Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Robert Griffiths as Chairman of the Seikei Student Exchange Committee, 2003
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 18 March 2003 (AWM S03076)
TERRY COLHOUN: Bob, there are a number of Cowra–Japan activities in which you are involved. Let’s start with the Seikei Student Exchange Committee of which you are, I think, the Chairman. How did you get involved in this.
ROBERT GRIFFITHS: It’s a very good question. Basically, it was a result of my membership of Rotary. As I’m sure you are aware Ab Oliver was the founding – the prominent person involved, in fact – the person responsible for the programme. Ab relied heavily upon Rotary in those early days in the organisational side of it and Rotary provided a lot of host families and provided members on the committee. It just followed over the years that Ab was a member of Rotary and was the Chairman of the Seikei Committee for many years. When he stepped down Bill Bundy took over the chairman’s role for a couple of years, again a past President of Rotary. Bill left there, resigned after a couple of years after a disagreement with the then Principal of Cowra High School, Mr Mullins, over the handling of an issue with a student who came home early from Japan. It developed into I guess a problem about who was running the programme, whether the Principal of Cowra High School was running the programme or whether the committee was running the programme. Because in the early days it was certainly the committee, but in recent years the Government changed regulations and the ultimate responsibility for the programme changed to the Principal of the High School. Unfortunately there was a disagreement over the way the matter was handled and Bill Bundy resigned from that position and his spot was taken over by Geoff Casey, another past President of Cowra Rotary Club. Geoff only lasted a few months because he found himself in a position professionally where as a solicitor he was involved in an action that involved the parents of one of the students, prospective students, to go to Japan and felt that there was a conflict of interest in that one parent wanted the child to go and one didn’t and Geoff decided to stand down and approached me and asked me, as I had just finished my term as President of Cowra Rotary in 1995–1996, if I would take on the role of Chairman of that committee. I agreed to do that and I’ve been there ever since and loving every minute of it.
COLHOUN: Well, you’ve had quite a long time but I think the scheme goes back more than thirty years.
GRIFFITHS: Yes, it commenced in 1970. It has got a marvellous history – 33 years of continuous exchange programme between Cowra and Japan. Certainly on the Japanese side there’s been 33 students without break. Regrettably, on the Cowra side, we’ve had two occasions when we were unable to send a student because of late withdrawal and failure to gain an applicant or to attract an applicant. That was in the year 2000 and again this current year, 2003.
COLHOUN: Is that affected by the disturbing international situation?
GRIFFITHS: I don’t believe so. The occasion in 2000, the applicant we selected withdrew at the last moment for personal reasons and unfortunately we didn’t have a reserve. It is very difficult to have a reserve on standby because there are lots of things to organise with passports, visas, health vaccinations, some of which take several months to go through a programme of. So, we found ourselves in a very difficult position. Fortunately the Seikei High School was understanding about it. I didn’t realise at the time but there is a Government requirement now that in fact a visa will not be granted to an inbound student unless there is an outbound student to balance that exchange. The result was that because we failed to send a student and we had received our – the visa had already been issued, of course, for the inbound student – we were informed that we could not take a Seikei student the following year. That would have been a catastrophe for the programme. I appealed to all levels of Government. I sought support of all the local members – local government – every organisation I could to support our argument that we had a unique programme that had been going thirty-odd years and yet the Government turned down our request and said that the law is the law and unless you have a reciprocal arrangement you cannot accept an inbound student next year. We searched for a solution to that and we were informed – it was suggested that the only way around it was to send two students next year to balance the books. We thought long and hard about that before approaching Seikei because we understood what that would involve, not simply having to find another set of host parents, or three or four sets of host parents, but the organisation involved and the extra student in the school, etc. But Seikei very kindly agreed to accept that situation because they also understood what was involved in 33 years of history going down the gurgler and they didn’t want to see that happen. They consented to accept two students. We were fortunate enough to send two students the following year – Sarah Neil and Wendy Smith – and they represented Cowra very well. We are very pleased about that. The following year we were able to send a student and then believe it or not this year, 2003, we were unable to find a student willing to go. We were again in the situation going back to Seikei and saying “We have this terrible problem again.” They have indicated that they would accept two students in 2004 but I get the impression, as best you can get from the very polite Japanese, that we are about stretching the friendship.
COLHOUN: Why is the Government insisting on this? Have you got an answer to that?
GRIFFITHS: No, I did not get an answer, a typical Government response, and the Government level I’m talking about is New South Wales Education Department, but they are saying that they are working under a Federal agreement between States on this issue. One can only imagine that it revolves around the taxpayers’ expense of providing for an overseas student in one of our schools without a reciprocal arrangement overseas. It was suggested that if perhaps the Rotary Club could utilise the Rotary Youth Exchange Programme to perhaps use one of their spots – we didn’t think that was an appropriate way to go about it. They have a very full programme as it is. That’s demonstrated by the young fellow that is in our house tonight from Brazil. It’s a very busy programme and we didn’t feel it appropriate to call upon Rotary to help there. So, it was suggested to us that the only other way is to pay full fare for a student to attend the local school, and we were talking $10,000 or some ridiculous figure.
COLHOUN: What, for a year’s education?
GRIFFITHS: Yes. That’s the sort of figure they were talking about which was just…
COLHOUN: They would be prepared to waive it if you could do that?
GRIFFITHS: Yes, but that was just outrageous, of course. I had a letter back from the Minister in New South Wales. He was not prepared to consider even the argument that this programme had been going for 33 years. It was of national significance as far as I was concerned. He would not entertain the idea.
COLHOUN: When a student goes from Cowra to Japan what do they have to do in the way of costs and all that sort of thing and what does your committee do?
GRIFFITHS: Well, when I joined the committee the extent of the financial support was approximately $1,500, which basically covered the return air fare. We were able to negotiate air fares through the Student Travel Association. For the last three years, particularly because of funding we had made available through the Chor-Farmer generous donations, which I will touch upon later…
COLHOUN: We will talk about that shortly.
GRIFFITHS: …we have increased our level of financial support to approximately $2,500, which covers air fare, health and travel insurance – all those sorts of expenses. So, basically the family only needs to provide spending money, pocket money, clothing allowance for the students. All other expenses are covered by the Seikei High School – all the school expenses, excursions, travel to and from school, school uniforms – all provided by Seikei High School. So, the expense is no greater than keeping your teenager at home.
COLHOUN: But then, of course, the Japanese are coming here. Do you provide the same assistance that Seikei provide?
GRIFFITHS: We do. We provide all transport, all school fees are met. We provide school uniforms – those that the school can provide because it’s a Government school, of course, not a private school as in Seikei – those uniforms that can come from the school are provided. Anything else the Seikei Committee purchases. We pay for that from the funds that we raise through our various functions. We also pay a small allowance to host families, and it’s a token allowance basically, to help offset the cost of supporting the student. Again, that comes from the funds that we raise.
COLHOUN: Are the parents of the child that goes to Japan obliged to be the host for the incoming Japanese student?
GRIFFITHS: No. They are not obliged to, but eight times out of ten they end up doing that. They become involved in the committee because as the parent of an outbound student they are encouraged to attend the committee meetings, which are monthly meetings. They only go for a brief period. They are an hour; 5 pm in the evening. They have regular contact with the current Japanese student who is always there. They become part of the Seikei family. After their student comes back and even while their child is away they still attend the meetings and they brief us on what they have heard from their child and we tell them what we have heard from the school. So, at the end of that period of two years that they have been involved they are part of the show. Nine times out of ten the next inbound student will be known to their child that has just returned. So, there is that connection and it just develops naturally, but the answer to your question is “No.” We don’t put pressure on them but it just happens naturally.
COLHOUN: Your committee would apparently then see its role to monitor the progress of the student through the year in both countries.
GRIFFITHS: Yes, certainly, we do. We monitor their progress and their well being overseas – the Australian student overseas – and in fact this year has been a very unique year in that we have had problems at both ends. We had one host family in Japan that did not work out very well and we had very good cooperation from the Seikei High School and an enormous amount of counselling of both the host family and the student but at the end of the day it was resolved that it was in the best interests to move the student.
COLHOUN: That’s always a risk, isn’t it, because the cultures, especially for a teenager, are very different.
GRIFFITHS: Yes, but it is very rare just the same. It is very rare. It was quite a fluke that it also happened in Cowra this year. The student that’s with us at the moment that goes home next week, Yukari, her last move, the family, she was very, very unhappy and again we had to talk to parents and I had the unenviable task of going out and making the final decision and say to the host parents “Look, I think it’s probably in the best interests that we take her back and put her back where she was. She’s only got six weeks to go. Let’s try and resolve the situation this way.”
COLHOUN: How much does homesickness figure in your problems?
GRIFFITHS: Not a real lot, homesickness, and it’s an issue we discussed last night in the information meeting we held at the Cowra High School to encourage applicants to go away next year, and we had three past students present, past Cowra students who had been to Japan and three lots of families there. They all spoke on that issue. Without exception they all said they certainly did suffer homesickness in the second or so month, about that period, but it is an experience that they all managed to get over and what happens after you get to nine and ten months is quite the opposite – the panic sets in that you’ve got to go home and you don’t want to go. That’s exactly what is happening with young Yukari who’s here at the moment. She is having a farewell actually at my home here on Sunday night and two days later will be on a plane to Japan and she’s not looking forward to that one bit.
COLHOUN: She would be full of tears, I imagine.
GRIFFITHS: She certainly is.
COLHOUN: The big issue, of course, is that they are moving from one education system to another one – different syllabus in each case – how do they adjust to this and what flow on effect does it have?
GRIFFITHS: There is quite a lot of flexibility on the part of both the schools, for a start. They are not thrown in at the deep end in either school, particularly in Japan they do have special English classes. They are not just thrown in with the rest of them in the first few months and they have specialised English tuition, generally with other international students that may be at the school, be they from the USA or wherever around the world. So, they are well looked after in that regard. They are not forced to sit for examinations early where it is recognised that it is beyond them. Likewise in Australia, the school takes exactly the same approach. There is a recognition – you have got to be realistic about it. Twelve months is a very short period, it really is. The first six months of that time it virtually takes you six months to be able to properly communicate in the language and feel part of the crowd, as distinct from sitting and talking one to one with somebody, that’s one issue, but to actually sit in a group and have a three to four way conversation with somebody in a class situation, that takes many months to get to that stage, many months. So, there is a lot of flexibility there. By and by the kids don’t have a problem with it. They get by very well. Depending on the age of the kids that go away, Cowra High School in recent years has been sending children who would be normally in Year 10, so that when they come back they then go into Year 11 and 12, without a great deal of effect on their schooling, providing the school is satisfied that they have reached a level to enable them to go on they will allow them to go into Year 11 and 12. In earlier years that wasn’t the case. Mostly the children were older and, in fact, in 2002 David Moriarty, who has just returned from Japan in January, David actually went as a Year 11, would have been a Year 11 student. He has now come back and is commencing Year 11 again, because it’s impossible to miss Year 11 and then come back and do Year 12, because Year 12, most of the work is done in Year 11 anyway, so he is facing Year 11 again. The reason he did that is that he came from St Raphael’s High School – the Catholic High School in Cowra – which only goes to Year 10 and I was instrumental last year in getting the new Principal of Cowra High School, Mr Woolridge, to agree to open up the exchange programme to students at St Raphael’s who would normally have progressed to Cowra High School in the year that they are away. So, David would have gone into Year 11 at Cowra High School but instead we sent him to Japan, representing Cowra High School. So, that’s opened up another avenue of drawing children, that wasn’t available before, because the Principal wouldn’t even take applications from another school. We now have got that concession and the Principal of Cowra High today can see that that student is enrolled at Cowra High School and then he goes to Japan. David had never set foot in Cowra High School, but he was representing Cowra High School because that’s where he would have been if he had been home.
COLHOUN: When they come back what do they bring back generally and put into the school life that they wouldn’t have been able to do if they hadn’t been to Japan?
GRIFFITHS: That’s the difficult one. The thing that they bring back that’s the most noticeable, doesn’t quite fit into what you are saying, is maturity. They certainly bring back maturity. We send out children and we bring back adults. It is amazing.
COLHOUN: That’s a contribution, isn’t it?
GRIFFITHS: It is, yes. I guess it is. Certainly David – that public meeting last night – those three young people got up and spoke to that meeting to encourage students to go next year. They got up and gave their view. Sure, that’s their contribution. That’s part of it but we worry, with some of the younger ones we have sent out, the committee that interviewed them, it’s “We’re really worried about their maturity and whether they will handle it.” When they come back they are just totally different students. It is unbelievable. It just gives you so much satisfaction. It really does. It’s great.
COLHOUN: You touched on another exchange programme with which you have some involvement and that’s through Rotary International and your membership of Cowra Rotary. It’s a major programme in Rotary International that there is the Rotary Youth Exchange Programme. How does that operate in Cowra?
GRIFFITHS: The Cowra Rotary Club has had a lot of exchange students over the years. We don’t have one every year necessarily but generally speaking we have one every two years perhaps, on average. In this particular year we have a young man from Brazil. In fact, normally what happens is that your club sends out a young person from your district and you agree to take somebody from overseas either at the same time or in the following year.
COLHOUN: Subject to the same limitations.
GRIFFITHS: Exactly; the beauty of Rotary International and Rotary in Australia is that they can put all the students in the one pool. Providing they balance the numbers out at the end of the year they are pretty right. But we are a one-to-one situation where we can’t do that. But Rotary are able to average it over the pool, you see. But, in this particular year, the Boorowa Rotary Club, which is a club of only 12 members, wanted to send a student from Boorowa, but were unable to find enough host parents with the Rotary Club to be able to look after a student for 12 months, particularly in view of the fact that more than half of the members of Rotary in Boorowa were, in effect, off the land and things were pretty tough and the like. So, the Cowra Rotary Club agreed to be the host return club to look after Boorawa Club. Whilst we didn’t send a student out, we are taking one to help Boorawa out.
COLHOUN: Of course, Rotary is, as you’ve mentioned, this lad is from Brazil, looking at the whole world, not just Cowra–Japan. That’s not the way Rotary works. But, do you get Japanese exchange students through Rotary or do they leave that to Seikei and concentrate on other nations?
GRIFFITHS: That’s a good question. I don’t know that there is any deliberate policy one way or the other. I must admit I can’t recall a Japanese Rotary Student in recent years. That maybe because the committee that selects them realises that we have got that Japanese involvement. I don’t know. That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about it.
COLHOUN: But, Rotary in Cowra does have a sister club relationship with a club in Nagoya I think.
GRIFFITHS: That’s correct, the Inazawa Rotary Club.
COLHOUN: What sort of contact do you have and how does that work?
GRIFFITHS: It is just a sister club relationship. It celebrated its 25th anniversary in Year 2000 actually, the same year that Seikei celebrated its 30th anniversary. It is purely I guess a social contact situation. We communicate a couple of times each year and we send greetings to each other. Every two or three years you will find a party of Inazawa Club will make a visit to Cowra, then someone will decide it’s time that we did the same. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the 30th anniversary of the Seikei celebrations in 2000 in Tokyo. That same week coincided with the 25th anniversary celebrations of the sister club relationship between Inazawa and Cowra Rotary Clubs. So, following our celebrations in Seikei myself and Allan Vorias, who is a past President of Cowra Rotary and is the Secretary of the Seikei Exchange Programme, another Rotarian, Allan was the President of Cowra Rotary 25 years ago when this sister city relationship started. So, Allan and I and another Rotarian, Robert McKay, who has also had a Japanese connection in that they hosted many Seikei students, the three couples – the three of us with our wives – spent four days with the Inazawa Club and were entertained there and took part in the celebrations of the 25th anniversary.
COLHOUN: That would be a memorable experience.
GRIFFITHS: It certainly was. The grand dinner at the Nagoya Castle Hotel with Maureen dressed in the full kimono and the grand entrance that we had to make. It was just a fantastic night. The hospitality is unbelievable. They took us and put us up one night at a traditional Japanese Inn with the full communal bathing, the whole works. The other three nights we spent in the homes of Rotarians from the Inazawa Club. I was fortunate enough to stay with Kunahide Ono and his wife, who was the President of the Club, in their home with their lovely daughters and their son. We had a magnificent time – lovely people, really lovely people.
COLHOUN: A little while ago you mentioned Chor-Farmer. What is that?
GRIFFITHS: Chor-Farmer is a male choir made up of graduates and students from the Tokyo University of Agriculture. It was a choir that was formed by Hiroshi Masumoto back in – I might have a look at my notes, it’s a fair while ago. They have now made 13 concert tours to Australia, and in particular to Cowra, I should say. Back in 1977, I think it started, not long after the Cowra Exchange Programme. Again, you guessed it, the man involved in the Chor-Farmer arrangements was none other than Ab Oliver. Ab Oliver was the main person involved in that for many, many years. They have made 13 concert tours to Australia and on each occasion they performed in Melbourne, Adelaide and Cowra.
COLHOUN: What brings them to Australia, or particularly what brings them to Cowra?
GRIFFITHS: They come to Cowra because of the Japan connection and, in particular, the wartime connection. It is just an unbelievable experience. Their ages range from 20 years old, 22 years old, through to Hiroshi Masumoto, the conductor and founder of the choir, who is my age, 1948 – what is that – 54. We are the same age. They are representative of what Japan is about today. They are so open today in talking about the wartime experience, all of which happened before every one of them was born. Their concern – for example, the messages in their concert programme talks about, and in fact I was the MC at this concert in Cowra, as I have done for the last three or four occasions, and their opening statement talks about, for example, one little paragraph I’ll grab – “Conflict and terrorist activities have been occurring frequently in many places and becoming increasingly intense. Speculation and interest in countries and races have brought on tragedies that should never have been allowed to happen and many innocent people are victimised. Desire for peace has become a longer journey to accomplish.” That’s the trend that goes through virtually everything they talk about. They have established in recent years, and in fact on the last occasion they were here they actually visited Featherstone in New Zealand and performed a concert there. The reason they have gone there is because Featherstone had a similar prisoner-of-war situation to Cowra where there was an attempted break out and their whole aim of their concert tours to Australia and New Zealand is to promote peace and understanding and goodwill. That’s their theme right through. Their generosity is unbelievable. They, on the last three occasions to Australia, in 1998, 2000 and 2002, have handed me a cheque for $7,000 made out to Mr Bob Griffiths, which is a little bit of a problem, which I quickly put into the Seikei Trust Account. We formed a Trust Account, Chor-Farmer Trust Account, and their instructions were that we were to use that money as the committee saw fit to benefit and to promote peace and goodwill between Australia and Japan.
COLHOUN: How did you use that money? You put it into your student exchange?
GRIFFITHS: Yes, that’s where the bulk of it goes, but not all of it. We put a substantial amount of that each year, because they come every two years, so we spread that over a couple of years, and we put some of that towards the costs of sending the student away to Seikei. We also provide sponsorship to the value of $1,000 to our local Eisteddfod each year to promote – for prize money in the open and three different school sections, the choral sections of the Eisteddfod. So Chor-Farmer is promoting, is assisting in that way. We have also from time to time considered applications from anybody that has an idea. We have donated money to the Peace Bell Society and things like that – anything at all that relates to promoting peace and understanding between Australia and Japan, with a little bit of a sideline towards the choral side because that’s where the money came and I’m sure that’s well appreciated here. The other aspect that I would like to say is that when these students come, and some of these students are ex-students – we are talking men in their 30s and 40s in a lot of cases – as well as the teenagers, are a real beaut mixture. Many of them have been on every tour – 13 tours. Certainly the conductor has – Hiroshi and his wife and the pianist, Masaka, but most of the others have been on a great number of tours and usually they are in Cowra for three nights and they stay with the same families. They are billeted out with families – the Seikei Committee families and lots of other families in the community that are not members of the Seikei Committee, if you like. They have had the same people visiting them now for twenty-odd years and thirty years. It is quite amazing and the friendships that have developed – people travel to Japan to go to weddings, it’s quite amazing, and it’s all through this Chor-Farmer connection. Back in 1998 and, in fact it might have been 1996 when it started, my memory is a little bit hazy, but certainly in 1998, 2000 and 2002 the practice has been when Chor-Farmer leaves Cowra, usually on a Monday morning on their coach, to head off either to Sydney to fly home, if it’s the end of their tour, or occasionally we are the start of the tour and they will go to Melbourne, Adelaide, New Zealand and then home, but the Monday morning they leave us they usually board the coach at the Civic Centre and there are all sorts of official speeches as the Japanese love to do, as you know, and presentations, then they go to the War Cemetery and we invite the locals to come up as well, and the very first year that it happened, which I think was in 1998, they went into the Australian section of the War Cemetery. They spent a good 15 minutes in silence wandering around through the headstones. They then gathered and sang as a choir, and a male choir, without music with those birds twittering overhead at 8 am in the morning, on a beautiful sunny morning in Cowra, it was just magnificent. They sang two numbers in there – really solemn beautiful numbers, in English. They then went around to the Japanese section where they spent a lot of time inspecting the graves there. They then gathered, and a lot of them went to the little shrine there and said their prayers, and they then gathered and sang another couple of tunes in Japanese. It was total silence, of course, when all this was happening and there was quite a crowd of onlookers from the locals there. We then went back to the flagpole area which is an area in between the two, if you like, it’s a circular area with the flagpole there. I think it was probably Marion Starr who said “Link arms”. We linked arms – Australian, Japanese, Australian, Japanese – all around and they sang Auld Lang Syne in a mixture of Japanese and there was not a dry eye in the place. That has continued now for three tours. Everyone, every year it’s exactly the same. They are so emotional about that aspect that that’s the reason they come here. There is no doubt about that. They are so generous. In past years, as you know the Japanese like to run and jog, and they have usually managed to coincide their tour with a fun run that’s held in Cowra, or the school in fact out at Homewood used to change the fun run, they would change the date to when Chor-Farmer were coming. There would be forty Japanese in this run. It would triple the numbers. At the end of it they would make a donation as well, of course. On the last occasion they couldn’t go in the fun run. It wasn’t held that weekend or they were a day short. We actually had the concert on the Sunday because their schedule had changed. When they were leaving on the bus Hiroshi came back down the bus and gave me an envelope and said “We couldn’t go to Homewood School this year.” They had had a collection on the bus. There is $400 – $10 a head. “Would you please give that to the principal of the school.” That is the sort of people they are. It never ceases to amaze me.
COLHOUN: Would you say from all of your experience, and I ask this question because it is something that seems to be coming through to me in talking to so many Cowra people with their Japan experience that there is, amongst those Japanese who are aware of what’s happened here, an immense gratitude for the way Cowra people have cared for their war dead.
GRIFFITHS: No doubt about that; that comes through loud and clear, it really does. It is as if they find it hard to believe that we can forgive and do what we do.
COLHOUN: And it was started by war veterans from the Second World War.
GRIFFITHS: Exactly, returned servicemen, exactly. It’s as if they find that hard to believe.
COLHOUN: Well, Bob, I think we should finish on that note. Thank you very much for allowing me into your home to discuss these matters, and very good wishes for the future.
GRIFFITHS: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.
Transcribed by WRITEpeople, June 2003
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