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Cowra–Japan conversations
YURA Shigeru as the architect of the Japanese War Cemetery, Cowra
Recorded by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 5 August 2004 (AWM S03336)
YURA SHIGERU: I would like to read an essay I wrote in 1967. I think I was the first Japanese to visit Cowra after the war and on that occasion many Cowra people asked me many questions and that motivated me to write this piece.

I never imagined I would have a chance to meet the ex-prisoners of war and so I was very moved to see them in Cowra today. I will treasure the occasion to present this essay to them and I would like to ask them a few questions if they will attend this occasion.
When I visited Cowra to work on the Japanese cemetery, many Cowra people approached me on one of those evenings when I enjoyed a glass or two of beer after the day's work, in the pub. I was surrounded by the local people who bombarded me with their eager questions. Why did the Japanese prisoners of war escape from the prison despite the good food provided and satisfactory living environment? Why did they have to kill themselves by running into oncoming trains, or by hanging from trees? One man told me that on the ground under a dead Japanese soldier in his garden there was a piece of white paper. He was followed by two other men who told me similar stories. They also found a piece of white paper laid under the dead Japanese hanging in their garden. They had been waiting to hear from a Japanese person to explain and clarify the meaning of this white paper for them.

The name of the soldiers on some of the graves are pseudonyms, presumably because of the shame those men felt from being held captive by their enemy. Their true identity is still unknown. A passage in the battlefield instructions [Field Services Code] given to soldiers during the war in Japan reads as follows: “You shall not render yourself to the shameful status of being a captive, but shall take your own life so as not to give to posterity your dishonourable name as a sinful man.” The Field Services Code also stipulates that if such an act of the soldier goes beyond personal dishonour and damages the prestige of being killed in battle, then he has to face a court martial once he returns to Japan. I never felt very strongly about the severity of those military codes and, as if from behind those pseudonyms, I could not, however, tell them what the white paper meant. I did not know, but I felt it might have meant that those prisoners of war did not have anything to say before they killed themselves.

Whiteness symbolises such normal attitudes as frankness and not making a fuss to abandon something dear to ourselves. It also stands for innocence. The word whiteness is commonly used in the real sense of innocence in the eyes of the law. One could see those white papers as silent cries from people locked in the prisoner-of-war camps. Later on I learned a story from an old man contained in some ancient writing. In those days, a warrior performing his seppuku, the ceremonial suicide commonly known outside Japan as hara kiri, displayed an open white fan near him. The piece of white paper placed under the dead soldiers' body might well have been intended for that purpose. The ancient warriors used the white fan to purify the spiritual place of an honourable death. It represented the dying man’s prayer not to sully the ground with his blood. This summer, 22 years from the end of the war, brought back to me that sad story of a piece of white paper.


When I visited the War Memorial in Canberra I looked for the record of Cowra in the gallery. I saw a picture of a man hanging from the ceiling. It was a shocking picture for me and the episode I just told you about – the white fan – was a practice first carried out in Japan in the 16th Century. I wondered how young soldiers in their early 20’s knew about these practices and why they worried about staining the Australian soil and so placed the white paper? That is a question I wanted to ask to ex-prisoners of war.

That finishes my talk. Thank you very much indeed.

Printer version

Transcribed by WRITEpeople, November 2004

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.

YURA Shigeru
Keiko Tamura
Oliver & Telfer
Cyril Treasure
Telfer & Cowley
Gary Beck
Bruce Miller
Steve & Chris Kawamata
Don Kibbler
Graeme Drew
Robert Griffiths
Catherine Bennett
Barbara Bennett
Tony Mooney
Neville Armstrong
Don Kibbler (2)
Jan Munday
Harold & Dale Starr
Graham Stewart
David Hobson
Lawrance Ryan (1)
Lawrance Ryan (2)
Lucy Tasker
William Crews

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