thing was to set up what we called the Saburo Nagakura Foundation after his name. He made a personal donation to that of ten million yen and with that fund we actually provided to the council, gave the money to the council to build that park, in part. Before he died, the council made him an honorary citizen of Cowra, which he felt very proud to achieve and, by the way, they did make also Ken Nakajima an honorary citizen – the only two they have and unfortunately both of them have passed away. Anyhow, after he died a new man took over his position called Mr Ono who was also very keen on rugby and keen on the Cowra relationship. Through the Electric Power Company he donated another large amount of money to really make the park what it is today, with some funds left over to remain in the foundation. The foundation now – myself as director in Australia and Nagakura’s son Seiji as director in Japan – we both of us have the right to appoint other directors as time goes on.
COLHOUN: You mentioned student exchanges early in our discussion. This has, I think, been a lead up to a Youth Forum which has been held. Were you associated with that?
KIBBLER: Yes, I was on the panel and gave a history of Australia–Japan relations to a group of about 300 Australian and Japanese young people. This forum was organised by Tony Mooney, when he was Chairman of the Japanese Garden Committee. It was attended by the then Ambassador, Mr Okawara, and other people, and it was quite successful. I do have a tape of that whole forum and it was really an opportunity for the youths of the two countries to get together. I thought it was a very, very good thing that should have been kept on, not every year but every two or three years, probably would be something else that we could do and I thought it was very well done and it was very worthwhile.
COLHOUN: All these different activities, has there been any attempt to coordinate them in some sort of way so that everybody knows what the others are doing?
KIBBLER: I did try to do that with putting together the Cowra–Japan Society. It just needs a driving force. Unfortunately, my wife died and my children were in Sydney so I’m not in Cowra much any more. That was really the idea of having the whole Japanese relationship come through there, because we have great difficulty at the moment. Sometimes the council is responsive and sometimes it’s not. It depends who gets voted on to the council. But, it would seem to me that if you want to be involved with Japan relationships and you live in Cowra, because of the extensive projects that we have you should have an organisation totally and only responsible for that duty. In other words, if you want to be involved at the moment with the Japan relationship you’ve either got to get elected to the council or elected to the Tourist and Development Corporation and there’s people that don’t want to do that but they want to be related to the Japanese relationship. But, at the moment we’ve got too many directions and I feel a bit uncomfortable about it, but it would need some very strong leadership to bring it together, but it would seem to me to make sense and it would be very simple then to look after visitors. At the moment some VIPs might contact me, they might contact the council, they might contact the Peace Bell Committee, they might contact the Tourist and Development Corporation. Now, unless there is a cohesive joint effort between all those organisations to look after the Japanese visitors then nobody knows whether they have been there before. The problem with elected people is they change all the time. You’ve got to try and explain everything again and again and again and it becomes a very difficult job. For instance, there was a group arrived there once that had donated a fair bit of money to the garden and when they went up there and had their cup of tea they were asked to pay for it. I wasn’t there but I was told later and it’s very embarrassing. But, it’s only because the people didn’t know and unless there is a central point it will never work properly.
COLHOUN: Has this particular development in Cowra led to any comparable development of any kind in Japan?
KIBBLER: Yes, in 1988 myself and Tony Mooney went over to Japan to collect money, or try and raise funds for the Cherry Tree Avenue that I told you about. Before we went there was a fellow by the name of Lindsay Clift who lived in Cowra who was a friend of Tony’s family and he told Tony, he said “I was a prisoner in a place called Naoetsu in Japan. When you go again will you go up and have a look and see where the prison camp was, and that?” So we went up there and met with the Mayor and explained everything that had happened in Cowra and told him what we were trying to do. He was very, very impressed, together with some other people, dignitaries around the town. So, they took us around. They showed us where the prison camp was. About six months later Tony, with help from the Mayor of Nara and also from Father Tony Glynn, Tony and his wife went back to Japan, took some gum trees from Nara to Naoetsu and planted them. Not only did they plant some gum trees there in memory of the Australian soldiers that died, also, Tony Glynn held a Christian and Buddhist service with some of his Buddhist priest friends. As a consequence to that, and understanding what had happened in Cowra, some people in Naoetsu, when Tony made them aware of what had happened in Cowra…
COLHOUN: Which Tony are we talking about now?
KIBBLER: Tony Mooney, I should say Father Glynn, not Tony Glynn. Tony Mooney had made them aware of what happened in Cowra. They, together with support from the Mayor collected something like $1 million and built a peace memorial near, I don’t think it’s on the site, but near the site of the prison camp, the Australian Prisoner-of-War Camp in Naoetsu. That is one of the things that happened, as a result. There are quite a few others, but we would need a couple of days talking, I think, Terry, to tell it all like that.
COLHOUN: We have covered a lot of ground. One thing emerges and that is that over the years you have personally put a tremendous of your own life, money, into developing various kinds of Japanese relationships – partly from your own initiative and partly from people coming to you. That certainly includes how many visits to Japan?
KIBBLER: I counted up in my diary and it is just on one hundred over the years, yes. That’s a lot of time.
COLHOUN: Indeed; looking back, why have you done this and has it been worthwhile?
KIBBLER: Well, it has been worthwhile from Cowra…
COLHOUN: But, has it been worthwhile from you, Don Kibbler, has it been worthwhile to you?
KIBBLER: It just about had me broke at one stage. I spent a lot of my own money and I didn’t earn anything for those years. Probably if you looked in total it would have to be close to five years. I didn’t have much money left, I can tell you that. I just had to get my head down, backside up, and make enough so I can live the rest of my life when I can’t work any more, but I don’t know. From a monetary point of view it’s been a disaster as far as I’m concerned. From a personal satisfaction of doing what you set out to do, that’s okay.
COLHOUN: Is Cowra a better place for it all?
KIBBLER: Cowra wouldn’t be on the map except for it, the garden. You couldn’t advertise the cemetery. Sure, the garden was something – the cemetery was there and the garden people might say was a natural progression, but you had to do it. But the garden, you can’t put an ad in the paper and say “Come and visit this cemetery” but you can promote a garden. Really I think, when I said to you earlier, when you reverse the whole situation, and I didn’t think about this earlier, if you reverse the whole situation with Japan and, yes, the garden has been the catalyst for the relationship that has developed, other things too, but I think it’s been the main one because it has been such a high profile and it has a public image and I believe that has been the catalyst for the rest of things that have happened there. From my personal point of view it’s been a financial disaster. Not many people would understand that, I suppose. They would just probably say I’m a fool. But, anyhow, I guess one of the reasons that makes you do things is because people tell you can’t do it; it won’t work. Anyhow, it’s done.
Transcribed by WRITEpeople, May 2003
The transcripts of interviews published on this website have been lightly edited, principally on stylistic grounds. You may download, display, print and reproduce this material in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or use within your organisation. Tapes of the original interviews are held in the collection of the Australian War Memorial.
Printed on 01/23/2021 12:47:20 AM