September 24, 2018

The Mayor of Cowra Council Bill West remarked at a recent cherry tree planting ceremony that peace can’t be legislated, ‘it has to come from within.’

Tree planting in Sakura Avenue
Mayor Bill West watches over Japanese students from Sydney school ICET and Cowra local boy Liam Beaumont

As he watched over visiting Japanese students and 11 year old Cowra student Liam Beaumont covering the roots of a newly installed cherry tree on Sakura Avenue (listen to AUDIO), the Mayor explained that when you work together to get a bit of dirt on your hands, or sit down together to have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, ‘you tend to realise that we are very similar in many respects’, and that ‘we’re all sort of wandering around the same globe, and I think that there’s good will with people. And I think that too often we don’t stop to appreciate that.’

Sakura Tree Placque
The 978th tree on Sakura Avenue. Trees donated by Japanese donors are looked after by a Cowra student

This view that international peace begins with people sharing personal, embodied experiences is a sentiment we heard many times last week when Cowra Voices team members Mayu Kanamori and Masako Fukui visited Cowra to record stories for the storytelling app.

Jemma Pokoney being interviewed
Cowra High School student Jemma Pokoney talks about her experiences as an exchange student in Japan with Masako Fukui

We had over 20 appointments with local historians, residents, Cowra Council councillors and mayors past and present, teachers, a Wiradjuri elder and representatives of the younger generation, like Jemma Pokoney, a former exchange student to Japan through the Seikei Gakuen-Cowra High School exchange program. This program will celebrate its 50 year anniversary in 2020, and is part of the many people to people exchanges that bring the Japanese to Cowra and the Cowra residents to Japan to share a meal, a drink, a conversation, some dirt beneath the fingernails.

Sakura Avenue
A view of Cowra’s cherry blossom trees in full bloom

Cowra’s peace and reconciliation story is in many ways unique. Cowra is the only place on Australian soil where there was an actual confrontation with the enemy during World War II. Despite this violent history, Cowra now boasts a peace tourism infrastructure including Australia’s firstĀ Peace Bell in the Peace Precinct, Sakura Avenue where Japanese people team up with Cowra residents to plant and care for cherry trees in friendship, as well as events such as the annual Festival of International Understanding, the biennial visit and performance in Cowra by the Chor Farmer choir from the Tokyo University of Agriculture, and the annual commemoration of the Cowra Breakout in August, when dignitaries from Japan and even former Japanese POWs visit Cowra, more than 70 years after the Breakout.

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Entrance to the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery

In fact, the stories we recorded last week resonate with a common theme: forgiveness, reconciliation and peace begins with something as simple as forging a personal bond through the most ordinary of human acts, like a shared meal, or tending to graves of fallen former enemies, as the local RSL members did for Japanese at the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery shortly after the end of World War II.

These stories will be edited for the Cowra Voices app, and mixed with music played by local musicians including Graham Apthorpe, Cowra Breakout Association member and Chair of the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Cowra Breakout in August, 2019. The app launch will coincide with these commemorations.

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Photos by Mayu Kanamori; Text and Audio by Masako Fukui

With Special Thanks to Luke Wong and Brooke Daniels of ABC Central West (Orange) for your support