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Cowra–Japan conversations
Keiko Tamura on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the breakout from the Cowra prisoner-of-war camp
Recorded by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 5 August 2004 (AWM S03336)
LAWRANCE RYAN: Dr Keiko Tamura over the last two years has been a very good friend to Cowra and a very good friend to the POW Anniversary Committee. We have passed many ideas by her for her thoughts on what would be appropriate for the commemorations, and also, whenever we needed something to be translated into Japanese, I would send her an email and say "can you translate this?" It might be a peace paper application, it might be a program, and yes, dutifully, it would come back and it would be translated for me. Somebody said to me – I actually sent a copy of the peace paper application to NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster, and the chap rang me up and said whoever did this did beautiful work. I think everything Dr Tamura does is beautiful work, and today she is going to talk about a story that will be familiar to many of us. I will say it is a local story and I will leave it at that. Thank you.

KEIKO TAMURA: Thank you, Lawrance, for your very kind introduction. Your Excellency, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for this opportunity to talk on such a historical occasion. First of all, let me congratulate the people of Cowra, especially the Anniversary Committee, for the success of this program. I have been involved in the planning process of the anniversary events as a long-distance, or satellite, committee member based in Canberra. Of course, the major work was carried out by those committee members who were based in Cowra, with the help of many local volunteers. A tremendous amount of hard work went into the program, but who would have ever expected such a large number of participants and high level of interest. I came to Australia in 1980 as a Rotary International Fellowship student and started my postgraduate study at the Australian National University. Initially I was going to spend only one year in Australia, but the scholarship opportunity enabled me to continue my study. Also, I met an English nuclear physicist at the university and we got married and we have two boys aged 18 and 15. That is why I’m still in Australia (laugh, applause).

My research interest has been the interactions of different cultures. I have worked with aboriginal women and in the field of Australian–Japan relations. Later I carried out research for my PhD on the Japanese women who are generally called “war brides”. They married Australian soldiers in occupied Japan after the war and migrated to Australia in the 1950s. I’m currently working for the Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial. However, today I’m not going to talk as an academic, or a member of the Memorial. I would like to talk to you as somebody who was born in Japan after the war and grew up without knowing the wartime history that Australia and Japan shared until I came to this country. I would also like to talk as somebody who has been living in Australia for as many years as I have lived in Japan, and therefore is able to observe those historical incidents from both Japanese and Australian perspectives.

The Cowra breakout occurred exactly sixty years ago, as has been repeated many times. Four Australian servicemen and 234 Japanese prisoners of war died as a consequence. As Mr YURA mentioned, many people ask the question, why did the Japanese break out? What was their purpose in breaking out? What was their motivation in carrying out such a suicidal action? There have been many theories and opinions on these questions. Was it a sense of shame, sense of guilt, sense of desperation? Did they try to restore their honour through their death? It’s not possible to narrow it down to one specific theory, as has been demonstrated in the various views expressed in many books and the survivors’ accounts. Furthermore, those who died in the breakout never had a chance to speak out.

Today, I do not intend to focus on the breakout itself. What I’d like to talk about is what happened immediately after the breakout and how some local people acted in order to bring the death-driven Japanese soldiers back to life.

Many of you here might know of the incident that happened at “Rosedale” soon after the breakout. This excerpt has been repeated so many times during this celebration, or anniversary event. But just let me go through it again. “Rosedale” is a farm where the Weir family lived, and still live. Bruce and Margaret Weir recorded their interview about the incident for the Murdoch Sound Archive at the Australian War Memorial. Thus we have an accurate record of their experiences. In Japanese this incident has been written about in several books, the most recent one was Mr TSUCHIYA Yasuo who is present here today, and also, a journalist who has been recently writing in newspaper articles. Today, I am going to tell you what happened from a Japanese prisoner’s point of view. The prisoner’s name is KAWAGUCHI Susumu.

Mr KAWAGUCHI wrote an essay on his experience in 1989. He said that during the breakout, he climbed over the barbed wire fence, and reached the hill behind the camp. From there he could see the burning huts, but did not know what to do next. He decided to walk away from the camp and found himself with two other prisoners. It was a cold night, and they just kept walking. Then they reached the railway line and they decided to wait for the next train to come. It was not to hitch a ride, but to kill themselves under the train. However, no train came. So they decided to start walking again towards no particular destination. Eventually day broke. When they saw a farmhouse in the distance the only thing they could think was of their hunger. This farmhouse was “Rosedale”, the family home of Mr and Mrs Weir. In the 1984 Australian television documentary, Breakout, KAWAGUCHI recounted that moment. He said: “It was strange. Up till then, all we had been thinking about was death, nothing else. But when we saw the farmhouse, we forgot about death. The only thing we could think about was the hunger we had.” At this stage, he believed that all the escapees would be executed once they were recaptured.

They approached the gate and saw a farmhand, who took them to see Mrs Weir. She was at home with her daughter Margaret, while her son and husband – both Margaret and Bruce are in the audience, it’s great – while husband and son Bruce were out in the paddocks. KAWAGUCHI said to the lady “very hungry, bread please.” Mrs Weir was in the middle of baking scones in the kitchen. They were not for devonshire teas, but a substitute for fresh bread, and she baked them once a week on Saturdays. Luckily for KAWAGUCHI and his companions, they arrived at the house just at the right time. In the meantime, Margaret was sent to the farm next door to report the unexpected arrival of the Japanese prisoners of war.

The three escapees were taken to the verandah to be seated. Soon warm buttered scones and sweet tea were served before them. They enjoyed the food and appreciated the hospitality. When they finished, they bowed deeply, thanked her in English and left the farm. They experienced a sudden onset of sleepiness as soon as their hunger vanished. They lay down on a hill to have a sleep and soon they were recaptured by the police who had been alerted by Margaret.

This group of escapees were not the only ones who visited the farm. Another prisoner of war was found in the shed on the same day. A week later, on Saturday, Bruce came across the body of a Japanese prisoner of war on the ground while he was out catching rabbits. He assumed that it was a dead body and almost forgot to tell his parents about this encounter. As soon as Mr Weir reported the sighting, a large number of police arrived, and they eventually rounded up two more Japanese prisoners of war who had been hiding in the bush for almost a week. They were taken to “Rosedale” before they were taken back to the camp. When Mrs Weir heard about the prisoners, she felt pity towards them. She thought they had been enduring the weather with no food for almost a week. As the day again happened to be a Saturday, she had baked another batch of scones. She insisted that they should be fed before they were taken away. The police and the soldiers were not pleased, but they just had to wait. The prisoners of war were served scones and warm tea on the back of a truck before they were taken back to the camp. A photograph of the scene survives. The name of the last two prisoners of war are not known but these men must have appreciated Mrs Weir’s generosity as much as did Mr KAWAGUCHI.

That was not the only example of such a kind deed. In Mr TSUCHIYA’s book, KANEDA Hiromu, another prisoner of war, recounted his experience. He broke out from the camp with others and hid from the search party for six days. When he was found by a group of farmers, he shouted to the farmers who found him: “hungry, hungry”, with the belief that he would surely be executed. Then one of the farmers brought coffee in a tin with some bread. He said he could still remember how good that coffee tasted.

I believe KAWAGUCHI, KANEDA and other prisoners of war tasted something they would never forget for the rest of their lives. The food and drink tasted so good because they were the taste of life. Up till that time the only thing the Japanese prisoner could think of was death, and while many of their colleagues died, they managed to survive. Mainly because of luck, yet at that stage they could not see themselves as lucky, they felt they were unlucky to be alive.

Yet those Cowra people, Mrs Weir and another anonymous local farmer, generously provided the nourishment that reminded the Japanese that they were still alive. Those locals were not famous philosophers, or religious preachers, but they could convince the escapees how nice it was to be alive by providing nourishment and kindness. To be alive meant that they could enjoy buttered scones and warm sweet drink. For those local people as well as most Australians, it would be very difficult to understand why those soldiers were driven to die. It is difficult for me, even as a Japanese to understand that as well. Maybe, their intense drive was tightly connected with the time and their circumstances. And that is something that is not easy for outsiders to understand. Even in such circumstances, the escapees had a survival instinct and local Cowra people were willing to assist them to regain their sense of life and living.

Similar kinds of behaviour by Australian people was recorded in various memoirs. Mr TAKAHARA, an ex-prisoner of war who is in Cowra now, remembers the kindness and gentleness of Australian nurses at the hospital. Such a warm interaction with strangers and enemy soldiers was not an odd example or exception. It seems to me to be a part of the Australian tradition.

In order to explain what I have just said, I would like to take you back to the verandah of the “Rosedale” farm where Mrs Weir served scones and tea. When I read the transcript of Bruce and Margaret’s interview, I was puzzled, as they kept referring to the jug from which the tea was served. Tea is usually served in a teapot, so I thought it might be a local Cowra dialect, and the people here might call a teapot a jug. However, when I saw the photograph of the actual utensil, it was certainly a jug with a flowery pattern on the side. So I asked Bruce why the jug was used, and not a teapot? His answer was revealing. He said his mother used to give some food to many swagmen who wandered the countryside searching for work. When they came to the door, she always provided some food and tea, but instead of bringing out the teapot, milk jug and sugar pot for them, she mixed everything in the jug and poured the warm sweet tea from it. Very practical.

Mrs Weir, perhaps, did not see the prisoners of war as enemies who were dangerous and strange. She saw them as those who desperately needed some nourishment and care. Just as she treated her own countrymen, she provided help to those Japanese prisoners of war. From my experience from living in Australia for over 20 years, I can confidently say that this is one of the characteristics of the Australian people. In a face-to-face situation, Australians treat each other, and outsiders, as equal human beings without pretence. They are ready to offer help when they see somebody in need.

I believe that this is the basis of the reconciliation movement between Cowra and Japan during the last 50 years or so. The people in Cowra and in Japan have been relating to each other as individuals and have provided support and assistance when the others needed help. After the breakout, many of the surviving Japanese prisoners of war learned a very important lesson from local people in Cowra – ordinary Australian citizens. The lesson was that they should appreciate their lives. We are here to celebrate this spirit and we are privileged to witness this continuous effort of the people of Cowra and district and of the people of Japan. Thank you very much.
RYAN: Thank you for that Keiko. I’m sure anyone who hears the Weir story can’t fail to be moved by it and to hear it viewed from the perspective of a Japanese person is most interesting. Thank you again Keiko.

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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