Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial TERRY COLHOUN: Mr Oliver, thank you very much for giving us your time to be part of this programme. I’d like to ask you how you first became interested and involved with the Japanese?
AJ (Ab) Oliver MBE as President of the Cowra RSL Sub-branch, 1948 and Keith Telfer as President of the Cowra RSL Sub-branch, 1955–1956
Interviewed by Terry Colhoun at Cowra, New South Wales, on 18 March 2003 (AWM S03072)
AB OLIVER: Well, having been discharged from the Army and back in civil life, I couldn’t but be sorry for the Japanese. In the Middle East, the war was fought in a straight forward manner with proper equipment and all that, but when we came back to New Guinea, the Japanese, the weather was terrible, it rained almost every day and the Japanese a lot of the times were up in the trees and that sort of thing, making progress for the Australians very difficult. We couldn’t understand at all that anybody would want to fight under those conditions, but it went on and on and we felt very sorry for them. At the same time, well, we had to keep them moving to regain the country and at that time win that section of New Guinea.
COLHOUN: You were President of the Sub-branch of the RSL in 1948, which was three years after the War ended. What was the attitude towards Japanese people in the RSL then.
OLIVER: Well, some people in the RSL were quite antagonistic towards them still and it took a long time to get that out of their skin, sort of business, to use that sort of language, but we persevered and we could see that the Japanese were very sorry about the whole affair, and the first time I went to Japan they apologised for this. There was a big contingent of Japanese came out to meet my wife and I on our first visit, thinking about setting up a student exchange programme. We thought that the finest way was to get the youth together to talk to each other and then the older people would come down to that same sort of thinking. They could see the stupidity of continuing a war and seeing people killed for no reason at all really. It seemed to be absolutely silly. Later on, of course, when we were able to meet Japanese in a proper environment then we were able to talk to them. On our second visit there was quite a big contingent of Japanese that we had fought against. I think when we landed there there were about eighty or ninety and they had a big dinner served up for us at the Airport and we had to go and meet them and talk to them and that was the turning point as far as Cowra was concerned, I think.
COLHOUN: Were you the Mayor then?
OLIVER: Yes, I was.
COLHOUN: But a lot of things happened before that. Let’s go back a step again – 1948 was just four years after the Japanese breakout. Had the RSL started to look after the Japanese war graves by then? Did you start that or was that already happening when you became President?
OLIVER: I think that that the war graves was happening by then. A few good thinking people in the RSL had adopted the same attitude, that there was no benefit of having this absolute hatred continued. It wasn’t getting anybody anywhere and there was a gradual turning point then or a feeling in the whole Cowra community. They wanted to get rid of this idea and to treat the Japanese with some respect and to feel a bit sorry for them actually that they were led by a very war-like Government who hadn’t got their thinking straight.
COLHOUN: This, of course, the action of those early members of the RSL led to the formation of the official Japanese War Cemetery. Were you involved in that?
COLHOUN: How were you involved? What was your interest?
OLIVER: I could see no point in continually bearing this sort of hatred. Father Tony Glynn had been with me a couple of months before that to sort of help me to take that step because he could see from a religious point of view that that wasn’t the right way for a nation to go about it, to continue this attitude which was useless anyway. So, the community then – I think we had about 200 at that ceremony – and the community in general then was accepting the ceremony and seeing the stupidity of it.
COLHOUN: We have with us your friend, Mr Keith Telfer, who was also in the early days a President of the RSL. Keith, what was Ab’s activity in relation to the War Memorial Cemetery?
KEITH TELFER: As Ab said at the time, there was a disregard of the hatred for the Japanese where a lot of people were starting to realise that they weren’t as bad as all the things that happened during the War years. It was good for the town of Cowra to become established in this Cemetery and to get it going could create good relationships with Japan and Australia.
COLHOUN: Do you remember how Ab was involved in this at the time?
TELFER: He was President of the RSL and it was because of the exchange students thing. He got that started and that’s how he got so involved in all these different things.
COLHOUN: Ab, the Exchange Student with Seikei started I think in the early 70s, didn’t it, that came a bit later. My feeling is that there was first of all an exchange student – Catherine Bennett went from here to Nara I think. Had Seikei started then or was it later than that? You started the Seikei exchange, didn’t you?
COLHOUN: You actually went to Seikei I think.
OLIVER: Before that I asked if I could have a talk with one of the big schools in Japan. The Ambassador, and I can’t think of his name at the moment, he was terribly enthusiastic about this so he teed it up through the Embassy that over there they would visit three of the chief high schools in Japan and then recommend one of them to me, before I was going across. My wife and I went across and they wanted me to go to the other two schools out of courtesy to them. They said “You go along and have a look at the other two and talk to their principals, and that sort of thing, and then come to Seikei Senior High School, I think it was, all in the one day. I said “Well, I think that’s a bit of a mission in one day.” He said “I think it would be better if we do that. You can spend about an hour at each and talk to the headmaster, see the school programme and the type of students there.” So I did that. We had a cup of tea at 12 noon, that’s right, and little bit of refreshment with a cake or something, and then the other students came in to the playground area, I suppose it was. They lined up there. They led me round, introduced me to the three captains and then to some of the other students and there was a difference in class between them. You could see how the others stepped forward and gave you a good handshake and that sort of thing, not handshake in those days, I suppose, whatever it was, a greeting, and I looked at my wife and then we went and sat down and had a cup of afternoon tea. They said “Well you had better come and have an afternoon tea with a couple of the principals too and sit here and you ask any questions you might…” and I said “Oh, no, I think I’ve made up my mind. I think you’re quite right. The last one was the best one.” They said ‘Thank you for that because that’s our decision too,” you see. So then he brought the three boys over and introduced them to my wife and I and then we all sat down and had this cup of tea again and talked.
COLHOUN: Many cups of tea in Japan, aren’t there?
COLHOUN: When you visit Japan you have many cups of tea. They are very hospitable with their cups of tea in Japan.
COLHOUN: Yes, they do indeed, yes. Well, the exchange programme has obviously been successful. You picked the right school, obviously, because it’s still going. As the Mayor and a member of the council and as a citizen, you have seen a tremendous development in the relationship between Cowra and Japan since your early days. Do you ever stop and think about what you started in those times? How much it has grown? Think of the development of the gardens and the Peace Bell and so many other things. There is constant exchange. It’s a very unique activity, isn’t it?
OLIVER: I think the student exchange was the biggest friendship angle between us and Japan. The others fitted in very well, of course, but it was a living thing. These children were coming here from Japan. They were going here from Australia and they were meeting families over there and I used to spend a good bit of time talking to them when they came back and what their reaction was. All those students were very thrilled with it, you know, meeting the Japanese. They said it was difficult at first. That was understandable, but the teachers over there were very dedicated too and they used to look after them and help them with their language problems after school and things like that. Also their host parents were very kind people, so I think that set in their mind that the Japanese people after all are very nice people. I think that the tide was turning gradually and that did more than anything to get rid of that bit of hatred that might have still existed with Japan. Some people in Japan were still like the others in Australia; sometimes they get these things in their mind and they can’t get rid of them. But the teachers over there, also the headmaster, chose very nice families for them. That got rid of this notion in their mind that the Japanese were bad people. I think everybody realised that they were probably forced or talked into it by a whole war-like type of people at the top – their generals and all those sort of people – and I don’t think a lot of the Japanese wanted to be mixed up in a war.
COLHOUN: I think Mr Telfer would agree that these young people owe a great debt to Ab Oliver for what he started then and indeed one could almost say that Ab Oliver is the main catalyst in the development that’s occurred. Do you have a comment on that, Keith?
TELFER: Yes, I agree, very much with that statement because he did a wonderful job with the students and they got the young people learning to appreciate one another from their various nations and then on top of that was the development of the Japanese Garden and all these things with the Japanese people being aligned up with our people. It’s been a very wonderful job he’s done and done a lot for Australia, and Cowra in particular.
COLHOUN: On that note, we’ll finish. Again, thank you very much, Ab, for giving us your time and your contribution and thank you, Keith, for your help too.
Transcribed by WRITEpeople, May 2003
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Printed on 12/07/2021 11:14:29 AM
TERRY COLHOUN: Mr Oliver, thank you very much for giving us your time to be part of this programme. I’d like to ask you how you first became interested and involved with the Japanese?