Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial
Steve and Chris Kawamata as residents of Cowra 1980–2003
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Jerrabomberra, New South Wales, on 5 April 2004 (AWM S03339)
TERRY COLHOUN: Mr and Mrs Kawamata, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this project. I am sure that whatever you have to say will be very helpful to the project. What I would like to ask first is what was the job that Steve had in Cowra that brought you to Australia?
STEVE KAWAMATA: I was sent to Lachlan Industries in Cowra by my employer, Kanebo Limited in Japan, as a manager in December 1980. A year later I was appointed as a managing director. Lachlan Industries was a consortium of Kanebo Limited, a Japanese trading company, Mitsubishi Corporation and the Australia wool broker, Elders IXL. Lachlan Industries was a processor of Australian wool and an exporter.
COLHOUN: What were you doing in Japan before you came here?
STEVE KAWAMATA: I joined the department of wool products of Kanebo Limited in Japan after I graduated from university. I was chief engineer of the worsted yarn spinning factory of Kanebo before I moved to Cowra.
COLHOUN: And while you were doing that in Japan, what was Chris doing?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: I was housewife after I married Steve in 1963.
COLHOUN: And you have children?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: I have two children, a son and a daughter.
COLHOUN: Were they both born in Japan?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Yes, they were.
COLHOUN: Did either of you know anything about Australia, or particularly about Cowra before you came here?
STEVE KAWAMATA: I only knew that Cowra was a small country town and that Lachlan Industries was there, that’s all. But I had knowledge about Australian regional weather conditions concerning sheep grazing, also the name of cities and the location of the Australia wool market, but that’s all.
COLHOUN: What about Chris, did you know anything about Australia?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: I knew Australia but I didn’t know Cowra, so when Steve decided to come to Cowra, or his company said to him you have to go to Cowra, we stopped at a bookshop to look at a map. We found New South Wales in Australia in that map, but we couldn’t find Cowra. We stopped at a bigger bookshop and found Cowra – just a tiny little location beside Orange, that’s all. I didn’t know anything about it.
COLHOUN: What did you feel when you arrived in Cowra and saw it for the first time?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Oh yes, we arrived in Cowra at night time – a night flight from Sydney. When we arrived at Cowra airport, there was nothing – only few lights on at airport. That was 11 o’clock at night, so I felt awful. Next morning when driving through the whole town, we found only one street with shops, oh my goodness (laugh). How can I spend the time here? But, we have been so happy, and had good experiences also.
COLHOUN: How old were your children then?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: My son was 16, my daughter was 14. Next day Steve and I went to the high school and talked to the principal about placing them in Year 11 and Year 8.
COLHOUN: They would have had very little English?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: My son had already finished the last year of high school so he could only read English – he had no conversation. We decided for my son, Hiro, to be placed in Year 11 , but only the next year he would have to do the Higher School Certificate (HSC). So he repeated Year 11 twice and then did Year 12, and did the HSC in his third year. My daughter went into Year 8, so she had five years before the HSC. We are so happy and lucky that they were the Dux of High School.
COLHOUN: Is that so, that’s very good.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Yeh, we were so proud.
COLHOUN: Did either of you speak English when you arrived?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: No (laugh).
STEVE KAWAMATA: Ah, I could speak a little bit but it was really hard to have a conversation with Australian staff in the company.
COLHOUN: What was your first impression of Cowra?
STEVE KAWAMATA: Ah, I was lonely when I arrived in Cowra on that evening flight but, ah, the people of Cowra were very friendly. Everybody was friendly and, oh dear, polite.
COLHOUN: Bearing in mind that Australia and Japan were on different sides of the war in the Pacific, did you have any fear of coming to Australia?
STEVE KAWAMATA: Ah, I didn’t because five years before we came to Cowra – Lachlan Industries was founded five years before I came – there were already six Japanese staff staying there. I got a lot of information about Australia and also people’s lifestyle so I didn’t have any trouble.
COLHOUN: Chris, what did you miss most about Japan in your first months in Cowra?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: For a few years, I said the food.
COLHOUN: I wondered if you might say that.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Cowra is really central and so far away from the Sydney markets. Japanese people most times eat fish, but Cowra can’t get really nice fish. But we found one fish seller – he still comes from Sydney once a week. So we specially ordered such and such a thing – “will you please bring that to Cowra next week” – something like that. But in Japan, we can shop every day at any time and we can get anything. Really, we missed the food.
COLHOUN: You could get rice, but was it the right kind of rice?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: No (laugh). Now we can buy exactly the same as Japanese rice, sushi rice, but that type was really dry.
STEVE KAWAMATA: At that time we couldn’t get Japanese rice.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Similar.
STEVE KAWAMATA: Not really.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: We could get rice but not the same as Japanese rice. Mmm.
COLHOUN: How did the children react in those early days?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: They were so lucky, they got friends very quickly and had no trouble at school. It was not the same in the Japanese and Australian education systems. Here they got a choice, could pick the subject, so they chose Japanese, English, Maths, Chemistry and one more. They loved that because Maths is nearly the same as in Japan. Our son had already started High School and the studies were ahead of Australia so they were always at the top of class, so they were so happy. No, they didn’t have any trouble.
COLHOUN: How long was it before you learned about the prisoner-of-war camp that was in Cowra before you came here, during the war?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: I did not know anything about it because I started school in 1951, so I was six years old.
COLHOUN: Yes, you wouldn’t have known during the war, but when you came to Cowra, how long was it before you found out about the prisoner-of-war camp?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Straight away because a lot of people explained about the prisoner-of-war campsite and the war cemetery. We made friends with Don Kibbler and his wife very quickly and at an early time they explained to us and also about the 1984 documentary, Cowra Breakout. I think at that stage it was the first time ex-prisoners of war – four or five families – came to Cowra and stayed for a few days to make the documentary film, so I talked to them. That included Mr TAKAHARA, so then I knew more about it.
COLHOUN: How about you Steve, how did you feel about the prisoner-of-war camp when you knew about it?
STEVE KAWAMATA: Of course I knew about the prisoner-of-war camp after I moved to Cowra, so some Japanese – Lachlan Industries Japanese staff – told me about that. Some Australian employees in the company also told me about the prisoners of war. That was the first time – before then I knew nothing.
COLHOUN: Then when you went to the war cemetery and you learned that Australian veterans were looking after the graves, how did you, as a Japanese, feel about that?
STEVE KAWAMATA: I, oh, I was much surprised about high-minded people who proposed to make such a war cemetery for the enemy.
COLHOUN: What about you Chris?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Yes so did I. I felt so surprised, so kindly and maybe even Japanese people didn’t know – not now, but some years ago.
COLHOUN: You will have seen the war cemeteries develop quite a lot. Do you feel that today the Japanese who have been buried in the war cemetery are being properly cared for?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: I think so, yeh.
STEVE KAWAMATA: Ah, it is very sad to think about them because I think they are poor victims of the Japanese military, very sad.
COLHOUN: Yes, a happier thing would be to see the development of the Japanese Garden.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Oh, yes. Yes.
COLHOUN: Did you visit there very often?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Of course. How many times have I visited? One hundred times (laugh).
STEVE KAWAMATA: We were invited to attend many events, which the Shire Council and the Cowra Tourist Corporation held many times.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: And also some important people or some visitors came from Japan and we normally attended. We sometimes helped between Cowra people and Japanese people, so I visited them maybe 100 times (laugh).
STEVE KAWAMATA: We have been a bridge between Cowra people, in particular the Cowra Shire Council and the Tourist Corporation, and Japanese visitors.
COLHOUN: Well, many things have happened, as we have covered in this project, not just the Japanese Garden. There is Nagakura Park and the exchange program and things involving young people. Did you manage to help any of the Japanese students who were coming as exchange students, did you meet them?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Of course, I was also a committee member for the Japanese Gardens and a committee member of the Seikei High School exchange program. Also a very good friend of Mr Nagakura and his son, so all the time if they had something, we helped. So it was a few things.
COLHOUN: What do you think helped you most to feel comfortable living in Cowra?
STEVE KAWAMATA: I think it was our neighbours. And also when we first came to Cowra we were helped by the English home-tutor scheme and some of them helped to get – helped our children to get – into the Cowra tennis crowd, and …
CHRIS KAWAMATA: TAFE, TAFE College.
STEVE KAWAMATA: … College. This was after my retirement, my next door neighbour Jim Davidson inducted me into Cowra Rotary Club and I was there for ten years. He was very helpful.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Especially neighbours are still very close friends, neighbours.
COLHOUN: Would that have been the same if you had been living in Japan? You move around, I know, quite a lot because of Steve’s work and you were constantly moving to new areas to live. Would it have been different in Japan?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Cowra – I don’t know all Australian people – Cowra people are much more friendly, more came in our hearts and they helped and looked after us so well, so that’s different. But in Japan its just friend to friend, that’s it.
COLHOUN: You were not the only Japanese nationals living in Cowra through that period were you? I believe there were some war brides, but were there some others?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Some.
COLHOUN: Not many.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Two.
STEVE KAWAMATA: War brides, two war bride ladies in Cowra. We haven’t met them.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: One, yes.
STEVE KAWAMATA: But already both of them old women.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Very old.
COLHOUN: So through that period you were almost the only Japanese family living in Cowra.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: At the time another couple came to the company.
STEVE KAWAMATA: Japanese staff and family.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Yes, and also every year an exchange student stayed in Cowra. They really were sometimes very homesick, so I would ask them to please come up to my place and have some dinner.
COLHOUN: Have some Japanese food?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: They were so glad because everybody missed Japanese food, and also talking only Japanese (laugh) so …
STEVE KAWAMATA: And also she helped to dress them in a Japanese kimono.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Kimono, yes, always.
STEVE KAWAMATA: Because if an exchange student is still young, they can’t put it on by themselves, so she assisted all the time.
COLHOUN: Why did you stay in Australia?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: That’s an important one, because when Steve was appointed to Lachlan Industries, the company said it was for five years. Then Steve wanted to continue, to stay in Cowra, with Lachlan Industries for ten years. At that stage, our kids had graduated from university and got jobs in Australia and also got partners, a boyfriend and girlfriend, so they wanted to stay in Australia. We decided we had to stay with them. That is why we decided to stay in Australia.
COLHOUN: Well, apart from the fact you wanted to be with your children, and that is understandable, was it a hard decision? As I understand it, the Japanese feel very close to their own country and they like to go home.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: But after ten years living in Cowra it was so comfortable. We went back to Japan once a year, which was not too bad to touch base with our family. Our kids are more important to us and they are now married and have two children each – we have 4 grandchildren, all Japanese Australian mix – so ...
COLHOUN: But you have moved away from Cowra, you have come to Queanbeyan near Canberra.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Yeh. Our daughter moved to Canberra from Sydney so we wanted to be near her, close by to our daughter’s family so ...
COLHOUN: That’s reasonable.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Yeh.
COLHOUN: Well, this year in August – talking about August 2004 – is the 60th anniversary of the breakout of the prisoners of war and there is a very big commemoration week. Does it surprise you that after sixty years the people of Cowra are celebrating this event – not in any sense of victory or anything, but as a respectful remembrance of a very sad event? How do you feel about that? Does it surprise you that we would do that?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Sixty years. In that time, a long time for Cowra to have had sad memories too, a friendly situation has developed between Japan, Cowra and Australia. I am so glad to see this anniversary. Maybe it will be the last ceremony for the breakout because of the age of the ex-prisoners. One of them, Mr TAKAHARA, is more than eighty years old. I think a 70th celebration would be very difficult.
COLHOUN: I don’t think there would be very many left.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: I am on the 60th year celebration committee. I am really hoping to see everybody at the 60th celebration.
COLHOUN: You are going back?
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Yes.
COLHOUN: What about you Steve, how do you feel about it?
STEVE KAWAMATA: So, I think the 60th anniversary will be a big event because ...
CHRIS KAWAMATA: 60th.
STEVE KAWAMATA: How do you say, as my wife said. Very few prisoners of war will able to come to Cowra, only two or three people. The event would be the last one for them to come to Cowra.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: Its very important.
COLHOUN: Well, thank you very much for talking to me for this project. We appreciate what you have said very much.
CHRIS KAWAMATA: You are welcome.
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.
Printed on 08/14/2022 12:43:05 PM