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Cowra–Japan conversations
Catherine Bennett as an exchange student from Cowra to Japan, 1971–1972
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 19 March 2003 (AWM S03079)
TERRY COLHOUN: First of all, Catherine, thank you very much for agreeing to be part of the programme. I would like to talk to you first about being an exchange student in Japan because you were the first exchange student – not under the Seikei scheme, but to Nara.

COLHOUN: What did you do? Tell me about how this evolved.

BENNETT: Ab Oliver had gone to Japan possibly the year before and he had met the Seikei headmaster and been to that school and arranged to start the exchange system there and then he went to Nara and various other provincial centres. When he was in Nara he visited Ichijo High School who said that they would love to have an exchange student and he thought at the time it was a bit much to organise that as well as the Seikei so he didn’t do much about it. Then my parents had thought that it would be good to go to Japan as part of my education, so they spoke to Ab and he said “Look, I’m absolutely thrilled to hear that Catherine is wondering about going to Japan because I have been to another school and they are keen to have a student. Would you like to just organise that privately?” So, with Ab’s help Mum and Dad and I got in touch with the school and they were delighted that there was somebody willing to come and gradually we arranged for me to be there for ten months. The Takase family were organised to have me. They offered to have a student. Then we had a letter from them saying that they had one child, a girl my age, and they would like me to stay with them and go to the school with her. So it gradually worked out. The main teacher was Mr Sasaki, Musasabu Sasaki, who is retired now but still actively involved in the Nara–Australia connection. He was a very good organiser of all this sort of thing. It was hard for them to take on a student. They hadn’t had a foreigner at the school before. So, it was all new and they were wondering what on earth to do with me for ten months. I remember arriving and trying to think what I was going to study at school. I wasn’t having to cover my schooling here. In a way it was a year off. I came back and finished my high schooling in two extra years, so the year over there was really just an extra year. So, we had to work out what I was interested in. I had started doing a little bit of pottery in Cowra beforehand. So, that was my main interest, I suppose, and they were able to arrange for me to go and work at a very ancient tea ceremony-ware pottery out of Nara. That was probably my main interest and the most formative thing I did while I was there. I have continued on with that, with ceramics all my life now.
COLHOUN: Did you understand any Japanese language?

BENNETT: I didn’t. I tried to learn some before I went but it was terribly hard to find material. There were no courses or tapes or books available here. What I did do though was there were a couple of Japanese war brides in Cowra and I went to one of them, a very nice woman, who had married soon after the war and had a child a little bit older than I was, so I used to go to her and she helped me with a bit of Japanese. So, I suppose I was able to use greetings by the time I got there but nothing else.
COLHOUN: How did you communicate with the teachers?

BENNETT: Fortunately, Mr Sasaki is a wonderful speaker of English and he was the head English teacher at Ichijo; absolutely no trouble with him. He was able to understand me. The family that I lived with were very traditional, virtually no English, but Yoko was studying…
COLHOUN: She was your Japanese sister?

BENNETT: She was my Japanese sister and she was studying English at High School and very keen to practise her English. She was very clever and had all the English in her head, but just needed to practise and once I was there we used to natter away in English very well. It did mean that I didn’t learn much Japanese early on because Yoko was so keen to learn English from me. I found it hard to get her to speak Japanese to me but after a while that was fine. The family had almost no English at all but Grandmother Takase, who was a real matriarch and the strength, the strong character in the family, had some Second World War English. She had, I suppose, a little bit to do with Americans around and so if she ever did speak anything it was a little bit with an American accent. When she was excited and trying to explain something to me suddenly a few English words would come out. That was interesting, yes.
COLHOUN: Did you do any class work at all? You couldn’t have just done pottery all day every day.

BENNETT: That’s right. I probably went to the pottery at first once a week and then I changed after a number of months and started going to the pottery of one of the apprentices of Mr Oisho at Akaharayama, was the man who took me on first. He was an elderly man and his son had taken over. So, Mr Oisho, Grandfather Oisho, had time to sit with me, no English and not much Japanese on my part, so he was able to teach me by just sitting beside me and making pots and I would follow his hand movements. It was the most marvellous way to learn, virtually no language at all, it was just purely demonstrating and me sitting beside him and doing it. He had the time to do it, which was very nice.
COLHOUN: When you were working with him did you have to observe certain courtesies because he was a senior potter, a grandfather?

COLHOUN: What sort of thing – how did you approach that?

BENNETT: Well, I probably didn’t understand them verbally. It was not much explained, but I realised quickly that he was certainly an honourable grandfather and at the pottery to help me when he felt he could. I suppose I was just very polite and didn’t demand anything. If he said to make a bowl he would make a bowl and as he was making it he would pause and let me catch up with what he was doing and gradually I learnt in that way. There were very definite rules and regulations about having women in the pottery. I was not to go anywhere near the kilns. It was supposed to be bad luck to have women around kilns – Japanese women as well – and they were packed by the pottery men and then fired by itinerant firers who would come around and they would be men. It was certainly considered bad luck to have women around when the firings were going on, so I certainly didn’t go anywhere near them.
COLHOUN: When you came back was it very difficult to get back into the Australian school environment again?

BENNETT: Well, it was, yes. I had had almost nothing to do with English speakers – native English speakers – so even the language was hard. It was funny. You go into a sort of funny thing of not being able to communicate particularly well when you come back. It doesn’t take long to get back to it but you speak in a funny sort of slightly simplified English I think, or just a slightly different sentence structure, I suppose you get into the habit of using in Japan, and then coming back it was a bit of a change. I didn’t say that I did do other subjects at school. I used to do the pottery probably half the week; the rest of the week I would do calligraphy, cooking, which was a disaster. I was a pretty hopeless cook in those days. There was a very keen cookery teacher, lovely woman, and she would have loved to learn more about Western cooking and I was pretty useless there. I remember making scones, trying to make scones with the class.
COLHOUN: Did you write to Mum and say “Please send me recipes”?

BENNETT: I did. I wrote in desperation to Mum and said “Could you send some recipes for some slightly Australian things?” Of course, they felt that there was probably a large Australian cuisine that they could learn about. So, Mum sent scones over and pavlova.
COLHOUN: What about lamingtons?

BENNETT: Lamingtons, pavlovas, and I’m afraid I’d had very little experience at making any of them. Anyway, it was great fun and we used to laugh a lot. I couldn’t even remember how to stick scones – if the scones were supposed to be separate or stuck together, so we tried a bit of each and worked it out by trial and error. Calligraphy was wonderful. I loved that, using the beautiful brushes and traditional techniques and beautiful papers. Sport – I was a good swimmer – and so I used to go to swimming club.
COLHOUN: But you didn’t attempt to do mathematics or Japanese history or anything like that?

BENNETT: No, the history, of course, I read about and loved and there was a very nice man, Mr Inamata, who was a classical Japanese scholar, one of the teachers, and he helped me with Japanese history, which was absolutely fascinating. Then another teacher had me for – Mr Amano was my other main teacher – they were the three, Sasaki, Inamata and Amano helped me with the sorts of things that I could learn. Trying to do maths in Japanese would have been absolutely impossible when I can hardly do it in English, so I gave up on that, but other things – more cultural things, I suppose – calligraphy, Japanese language, Japanese history. I used to go to the art classes, which were lovely, and Ikebana and Tea Ceremony I used to do a little bit too. Tea Ceremony particularly was with Yoko. She used to go to Tea Ceremony class out of school to a family friend and I would go with her and that was fascinating too.
COLHOUN: Apart from that, what sort of things did you do away from school with your Japanese sister? How did you relax? Typical teenage things?

BENNETT: Not really, no, we weren’t into modern music or dancing. It was a very traditional household. I suppose we watched some television and, of course, that meant very little to me, but I got a feeling for television sort of fun things. We used to go to the park a lot – beautiful Nara Park. We would go for picnics with the family. We used to go to the family graves almost every weekend and have a picnic there and clean up the graves and take offerings. We used to visit Yoko’s cousins a lot. Because she was an only child she had a very close relationship with her cousins and we would visit them and that was always great fun – very nice children, boys and girls – and we would often play traditional Japanese games there, sort of the game a bit like chess, Japanese chess, and chat I suppose, look at magazines and photo albums and then we would certainly spend a lot of time observing the traditional festivals through the year. That takes a lot of time. There are a lot of festivals and a lot of family activities around festival activities. We would spend a lot of time – travelled with the Takase family. Mr Takase would take us to the beach or to shrines and temples.
COLHOUN: On perhaps a lighter, more personal note, being fair haired I am sure that the Japanese boys must have lined up to talk to you, at least.

BENNETT: Yes, fascinated by somebody looking so different, because I am tall and fair. I had long fair plaits in those days and the girls were fascinated by my hair, the feeling of it, finer, and the colour. The boys thought that foreign girls were gorgeous. I felt such a great big tall, sort of gangly thing, but they were very keen to speak English to you and to practise their English was the idea, but also just to speak to a foreign girl. One funny experience I had was being at a festival in the town and a Japanese university student came and spoke to me and said could he practise his English, that he was a student of Russian, which was interesting, and his opening line was – I should explain, the Takase family had their own bathroom in a very traditional house, 150 years old, sleeping on tatami, on futon on tatami. It was lovely; a lovely house to live in. But, if I went to visit some of the other students from the school we would often go to the public baths because that’s how their family did it, and so the Japanese university student said “Could I speak English with you and I am a student of Russian.” He said “By the way, I saw you at the Japanese bath.” Of course, I went bright red.
COLHOUN: You would probably be very bright red coming out of that very hot water too.

BENNETT: I was, absolutely, because of the fair skin. I remember being quite lobsterish and he must have been very startled to see this pink foreign girl coming out of the public bath. Of course, he didn’t mind at all – completely open and friendly.
COLHOUN: Well, it’s their tradition.

BENNETT: Absolutely, yes.
COLHOUN: This developed interest in pottery was continued I think because, as I understand it, you went back to Japan.

BENNETT: I did. I went back eight years later with my sister, Jane, and we spent six weeks in Japan travelling and visiting the Takase family and going to the pottery where I worked. When I came back from Japan I finished my last years of high school and then went to Sydney, East Sydney Technical College, and did my ceramic certificate course there, then came back to Orange and established a pottery at Kinross Wallaroy School and taught ceramics there and ran this workshop. Then I decided to go to England to study ceramics with Allan Caiger-Smith. He accepted me as an apprentice at Aldermaston Pottery. By that stage I was very interested in brush work and under-surface decoration with ceramics, and he is well known for his beautiful brush work, so I asked if I could work there. So, on my way to England, Jane and I decided to go to Japan and spend the six weeks there, which we enjoyed very much. It was great to get in touch with people that I had known before, to visit the potteries – we saw beautiful exhibitions and museums and workshops in Japan relating to pottery.
COLHOUN: I know that you have more or less become a professional potter. This is the centre of your life now apart from your family. But, would you say that that early Japanese grounding you had with that Japanese grandfather master potter had a very strong influence on the way you developed?

BENNETT: Profound, it was, I think probably around about 17 years old is an extremely formative time anyway, and the help and encouragement I had to do pottery in those days is what has formed my life. It was absolutely wonderful. I think there is such a long wonderful tradition of pottery in Japan anyway. It was the most marvellous thing to have contact with – beautiful pots, beautiful decoration, wonderful exhibitions and galleries to see – and in our ordinary life the Takase family’s house was just full of the most beautiful things, beautiful ceramics that were hundreds of years old from the family – a long tradition of very proud family tradition. They had a wonderful Kura at the back of the house, straw house, full of the most beautiful things, lots of it ceramics but also beautiful fabrics, lacquer ware, metal work, all those things were an absolute revelation to me to see that wonderful artwork and it has probably been one of the very strongest influences. The Oisho family again have been where they are potting now for generations. I think that Grandfather Oisho was the eighth Masato.
COLHOUN: What is a Masato?

BENNETT: That was his first name, I think, or a sort of a taken name, so his son was the ninth. I think that’s right, so that’s eight generations of people making beautiful work there – very traditional pottery. We worked on an earthen floor, beautiful old, old interior and a wonderful collection of their own.
COLHOUN: Do you think the Japanese influence is identifiable in the work you are doing now?

BENNETT: Yes, it is.
COLHOUN: Do people say “Oh, this looks like Japanese?”

BENNETT: Yes, I think they do.
COLHOUN: You don’t mind that?

BENNETT: No, I’m delighted, absolutely proud to have had some contact with that tradition and I suppose it’s a bit of a mixture of the sort of work that I did in England as well, which of course was also very formative. The brush work there was European style brush work and it was fascinating to see the differences and the likenesses.
COLHOUN: What do you mean by brush work?

BENNETT: Using a brush – the European brushes are different…
COLHOUN: Using a brush in what way?

BENNETT: To decorate pottery vessels, so it’s the European way of using brush work, is using brushes for brush work and their decorative techniques are different, but of course they had the influence of oriental pottery early on and the other way – European brush work and decoration went to Japan early on – or through China to Japan. So, there is a little bit of a mixture of styles.
COLHOUN: There was a period, I think, when Chinese influence was deliberately copied by the major English potters, or European as well.

BENNETT: That’s right, well Delft-ware is probably the famous one, the Dutch style, and they did the most marvellous copies – the famous design is the Willow Pattern.
COLHOUN: Yes, I think there are many copies of that in use and you still find them.

BENNETT: Yes, that’s right.
COLHOUN: Then, later after you had gone through all of this they established a pottery building in the Japanese Garden and you were associated with the beginning of that.

BENNETT: What happened was, I had come back from Japan and was working part time in Orange with a friend and deciding what to do about setting up, establishing a pottery here. Don Kibbler got in touch with me to say that Mr Saburo Nagakura, the Chairman of the Kyushu Electrical Power Company, was keen to donate money to establish a pottery in the Japanese Garden, with the idea of making something more active as an attraction for people visiting the garden. The garden is wonderful. It is a passive thing. They thought it would be good to have something more active in the garden as well. Mr Nagakura is from the Arita area, which is the famous porcelain district in Kyushu and he had the most wonderful collection of porcelain from all through the history of Arita, a personal collection, as well as the Kyushu Electric Power Company having their own beautiful collection as well. So, he had a great personal interest in ceramics. So, Don got in touch with my mother and then me and said “Would Catherine be willing to help design a floor plan for a pottery, give us some pointers?” which I did. Then with the architect in Canberra who had designed the Cultural Centre, which was part of the first stage of the Japanese Garden which was already built and well established by the time they were thinking of this second stage, we were able to design a building that fitted in with the Japanese Garden aesthetic.
COLHOUN: You continued to work as a potter there for a time.

BENNETT: Yes, so I established it. It was built and for a year I worked in it – for a winter I worked in it without windows – a freezing cold winter the first winter. Then gradually we were able to get the building complete. My parents donated a kiln, a lovely gas kiln, which is still being used there, and I had wheels and furniture, which was able to be made for the inside of it. I worked there for probably eight to ten years. In that time another potter, a local man, came to work with me, and a great time was when a Ugandan potter came to work with me for two years. She was from a pottery family near Kampala and her sponsor in Australia came to me and said would I be able to have Somali working with me? She was wanting to learn more about pottery, so the three of us made quite a good team. Somali was great. She was the most beautiful black person and caused a great lot of interest in the garden, you can imagine.
COLHOUN: Have you ever exhibited in Japan?

BENNETT: No, I haven’t. I have had exhibitions and been involved in lots of group exhibitions in Australia. I suppose my work has gone to Japan into various private collections. Mr Nagakura had a number of pieces, but I’ve never actually had a one man exhibition in Japan.
COLHOUN: Thank you very much indeed Catherine for talking to us and continue potting.

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Transcribed by WRITEpeople, June 2003

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