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Historical background:

Cowra is a place of symbolic significance in Australia-Japan relations. It is the site of the famous Cowra Breakout, when more than 1,000 Japanese prisoners of war attempted an escape from the nearby POW camp, making the Cowra Breakout of August 5, 1944 one of the largest prison escapes of World War II.

Four Australian guards and 234 Japanese prisoners died as a result of the breakout. The Japanese prisoners were buried locally near the Australian War Cemetery, and their graves tended by the some members of the local sub-branch of the RSL (Returned and Services League of Australia). Later, the Japanese graves were handed over to the Japanese government, and in 1964, the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery was officially opened.

This is now the resting place of POWs, airmen involved in air raids over Darwin, and civilians interned in Australia as ‘enemy aliens’ during the Pacific War.

Today, Cowra is home of the World Peace Bell, and the Peace Precinct includes the former POW Campsite, Cowra Italy Friendship Monument, Japanese Gardens and Cultural Centre, Sakura Avenue, and the Saburo Nagakura Park. Cowra is also known for its contribution to grassroots peace building, and is arguably the only peace tourism destination in Australia.

While the Peace Precinct and cemeteries are considered symbolic centrepieces in this post war peace and civic reconciliation story, the personal stories of the Cowra community central to these grassroots endeavours, as well as the personal stories of the people buried in the Japanese Cemetery remain virtually unknown.

In May, 2019, The Cowra Japanese War Cemetery Online Database was launched. Funded by the Japanese government, this Database documents basic data about all POWs and civilians buried at the Japanese War Cemetery. Cowra Voices, launched in August, 2019, built on this resource by giving it a ‘human face’, providing context and interpretation to the data in a compelling and widely accessible format.

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Indonesian internees, Cowra, NSW, 16 September 1943; Photo by Lewecki; Australian War Memorial ID 030150/08

Overview of Cowra Voices:

Cowra Voices researched local stories and histories, interviewed Cowra community members, bringing these voices to life in a smartphone app. The app is free to download, and gives visitors to Cowra easy digital access to the diverse histories of Central West NSW, thereby facilitating a deeper, more inclusive understanding of the region’s unique, civic efforts to foster peace and internationalism.

Cowra Japanese War Cemetery photo by Mayu Kanamori / Nikkei Australia
Cowra Japanese War Cemetery photo by Mayu Kanamori / Nikkei Australia

The app begins with a Welcome to Country by the traditional custodians of the land, the Wiradjuri people.

The Cowra Voices app includes stories told by Cowra residents who have been involved in the grassroots reconciliation efforts to foster friendship between Cowra and Japan. Five personal stories of the people buried in Cowra Japanese War Cemetery are also included, enabling a more intimate engagement with history.

The digital stories are a sound rich, audio-visual source of information that brings to life personal histories that remain unacknowledged, yet belong to Cowra and to all Australians.

Making new connections through stories:

Cowra Voices’ aim was to explore new narrative connections between Australia and Japan, inspire new collaborations, and further the reconciliation story. To this end, design students from Tokai University in Sapporo visited Cowra in February 2018. They immersed themselves in local history, experienced a homestay program with Cowra families, and participated in design workshops run by Nikkei Australia. Students contributed design ideas which have been incorporated into the Cowra Voices app.

Click here for up to date information and news about the project.

Cowra Voices was a partnership between Arts OutWest, Nikkei Australia, Cowra Council, Cowra Tourism Corporation and Tokai University, with support from ABC Central West NSW and app developer Sazae.

Cowra Voices was partly funded by the Australian government through the Australia-Japan Foundation Grant 2017-2018 and 2018-2019, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Cowra Council, The Bruce and Margaret Weir Trust, the Nancy Shelley Bequest Fund, the Cowra Breakout Association and the Japan Foundation, Sydney.

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The Bruce and Margaret Weir Trust

Japan Foundation

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