TERRY COLHOUN: You had, I think, some involvement in the establishment of a Peace Bell in Cowra.
KIBBLER: Yes, but I didn’t have a lot to do with it. What happened there, about, it must have been 1986 or 1988, and we had a fellow working for us by the name of Maurice Beard and he – at that time Rod Blume became President of the Tourist and Development Corporation and Maurice Beard was working in the garden and he said “Oh, I’ve had a phone call from the Foreign Affairs Department. They want to know if we want to put a peace bell in Cowra.” Anyhow, he let Rod know and Rod thought it was a good idea. I said it would be a good idea so we told the Foreign Affairs Department “Yes.” The reason they said that they wanted to put it in Cowra because Mr Yoshida (the Peace Bell founder) in Japan had first of all asked for it to go into the Cenotaph in Sydney, and that was apparently not suitable from the RSL point of view, etc., and the same thing applied to the War Memorial.
COLHOUN: That’s the Canberra War Memorial?
KIBBLER: Yes, the Canberra War Memorial and he thought “Well, they are two prominent positions for it.” So, the Foreign Affairs Department rang Cowra and suggested that maybe it was the best place to put it. Nobody else seemed to want it. Anyhow, that’s why the Peace Bell is there. I think that Tony Mooney did speak to Mr Yoshida in Japan before it was actually donated and I don’t think he was that keen on having it in Cowra. He didn’t know anything about Cowra, a little country town, whereas the Cenotaph in Sydney or the War Memorial would have been a much more prominent position.
COLHOUN: The Peace Bell is alongside the Council Chambers in the middle of the town. There is a similar – what seems to me to be a similar bell in the Japanese Garden. What is that?
KIBBLER: There is a difference. The two bells are different. The bell in the Japanese Garden is a small one which was donated by the Inazawa Rotary Club in Japan. That’s a replica of the bells that they ring in Japan for 108 times on New Years Eve for the 108 sins of man. I don’t know what all those sins are, but it seems to be an awful lot of them. We could probably add a few too but they ring that every year in Japan 108 times for 108 sins, whereas the bell which is called a bonsho, the one in the Cowra Garden, that’s a temple bell, but the one in the town, the main Peace Bell, that’s constructed out of coins melted down from every country in the United Nations. The first one was put at the United Nations and that’s – although it looks similar, if you look at it carefully it’s got different meanings on the outside of it – all those little bubbles and things on it have a different meaning. The one in the garden is concerned with the sins of man and those sins can be explained by the markings on it, where the Peace Bell, that can be explained by way of each one representing the countries all being joined together.
COLHOUN: Apart from the Japanese Garden there is a Picnic Park, the Nagakura Park, what is that?
KIBBLER: There was a man by the name of Mr Nagakura who was the Chairman of the Kyushu Electric Power Company. He was also Chairman of the JR Rail in Kyushu. He was getting on in years and he, while he was Chairman of the Kyushu Electric Power Company he came to Cowra with a rugby team through the good graces of Jim Millner, from Washington Soul Pattinson, who actually owned Queensland Mines at the time and was doing some business with the Kyushu Electric Power Company. He also organised a gift from each of the electric power companies in Japan as a gift to the Cultural Centre. When he was getting on, quite a few years later, around about 1992, I guess it would be about 1991–1992, he asked me to come and visit him. He wanted to do something. I did and he said “I would like to make a donation to Cowra and I don’t quite know how to go about it.” So, we checked things out and discovered the only way to make it a lasting thing was to set up what we called the Saburo Nagakura Foundation after his name. He made a personal donation to that of ten million yen and with that fund we actually provided to the council, gave the money to the council to build that park, in part. Before he died, the council made him an honorary citizen of Cowra, which he felt very proud to achieve and, by the way, they did make also Ken Nakajima an honorary citizen – the only two they have and unfortunately both of them have passed away. Anyhow, after he died a new man took over his position called Mr Ono who was also very keen on rugby and keen on the Cowra relationship. Through the Electric Power Company he donated another large amount of money to really make the park what it is today, with some funds left over to remain in the foundation. The foundation now – myself as director in Australia and Nagakura’s son Seiji as director in Japan – we both of us have the right to appoint other directors as time goes on.
COLHOUN: You mentioned student exchanges early in our discussion. This has, I think, been a lead up to a Youth Forum which has been held. Were you associated with that?
KIBBLER: Yes, I was on the panel and gave a history of Australia–Japan relations to a group of about 300 Australian and Japanese young people. This forum was organised by Tony Mooney, when he was Chairman of the Japanese Garden Committee. It was attended by the then Ambassador, Mr Okawara, and other people, and it was quite successful. I do have a tape of that whole forum and it was really an opportunity for the youths of the two countries to get together. I thought it was a very, very good thing that should have been kept on, not every year but every two or three years, probably would be something else that we could do and I thought it was very well done and it was very worthwhile.
COLHOUN: All these different activities, has there been any attempt to coordinate them in some sort of way so that everybody knows what the others are doing?
KIBBLER: I did try to do that with putting together the Cowra–Japan Society. It just needs a driving force. Unfortunately, my wife died and my children were in Sydney so I’m not in Cowra much any more. That was really the idea of having the whole Japanese relationship come through there, because we have great difficulty at the moment. Sometimes the council is responsive and sometimes it’s not. It depends who gets voted on to the council. But, it would seem to me that if you want to be involved with Japan relationships and you live in Cowra, because of the extensive projects that we have you should have an organisation totally and only responsible for that duty. In other words, if you want to be involved at the moment with the Japan relationship you’ve either got to get elected to the council or elected to the Tourist and Development Corporation and there’s people that don’t want to do that but they want to be related to the Japanese relationship. But, at the moment we’ve got too many directions and I feel a bit uncomfortable about it, but it would need some very strong leadership to bring it together, but it would seem to me to make sense and it would be very simple then to look after visitors. At the moment some VIPs might contact me, they might contact the council, they might contact the Peace Bell Committee, they might contact the Tourist and Development Corporation. Now, unless there is a cohesive joint effort between all those organisations to look after the Japanese visitors then nobody knows whether they have been there before. The problem with elected people is they change all the time. You’ve got to try and explain everything again and again and again and it becomes a very difficult job. For instance, there was a group arrived there once that had donated a fair bit of money to the garden and when they went up there and had their cup of tea they were asked to pay for it. I wasn’t there but I was told later and it’s very embarrassing. But, it’s only because the people didn’t know and unless there is a central point it will never work properly.
COLHOUN: Has this particular development in Cowra led to any comparable development of any kind in Japan?
KIBBLER: Yes, in 1988 myself and Tony Mooney went over to Japan to collect money, or try and raise funds for the Cherry Tree Avenue that I told you about. Before we went there was a fellow by the name of Lindsay Clift who lived in Cowra who was a friend of Tony’s family and he told Tony, he said “I was a prisoner in a place called Naoetsu in Japan. When you go again will you go up and have a look and see where the prison camp was, and that?” So we went up there and met with the Mayor and explained everything that had happened in Cowra and told him what we were trying to do. He was very, very impressed, together with some other people, dignitaries around the town. So, they took us around. They showed us where the prison camp was. About six months later Tony, with help from the Mayor of Nara and also from Father Tony Glynn, Tony and his wife went back to Japan, took some gum trees from Nara to Naoetsu and planted them. Not only did they plant some gum trees there in memory of the Australian soldiers that died, also, Tony Glynn held a Christian and Buddhist service with some of his Buddhist priest friends. As a consequence to that, and understanding what had happened in Cowra, some people in Naoetsu, when Tony made them aware of what had happened in Cowra…
COLHOUN: Which Tony are we talking about now?
KIBBLER: Tony Mooney, I should say Father Glynn, not Tony Glynn. Tony Mooney had made them aware of what happened in Cowra. They, together with support from the Mayor collected something like $1 million and built a peace memorial near, I don’t think it’s on the site, but near the site of the prison camp, the Australian Prisoner-of-War Camp in Naoetsu. That is one of the things that happened, as a result. There are quite a few others, but we would need a couple of days talking, I think, Terry, to tell it all like that.
COLHOUN: We have covered a lot of ground. One thing emerges and that is that over the years you have personally put a tremendous of your own life, money, into developing various kinds of Japanese relationships – partly from your own initiative and partly from people coming to you. That certainly includes how many visits to Japan?
KIBBLER: I counted up in my diary and it is just on one hundred over the years, yes. That’s a lot of time.
COLHOUN: Indeed; looking back, why have you done this and has it been worthwhile?
KIBBLER: Well, it has been worthwhile from Cowra…
COLHOUN: But, has it been worthwhile from you, Don Kibbler, has it been worthwhile to you?
KIBBLER: It just about had me broke at one stage. I spent a lot of my own money and I didn’t earn anything for those years. Probably if you looked in total it would have to be close to five years. I didn’t have much money left, I can tell you that. I just had to get my head down, backside up, and make enough so I can live the rest of my life when I can’t work any more, but I don’t know. From a monetary point of view it’s been a disaster as far as I’m concerned. From a personal satisfaction of doing what you set out to do, that’s okay.
COLHOUN: Is Cowra a better place for it all?
KIBBLER: Cowra wouldn’t be on the map except for it, the garden. You couldn’t advertise the cemetery. Sure, the garden was something – the cemetery was there and the garden people might say was a natural progression, but you had to do it. But the garden, you can’t put an ad in the paper and say “Come and visit this cemetery” but you can promote a garden. Really I think, when I said to you earlier, when you reverse the whole situation, and I didn’t think about this earlier, if you reverse the whole situation with Japan and, yes, the garden has been the catalyst for the relationship that has developed, other things too, but I think it’s been the main one because it has been such a high profile and it has a public image and I believe that has been the catalyst for the rest of things that have happened there. From my personal point of view it’s been a financial disaster. Not many people would understand that, I suppose. They would just probably say I’m a fool. But, anyhow, I guess one of the reasons that makes you do things is because people tell you can’t do it; it won’t work. Anyhow, it’s done.
Click images to enlarge.
Photograph by Terry Colhoun