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Cowra–Japan conversations
Interviewer's introduction
What is it that makes Cowra, a small country town in the middle of New South Wales, so important to Japan? Why did the Ambassador of Japan, Atsushi Hatakenaka, call it in 2001 the “spiritual home of Australia–Japan relations”?

To find the answer to these questions, I talked with 28 people who have been involved one way or another in this relationship, some of them for 60 years or more, and recorded our conversations.

The idea of doing an oral history on the Cowra–Japan relationship was suggested by a Cowra friend, Tony Mooney, who felt that the recollections of some older Cowra citizens should be recorded before it was too late. I asked him for a list of potential interviewees that covered every relevant activity since the 1940s. The Cowra Shire Development Officer, Graham Apthorpe, gave me another list. Other names were added later.

Support for the idea was offered by the Japanese Embassy in Canberra, and the project was accepted by the Australian War Memorial, which agreed that it could proceed under the umbrella of its Australia–Japan Research Project. The first recordings were made in March 2003, the final group in 2004.

Everything I talked about dates back to a tragic event that occurred in the early hours of 5 August 1944. On that morning hundreds of Japanese servicemen broke out of a prisoner-of-war camp on the outskirts of the town. Two hundred and thirty-one men died as they tried to redeem themselves from the bushidô-imposed shame of capture. Others died later from wounds they received in breaking out. Four Australian army guards died as they tried to stem the outbreak.

Among the Japanese visitors in Cowra in August 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary were three elderly gentlemen who had been in the camp at the time of the breakout. They were willing to give me their account of how it happened. It was a unique opportunity I could not miss. Two other events during the anniversary were worthy of inclusion for the project. I recorded Shigeru Yura, the designer of the Japanese War Cemetery, when he told a public gathering about the inspiration for his design, and then presented all of his architectural drawings of the cemetery to the Mayor of Cowra for safe-keeping. The second was a talk by Keiko Tamura, in which she paid tribute to a Cowra farmer’s wife, the late Mae Weir, who, with typical country hospitality, calmly served tea and home-made scones to some escaped Japanese prisoners before allowing the guards to take them back to the camp.

Although the breakout overshadowed all of my conversations, I did not intend to re-live that event. My interest lay in why Cowra people, rather than burying the event with embarrassment – as might have happened elsewhere – used it as a spur to develop a multi-faceted program of reconciliation activities that has given their town its unique place in the history of Australia-Japan relations.

In particular, I wanted to explore the decision made by some Second World War veterans who, as members of the Cowra Sub-branch of the Returned and Services League (RSL), took on the task of clearing the graves of the Japanese servicemen who had died. A war cemetery had been started beside the Cowra General Cemetery, and RSL members had assumed responsibility for maintaining the graves of Australian servicemen. They looked at the much larger number of Japanese graves that were covered in grass and noxious weeds. As some of the veterans told me, it was the right thing to spend time in clearing them as well, because they, too, had died for their country. Was there opposition, I asked them? Only from people who had never been in battle, they told me.

In 1964 the war cemetery at Cowra was divided, with separate sections for Australians and Japanese, and another for Italians, who (we must not forget) occupied half of the prisoner-of-war camp for some years. When their graves were moved to Murchison in Victoria, the Japanese section was expanded to accommodate other Japanese servicemen and civilians who had died in Australia during the war. It is still the only official Japanese war cemetery in the world.

A major development at Cowra was the creation of the magnificent Japanese Garden, which one of Japan’s leading landscape architects, the late Ken Nakajima, designed as a symbolic home for the spirits of deceased Japanese and Australian servicemen. The spirits move between the war cemeteries and the garden via an avenue of cherry blossom trees. These same trees are the focus of a Cherry Blossom Festival that is held in October every year.

Cowra people are very proud of the student exchange program that began in the early 1970s, when one teenage girl went to Ichijô High School in Nara and another went to Seikei High School in Tokyo. The Seikei program continues to this day with one student from Cowra High School and another from Seikei High School travelling in each direction every year. This partly explains why, in 2004, the senior history teacher at Cowra High School, David Hobson, taught his students about their town’s living history with rare enthusiasm, and why one of his students, Lucy Tasker, made 1,000 paper cranes, which now belong to the Nara High School in Japan. The young woman who went to Ichijô High School in 1971 (Catherine Bennett) became an acclaimed potter whose work reveals a strong Japanese influence. Her mother, the first female Mayor of Cowra (Barbara Bennett), still recalls with a strong sense of humour a visit to Japan when she dined with members of the Cowra Kai, a society formed by ex–prisoners of war.

In other conversations I learned about the placing of Australia’s World Peace Bell in Cowra, the successful Youth Forums, the hologram, the Cowra Breakout Association, the Nagakura Picnic Park, the fate of the old campsite, the biennial visits of Chor Farmer – a choir from the Tokyo Agricultural University – and the program that commemorated the 60th anniversary of the breakout.

One of the underlying threads in my conversations was the need to emphasise the positive aspects of the Cowra–Japan relationship, rather than the breakout, which must now be seen as only a fact of history. Another was that ways must be found to involve young people – both Australian and Japanese – in the relationship. Yet another was how to persuade more Japanese tourists to move inland from Sydney to learn for themselves about Cowra’s special links with Japan.

There is no doubt that Cowra people should feel proud of the way they have converted a wartime tragedy into a positive peacetime relationship with Japan – done they will tell you, with generous help from many Japanese business organisations and individuals. They freely express gratitude to and admiration for the Cowra war veterans, who would not let their former enemies’ remains lie in an unkempt patch of grass and weeds. Mae Weir, with courage and compassion, perfectly exemplified the character of our countrywomen during the war. It might be said that although the RSL members started Cowra’s peaceful journey with Japan, the character of the Cowra folk, as shown by Mae Weir, made it possible to proceed for the benefit of the peoples of both countries.

Finally, I should add that two of my interviewees, Don Kibbler and Tony Mooney, were honoured by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan late in 2004. They both received the Order of the Rising Sun with Gold and Silver Rays.

Why don’t you now read the transcripts of my conversations? You will agree that Cowra deserves the title the Ambassador of Japan gave it.

Terry Colhoun AM

March 2005

Printer version

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

Click images to enlarge. Japanese Garden, Cowra
Photograph by Terry Colhoun
The launch of Cowra-Japan Conversations was held at the Cowra Shire Council on 2 December 2003. In attendance were many of the interviewees. Pictured are (from left to right) Mr Steve Bullard, Mr Terry Colhoun, Councillor Bill Murphy, Dr Keiko Tamura, Capt Fumiyuki Kitagawa, and Dr Peter Londey.
Photograph by Graham Apthorpe

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