Nikkei Australia members were saddened to hear the news that Don Kibbler AM had passed away in Cowra, NSW on 29 April 2024.

Don is well known in Cowra and to many Japanese people because of his life-long work fostering the friendship between Japan and Australia. He was also a great friend of Nikkei Australia.

Below, a few Nikkei Australia members remember Don, along with Mr Sumio Kusaka (Japanese Ambassador to Australia, 2015-2019) and his wife Mrs Ikuko Kusaka, who also pay tribute to the inimitable Don Kibbler, and the legacies he has left us and future generations.

By Mayu Kanamori

Although I had visited Cowra many times and had seen and heard of the larger-than-life Don Kibbler, it was not until I photographed him for Kyodo News in 2009 that I had the pleasure of meeting him in person. Before the photo session, I sat and listened to him being interviewed by the then Sydney based correspondent, Noriko Goi. Don told her how he remembered as a little boy seeing the Japanese prisoners of war playing baseball inside the camp. He spoke about his relationships with his Japanese friends and how he and his colleagues built and promoted the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre to become what it was then: a place of peace, reconciliation, and friendship between the people of Japan and Cowra.

Don Kibbler feeding koi at the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre © Mayu Kanamori 2009 for Kyodo News

Don was charismatic, charming, and a magnetic storyteller. He gesticulated, nodded, paused at all the right places, and quietened his voice when he wanted us to listen carefully. Off the record, he shared with Noriko an unknown love story about a very important woman in Japan and her wish for Don to help her find the remains of her first lover. Hanging onto his every word, we listened to Don tell us some of the secrets behind the more public efforts of post war reconciliation.

For this article, Noriko interviewed a half a dozen local people, and I photographed every one of them, but it was the way Don captivated us with his stories that told me that to capture a great photograph of him was crucial for the success of my assignment. I asked him to re-enact his daily routine for the camera. He fed the carp in the koi pond; inspected the plants in the Japanese Garden (his Japanese garden, he said); and walked his dog, aptly named Cherry, along Sakura Avenue. When I asked him to walk his dog Cherry by the then remaining barbed wired fence of the former POW Campsite, Don hesitated. He said he didn’t want to be seen with the remnants of war, but in the beautiful gardens that was constructed after the war.

For the next decade, Don offered much guidance and was support for the many Cowra-related projects Nikkei Australia members were involved in, such as The Civilian Internment Symposium and Arts Program, the play Yasukichi Murakami Through A Distant Lens, the Cowra Japanese Cemetery Online Database, and the geo-locative storytelling app Cowra Voices.

The ‘Kibbler Files’ at the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre, September 2019 © Mayu Kanamori 2019

The last time I saw Don was in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, in his room at the Cowra Retirement Village, where he lived out his final days. Dr Keiko Tamura and I had been working in the Japanese Garden to assess and report on the archival importance of the ‘Kibbler Files’, the unsorted boxes full of papers, photographs, videos, and other memorabilia accumulated by Don over the years and kept in the Garden’s storeroom. I think Don was pleased to hear that we were attending to his artefacts of peace and reconciliation between Australia and Japan.

Although a report was compiled with recommendations, COVID-19 halted further development on this important archive project. With Don no longer with us, some of the documents in those files will be more difficult to decipher. Even so, Don has left us with a great legacy – artefacts ready to be interpreted, and a history of peace and friendship to be written.

But most of all, we feel peace in our hearts as we walk through the Japanese Garden in Cowra. Thank you and rest in peace Don.

Don Kibbler with Nikkei Australia members (L to R) Chie Muraoka, Keiko Tamura, Masako Fukui, Mayu Kanamori with the Cowra Voices app (on the phone) at the Cowra Retirement Village, June 2019
By Jacqueline Schultze

Don Kibbler worked tirelessly to not only help build the Cowra Japanese Gardens, but also to build a deep and lasting relationship between Cowra and Japan. His passion and deep commitment to the Cowra community lives on in the many cultural and historical projects that saw their beginnings with Don’s vision and determination.

By Keiko Tamura

I cannot remember when I met Don for the first time, but I knew him for over 20 years. There are many memories of Don that I treasure. When the Japanese war brides held an international convention in Canberra in 2002, we took a day trip to Cowra. The women were so impressed with the Japanese Garden, they decided to donate a cherry tree. Don planted the tree just across from the Japanese tea house in the Garden, and whenever I visited, he would point out how big it had grown. He loved the Garden, and he also loved those who loved the Garden. 

As one of the founding members of Nikkei Australia, I would like to point out how significant his support was for the eventual formation of our organisation.  At the beginning of 2012, Mayu Kanamori, Yuriko Nagata, and I decided that an interpretive board should be erected at the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery to let visitors know that many civilian internees were buried in the Cemetery as well. The Cowra Breakout is so well known that visitors often assume all the graves belong to those who died in the Breakout. When they encounter some graves which belong to either elderly people or young children, they are often puzzled, and ask if they also died in the breakout. 

Don Kibbler laying a wreath at the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery at a ceremony for former civilian internees who are buried there; part of the Civilian Internment Symposium and the unveiling of the interpretative board, August 2014; Photo by Mayu Kanamori

One of the first people we contacted in Cowra with this proposal to erect the interpretive board was Don. He supported it right from the beginning, and told us not to worry about the money. In the meantime, he kindly negotiated with Cowra Council so that the cost of the board would be covered by Council. The interpretive board was unveiled at the end of the Civilian Internment Symposium in 2014. Harnessing the energy and momentum inspired by this symposium, the three of us decided to form a group and we called it Nikkei Australia. As they say, the rest is history. 

I will remember Don’s passion and affection for the Garden, which was infectious. Throughout his work on the Garden and Cowra, he engaged with so many people to the betterment of Australia-Japan relationships. I believe that he has left us a great legacy, which we will promise to carry on. 

By Yuriko Nagata

Don Kibbler always worked with us. He was dedicated to preserving Cowra’s local history in relation to Japan, particularly the Japanese Garden, and to improving the local connection with Japan. He was like a grandfather to us all – a strong supporter of Japan-related activities. Thank you, DON.

Don Kibbler at the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery, 70th Anniversary of the Cowra Breakout, August 2014; Photo by Mayu Kanamori
By Masako Fukui

Don Kibbler’s reputation had a habit of preceding him. In fact, for a Japanese Australian like me, ‘not knowing’ Don might’ve been impossible, because if you have any interest in Australia’s relationship to Japan, you were bound to run into him somewhere.

I vaguely remember meeting Don sporting a snappy suit and tie at some random cocktail function in Sydney, when I was working as a journalist at the tail end of the last century. I’ve been on this earth a while now, but Don has been around longer, and dedicated so much of his life to bringing the two countries I call home together. I have to admit, I’m a little ashamed that I haven’t done enough in this regard.

But not everyone has the kind of indefatigable energy and rich imagination that Don possessed. When Mayu Kanamori and I recorded an audio interview with him in 2018 for the Cowra Voices storytelling app, he wasn’t feeling the best. That didn’t stop him from imagining new projects.

Tell you something else I’ve done,’ he said between laboured breaths. ‘I’ve registered only last week, “the Australian Peace Museum” here. There isn’t a peace museum in Australia,’ he told us. ‘It’s registered now,’ he laughed.

Don will be remembered for many Japan related projects in Cowra, including of course, instigating the construction of the Cowra Japanese Garden. But what I’ll remember is his belief in the possibilities of peace and friendship between former enemies. What a gift that is, for not just Japanese Australians, but all of us.

If Don’s reputation preceded him, then it’s this gift that will live on, and continue to nourish humanity. Vale Don Kibbler!

By Sumio Kusaka (Japanese Ambassador to Australia, 2015-2019)

Mr Kibbler was one of the most prominent and amazing people in Cowra.  He will be missed. 

He left a great legacy in the Cowra Japanese Garden, and it will continue to attract many visitors into the future.  He achieved so much in his life.  May his soul rest in peace. (Translation from Japanese by Keiko Tamura)

Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre; Photo by Mayu Kanamori
By Ikuko Kusaka

I would like to pay my respect to Don Kibbler’s courage and deep compassion to have proposed a memorial to commemorate the ex-enemies soon after the end of the Pacific War.

My husband and I had several opportunities to meet Mr Kibbler during our posting to Canberra. One memorable occasion was when we met the Governor-General David Hurley and Mrs Linda Hurley in Cowra when he was still Governor of NSW.  Mrs Linda Hurley’s sister lived in Cowra at that time. Mr Kibbler was very happy and proud of our visit and offered to give a private tour of the Garden on an electric cart, which he drove.

When we were setting off, I heard somebody shout, ‘Don could be a wild driver. Watch out and hang on!’

I thought that the person was joking, but I soon realised that it was a real warning. The cart started and stopped suddenly and was driven at high speed. He drove through bushes and under trees without any hesitation. At the end of the tour, both my hair as well as Mrs Hurley’s was in tatters, and our arms and legs were strained as we needed to grip and hold on to the cart. Yet, Mr Kibbler was just so happy to show us around the Garden. He said, ‘I hope you have enjoyed our beautiful Garden,’ with a big smile. The stark contrast of his sensitive and gentle heart, and his robust driving made me smile as well. 

Another dear memory was when Mr Kibbler met Mr John Gandel, a wealthy philanthropist, who donated funds for the Garden entrance renovation. At the ceremony marking its completion, I witnessed friendly and warm interactions between Mr Kibbler and Mr Gandel, and that memory remained with me, and feels very dear to me.

Don Kibbler with his dog Cherry at Cowra’s former POW Campsite © Mayu Kanamori 2009 for Kyodo News
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