Cowra is a place of symbolic significance in Australian history, and 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 5th August 1944 one of the largest prison escapes of World War II.
Four Australian guards and 234 Japanese prisoners died during 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), until it was handed over to the Japanese government in 1964 and became the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery.
This is now the resting place of POWs, airmen involved in air raids over Darwin, as well as civilian internees of Japanese descent or people from Taiwan, Indonesia, New Caledonia and other parts of the Asia Pacific, who had Japanese family networks and were interned in Australia as ‘enemy aliens’. In addition, graves of Indonesian political prisoners who were interned in Cowra can be found in Cowra General Cemetery.
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 now known for its contribution to grassroots peace building, and is arguably the only peace tourism destination in Australia.
While Peace Precinct and cemeteries are considered symbolic centerpieces in this post war peace and civic reconciliation story, the personal stories Cowra locals central in these grassroots endeavours and the people buried in the Japanese Cemetery remain virtually unknown.
Currently, a Japanese government funded bilingual, online database of all POWs and civilians buried at the Japanese War Cemetery is being created. Prominent researchers of Japanese Australian history and members of Nikkei Australia—a group of researchers, artists, and cultural practitioners involved in documenting Nikkei diaspora stories–are compiling this historical data.
Overview of Cowra Voices:
Cowra Voices will build on this resource by giving it a ‘human face’, providing context and interpretation to this database in a compelling and widely accessible format. Cowra Voices will research local stories and histories, interview Cowra locals and bring voices to life in a downloadable app. The app will be used to educate visitors about the diverse histories of Central West NSW, and to facilitate a deeper, more inclusive understanding of the region’s civic efforts to foster peace and internationalism.
The app will begin with the story of the traditional custodians of the land, the Wiradjuri people. This story will be told by a local Indigenous elder from Cowra, who will rightly set their stories in the landscape of the region.
The Cowra Voices app will also contain five personal stories of the people buried in Cowra Japanese War Cemetery, enabling a more intimate engagement with history. There will also be ten stories about Cowra residents involved in the grassroots reconciliation efforts.
Digital stories will be a sound rich, audio-visual source of information that will give voice to personal histories that remain unacknowledged, yet belong to Cowra and to all Australians.
Making new connections through stories:
Cowra Voices also intends to explore new narrative connections between Australia and Japan, to 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 will contribute to the design of the Cowra Voices app.
Click here for up to date information and news about the project.
Cowra Voices is 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 Shelly Bequest Fund, and the Cowra Breakout Association.
The Bruce and Margaret Weir Trust