TERRY COLHOUN: Mr Armstrong, just as a background to start from, when did you live in Cowra and what were you doing there in that time?
NEVILLE ARMSTRONG: I went to Cowra as the Town Clerk of the then Cowra Municipal Council in September 1968 and held that position, and the subsequent positions of Shire Clerk and General Manager of the Cowra Shire Council, up until November–December 2001. That’s a total of 33 years.
COLHOUN: When did you become aware of the distinctive relationship between Cowra and Japan?
ARMSTRONG: Certainly immediately on commencing that position in Cowra I became aware of that because the Cowra Municipal Council had an association with the War Cemetery and also with the prisoner-of-war campsite and with the various visitors that we had from Japan.
COLHOUN: There was, I think, in those early days a division in the sort of Japanese activities that were in, say, the municipality and in the shire. I think that the wool industry was over the border, wasn’t it?
ARMSTRONG: No, the War Cemetery and the prisoner-of-war site and the War Cemetery were both in the Waugoola Shire at that particular time, just outside the boundary of the Municipal Council, but the wool plant was established within the municipality and I was involved with that establishment and, to some extent, ensured that it did remain within the Municipal Council, but that was for technical reasons and commercial reasons within the town.
COLHOUN: You were obviously successful because it was established and I think it is still there.
ARMSTRONG: Yes, it is still there and has operated for the last 25 years or so very successfully, I understand.
COLHOUN: Town Clerks and General Managers of municipalities all have their own particular challenges, but I guess this was something different. Did you have any particular thoughts about Japan before going there? I suppose you knew that you were going to be facing this.
ARMSTRONG: Not really, I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas about it and having been in other places in New South Wales in Local Government I didn’t really know that there was this connection with Japan, to the extent that it was, but it was a very interesting part of my position in Cowra and certainly a rewarding and unique relationship that Cowra has, as well as one for me as far as my experience was concerned. It was something that I wouldn’t have had in any other centre in Australia, I would suggest.
COLHOUN: One of the earlier experiences you would have had would have been personal contact with the then Crown Prince and Princess and now the present Emperor and Empress.
ARMSTRONG: Yes, that’s correct. They came to Cowra I think in 1971 and I was the Town Clerk at the time and in association with someone from the Prime Minister’s Department or Foreign Affairs Department, I can’t remember which, we organised the visit and we had to, of course, ensure that the protocol was very well looked after for that visit as well as for other visits from other members of the Imperial Family in subsequent years and also parliamentary delegations, military delegations, private visits from various groups that came to Cowra over the many years.
COLHOUN: What was it that drew them to Cowra?
ARMSTRONG: Well, I think it was the War Cemetery as well and the symbolism of that and the fact that there were people of their nationality buried in Cowra, not only from the outbreak but, as you know, from other places in Australia where their remains had been brought in 1965 or so to be buried at the War Cemetery and that meant that there was a particular symbolism about the relationship between Cowra and Japan.
COLHOUN: Apart from these official functions, were there any particular Cowra–Japan activities that you became personally involved in for perhaps personal reasons?
ARMSTRONG: Yes, well initially the Seikei Exchange with the Cowra High School. I was Secretary of that for 25 years from its commencement in 1970. The then former Mayor, Ab Oliver, went to Seikei and established that exchange and I then helped him to organise that exchange over the years and met all the Japanese students as well as the Australian students before they went to Japan. I also had the pleasure of visiting the Seikei High School during a visit to Japan in 1972. The school was, as you know, a primary–senior school, as was the university, and having visited the school it gave me an insight into how that school operated, which helped me in organising those exchanges for the following twenty-odd years.
COLHOUN: Seikei, of course, is on the outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo…
COLHOUN: …which is very, very different from Cowra, which is a delightful, but still a small, country town. How did you find the Japanese students reacted to this total change of environment.
ARMSTRONG: Differently – some students, as I saw it, they adapted very well and saw it as a relief perhaps to be in a small country town rather than in the large metropolis of Tokyo. Others didn’t cope with it quite so well and found that it was rather lonely and not to their liking, but I’m sure that they gained from the experience generally and they fitted in very well with the other students in the high school, as I understood it, and with their host families, a lot of whom I knew and knew of their association with their students over the years and know that that was a very good one.
COLHOUN: What about the Australians going to Seikei High School to study, what effect did you think that had on them? I suppose it would be an individual thing. But, in a broad sense, what effect did it have on them and on Cowra after they had spent a year away.
ARMSTRONG: Well, I think it had a profound effect on them individually and personally. A number of them I know went on to study Japanese language more fully at the university and gained various positions with Japanese firms. One lady was working in the Embassy of Japan at one stage and, therefore, personally and professionally that helped their career. But, they also established a close link with the other students and with families that they stayed with in Japan and they learnt the culture and had a better understanding of the Japanese way of life, as I did personally from dealing with the Japanese over those years, and a better understanding of the Japanese than would otherwise be the case.
COLHOUN: Another activity I know that you were very personally interested in was the Japanese garden which was developed in your time there.
ARMSTRONG: Yes, as Town Clerk of the Municipal Council, I was a representative of the council on the Tourism Corporation, which established the garden. I was the inaugural Chairman of the Japanese Garden Committee when it was being investigated that we should establish a garden there at the suggestion initially of Don Kibbler and Peter Carruth, the previous Secretary of the Tourism Corporation. I met Ken Nakajima off the aeroplane when he came to Cowra and I showed him various sites that had been selected for the Japanese garden as possible sites. I must say that he spoke very little English and I spoke no Japanese so we had to get to understand one another as to what we were dealing with.
COLHOUN: He was, of course, the landscape artist and architect.
ARMSTRONG: He was the landscape architect and a well renowned architect who had been recommended to the Corporation by the Embassy to be contacted. He showed his willingness to be interested in the project in coming to Cowra for that initial visit and I’m sure that his visit was a very vital part of the garden being established, because he certainly took to the site that it is now located on. I took him to that location and I well remember taking him to there and he, by sign language, got me to take him to the top of where the waterfall now commences and I really believe that he had a vision in mind immediately upon seeing that site, because it was a very dry barren type site with a few Australian gum trees on it but he did indicate in his subsequent talks with the Tourism Corporation Board that he wanted to establish a garden there utilising the rocks which were a feature of that site and he wanted to retain as many of the gum trees as possible and work a Japanese garden into the Australian landscape, not simply remove the Australian landscape and try and impose a Japanese garden upon it.
COLHOUN: Was it your impression that he was looking at this from a Japanese perspective where there was a certain spiritual symbolism in the design and in the garden itself?
ARMSTRONG: I understand that was the case. I must say that that didn’t come through to me personally, but I know to other people that he had more detailed dealings with in subsequent years that that was certainly his intention and that the waterfall and the lakes as well as the various plantings there and the retention of the trees are all part of that symbolism that he has and is part of the meaning of the garden.
COLHOUN: I understand that in the very early years there was a problem for the garden in that there was a drought and that this restricted the amount of water available for new trees and plants.
ARMSTRONG: Yes, in the 1980s there was a major drought, as there has been just recently, and that did impose some problems on the garden at the time because there was no dedicated water supply to the garden at that particular time and that led to the need for both the establishment of what has become known as the Cowra–Japan Foundation, which obtained funds from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and established a trust fund to support the gardens at times of difficulty and in its improvement and its maintenance ever since. It also had funds that were used to establish a raw water supply, which the council connected to the Japanese Garden and ensured that there was a water supply there in times of drought. Otherwise, I think the Japanese Garden may have fallen on some very difficult times because if it’s not attractive to the touring people it’s certainly not going to be visited.
COLHOUN: Do you think that it’s been successful over the years?
ARMSTRONG: It’s been extremely successful over the years. There are many people that I have encountered, both since being here in retirement, as well as many years before that, in various places around Australia who know of the Japanese Garden at Cowra, have visited it, or know of its reputation as being a leading garden depicting the Japanese style of garden in an Australian setting.
COLHOUN: We have talked about the War Memorial and the campsite and the garden but, as this project is revealing, the relationship between Cowra and Japan has developed in so many different ways. As the Town Clerk and then General Manager did you feel that this Cowra–Japan relationship tended to dominate and perhaps sometimes got in the way of other things that an Australian country town would want to do?
ARMSTRONG: I think it had an effect on the tourism promotion, particularly, of Cowra, that that seemed to be the thing that Cowra was hanging its hat on, so to speak, for attraction of tourists and, to some extent there was a feeling that other things that Cowra had going for it in the way of tourist attractions – whether they be Wyangala Dam or the subsequent food and wine connection in relation to tourists – was being subjugated by the Japanese connection and a feeling that we were trying to attract people there for the Japanese connection rather than for what Cowra had to offer in the way of modern facilities and amenities.
COLHOUN: It’s now sixty years, almost sixty years, coming up, since the breakout and so much has grown from that, but I wonder whether a time comes when these things disappear into the background, they just become history, and Cowra might have to remake itself.
ARMSTRONG: I think that is true, to some extent. We are now in a totally different generation, generations that didn’t know about the war years and didn’t know about the breakout, although I must say that the existence in recent years of the hologram at the Visitors Centre has introduced a new group of people to the breakout and has been very popular. I’ve been there with various visitors that I have taken there personally, as well as been there when Japanese dignitaries have been there or people like the New South Wales Premier have been there. They have learnt about the breakout and also about the subsequent activities by various people in the Cowra community trying to not only build the tourism aspect of the connection between Cowra and Japan, but also the cultural connection, the peace connection, the promotion of better understanding of the culture as well as the way of life and the relationship between Australia and Japan through that hologram and through the activities. So, I don’t think from that point of view that it will ever die away or should die away, but I think it will perhaps become less and less a dominant part of the Cowra scene to what it was in the years that I was there. Certainly, in the thirty-odd years that I was there I could see a change in that and a diminution in the way in which that connection was being promoted and was a dominant part of the scene in Cowra.
COLHOUN: Did it disappoint you that there was only one Japanese industry that established there? Was there a hope perhaps in council areas that there would be more industry developed?
ARMSTRONG: Yes, it is a disappointment in that respect. The council at one stage, certainly in perhaps the early 1970s, did see the commercial possibilities from the connection between Cowra and Japan and did see that that the cultural connection should lead to not only more tourism. There’s been perhaps less of that than they would have liked to have happened, but also the establishment of commercial ties and certainly the establishment of industry for the benefit of the Cowra community as far as employment is concerned. Certainly, Lachlan Industries has been very beneficial to Cowra in that respect in the payroll that’s gone through the town over those years, but it’s been disappointing that there haven’t been some more of those industries that could have been established.