Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. Don Kibbler was asked to speak about Cowra Japanese Gardens and Cultural Centre primarily, which is location number four on the app.


This audio interview with Don Kibbler was recorded on 24th February 2018 in Cowra by Nikkei Australia’s Mayu Kanamori and Masako Fukui. This interview was recorded for the Cowra Voices geolocative storytelling app, created in 2019 and launched to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout. For more information, please refer to the Overview in this archive.

Don Kibbler  00:31

My name is Don Kibbler. I have the Distinguished Member of the Order of Australia, and the Order of the Rising Sun. And I’m the Chairman of the Japanese Garden Foundation. I was Chairman of the total project for a period of 25 years, 30 years. I’m also Chairman of the Chado Urasenke Tankokai, and also the Nagakura Foundation in Japan. And I’ve been involved with Japanese relationship for now about 45 years, probably longer than anyone else living in Cowra today. When I was about 29, 30 years old, I was Chairman of the Cowra Tourism Corporation. And I stayed as Chairman of that for 25 years. And I had an idea to you know, do something about our history with Japan. And I had a friend who was a tourist officer, and he’s a very nice fellow. And he came up with several ideas. One was to recreate the camp, and another one to build a tower, a gun tower, which we have now of course. But in those, back in those years, 42 years ago, about 1970, he could only think about the war side for tourism. And we’re sitting down together one day and we tried to see what the people of Cowra thought about the idea of the –

Don Kibbler  02:18

So we’re sitting down together talking one day, and I looked across at the River Park here in Cowra, and I turned around to this young man and I said, ‘Peter’, I said, ‘we can’t do the things you want to do, but we can build a Japanese garden’. And that’s where it started. And I put the idea up to the community on a meeting in January 1972. So what’s that, that’s 45 years ago. So from there, I thought, well, now what do we do. And there was quite a few people in Cowra that objected to it, but most of the people said, okay, you know. (unintelligible) and how you’re gonna build – we’d ever seen a Japanese garden, any of us, didn’t have a clue. We hadn’t met many Japanese even then. My first encounter with Japanese was way back in 1964. When a friend of mine in Japan, Father Tony Glynn, he said, ‘I’d like to come and have a service at the cemetery’. And I said to him, ‘well, why don’t we have an ecumenical service’? So that was the first time that we had a – Buddhists and Shinto and Christians all together. That was back in 64. But Tony Glynn bought the people out from Japan.

Don Kibbler  03:44

But getting back to the Garden itself, well – anyhow, the big job in front of us, so how are we going to do this? And I spoke to the Ambassador of the time. You call him Okawara Taisho in Japan. That’s Mr Okawara, Toshio Okawara.  And I still get a Christmas card from him even now. And he’s 95, 96. Anyhow, he thought it was difficult but be wonderful. So, how do you go about it and how do you get the local people to accept the idea? That was the hard part. So show me what a Japanese garden is. So I found a lady in Sydney, a Mrs Shibaoka. And she came to Cowra and we asked her to make a model of a Japanese garden, any model, just to show people what a Japanese garden was all about. But I got her to make it fit in the back of an old station wagon I had, with a perspex top over it, so that we could take it around and show it to everybody. So that went ahead, and people could see the model and thought well, this is a good idea. So had to go a bit further. And I owned a hotel here in Cowra at the time. I bought it about a year before, I thought it was a good investment. The only trouble is the fellow was leasing it off me or renting it, he went broke at about 1974, a couple of years after I thought about the garden. And I said to the other fellows on the Corporation board, I said, ‘look, I gotta go and run a hotel of all things’. I said, ‘he can’t pay the rent, and he hasn’t paid his licence fees’. So I became a publican and I stayed on the board, but I didn’t get heavily involved.

Don Kibbler  05:47

And there was quite a few other people that came on the board too. Graham Drew was a very good help. Gordon Austin. John Baillie, John Baillie was an accountant. He was very, very helpful. Ab Oliver, who was on and off mayor, he come on the board for a few years, then at 1975 or 76 I think it was. So in the meantime, while I was still there, as Chairman, I asked the New South Wales government to do a feasibility study. Is this possible and can we finance it? And they came back with an answer that, if you can get 50,000 people a year, and you don’t have to borrow money, then you can survive financially. So that sounded pretty good. And on top of that, they said, if you get other money, we’ll give you another $50,000. So they made a promise of the first $50,000. And then the federal government made a promise of $50,000. And then we thought, we got to get a good architect. And Okawara said, ‘you know, you’ve got to have a real top architect to do it well’. Anyhow he found three different ones, and we chose Ken Nakajima.

Don Kibbler  07:13

Nakajima Ken san, who – a little story I could tell you. In 2000, I went to Japan, I was finalising some things over there for the Garden. And when I got to the airport, I thought I’ll ring Ken and see if he’s home and I’ll visit him while I’m here. I rang up and they said he died about five minutes ago. So I stayed for his service in Japan. Anyhow, we had a promise of $50,000 from New South Wales government, promise $50,000 from Federal Government, and Okawara san, he – Okawara Taisho, as you say, in Japan, he was a wonderful man. He said to me one day, you know Japanese go sometimes, ‘ooh, very difficult, but worth doing’. So anyhow, he contacted the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. At the time Shigeo Nagano was the Chairman of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. And they came over here to – for the what we call the Australia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee meeting, usually in October each year. And it’s a bilateral exchange. So at that meeting in October, of whichever year I can’t remember exactly, but it would’ve been in about 1976 or 77. He gathered $125,000 from the members. Now, doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’re talking about, you know, 40 years ago, it was a lot of money. So we had about $250,000. So where do we go next? And then wrote some letters to some different bodies around and in the meantime – oh yes, I don’t remember now exactly, but I think, yes I can, we borrowed $90,000 from the Council. $50,000 we had to pay interest on. And $40,000 we didn’t have to pay interest on. So that let us get started, enough money to get started. Ken Nakajima came out here and we’ll let him have a look at all the different areas where you could build a garden. And he fell in love with the site where the Garden is now. And he said, ‘yes I can design a garden for this site’. And he was very taken by the two big rocks on top of the hill, Yogoseki and Koseiseki, Seki, yep. One meaning the spiritual rock, and I forget what the meaning is, I haven’t got my notes with me, but I think Japanese would understand the two very important rocks.

Mayu Kanamori  10:15

Can you tell me those – you know, that was the site – it was just, there was nothing there except for the rocks and the trees and the fields. Do you know if it had any Indigenous significance?

Don Kibbler  10:27


Mayu Kanamori  10:28

Indigenous significance?

Don Kibbler  10:30

Say that again?

Mayu Kanamori  10:31

Indigenous, Aboriginal?

Don Kibbler  10:33

Oh, no, there was nothing. We had the whole site inspected, nothing there. Nothing in the whole site, the rocks or trees or anything. It was all inspected prior to the commencing work. So if you’ve heard anything different, it is wrong.

Mayu Kanamori  10:49

We haven’t, I’m digging, that’s all.

Don Kibbler  10:52

I just wondered why you asked the question.

Mayu Kanamori  10:54

Because I’m digging. I haven’t heard anything else. I’ve heard about Bellevue Hill. But not the Gardens. I just wanted to know.

Don Kibbler  11:01

No, we had archaeologists come here and Aboriginal people, and go right over the whole site up there. So there’s nothing.

Mayu Kanamori  11:10

No, that’s good, that’s good. We want to be able to say that.

Don Kibbler  11:14

Yes, well you can do.

Mayu Kanamori  11:17

You’re a businessman and you’re telling me about all these finances and you’re getting money from all sorts of places. Do you think that in itself is a kind of a like a peace-awareness raising activity, by you going to all these different places, asking for money, to raising money. Is that an awareness raising activity, as far as reconciliation and peace is concerned?

Don Kibbler  11:43

No, it was just something I wanted to do. I’d never been –  done before or never asked people for money. But I’ve never asked for money. You see, that’s the point. I have never asked for money, ever. Still haven’t. I’ve said this is what we want to do, would you be interested in helping us.

Don Kibbler  12:10

When the Garden was finished, Ken Nakajima said to me, ‘come and sit down Don, and I will tell you the story behind this Garden from the Japanese viewpoint’. He said, ‘you already know that the Buddhists when they die, they go back to Japan, or go back to their hometown. And every Japanese is a Buddhist’. I said, ‘yes, I know that’. Well he said, ‘there are all those Japanese buried in the cemetery. They’re not in their hometown’. I said, ‘no’. But, he said, ‘now I’ll tell you about the Garden’. He said, ‘this Garden is designed after the first Japanese landscape garden in Japan that the first Tokugawa built in Edo. Because he captured the families of the daimyos, of the warlords. And to keep everybody happy, his secretary said to him’, his secretary’s name was Kuhara, Kuhara. He said, ‘well, what we should do is ask all the daimyos to come here to visit their relatives. And when they come, they draw pictures of where they’ve come from’. Because he said, ‘you’ll remember that, you’ve got to think at that time, they didn’t have a geographical map of Japan, because it was all the daimyos controlling little areas everywhere’. And I said, ‘yes, that’s true. But go on Ken, keep telling me’. Well, he said, ‘he built the garden based on the pictures of where they came from. And that is the first Japanese landscape garden’. And he said, ‘this garden is designed the same way’.

Don Kibbler  14:10

If you stand up, what he called Kibbler’s Lookout, which is rocks near the Education Centre, you can tell you the whole Garden. And if you look at it, you can see the mountains, you can see the waterfalls in the mountains, you can see the ponds in the mountains, and the tokono chair, which we call a tea house, and then the river coming down to the ocean at the bottom, and then the hedges are trimmed to represent rolling hills. So he said, ‘I knew you’d tell this story correctly one day but’, he said, ‘I’ve never told it to any other Australians here. But now, we Japanese believe because we’ve built the Garden that way, that is the home of the spirits of the people that are buried in the cemetery.’ So that is the reason. It’s not what – of Cowra’s doing because we didn’t understand it. But when you think about it, that’s a good reason to have the Garden the way it is, and it meant a lot to the people, families – of the families that are buried out at the cemetery. So that really was, I guess, the catalyst for the Peace Precinct. Well, it certainly was.

Don Kibbler  15:49

But it certainly made a difference to me and one story that I could tell you about is, four Japanese people come to see me one day in 1981. At that time, I’d sold my hotel and I owned the shops across the road and I was running the newsagency. And then, a taxi driver had brought them down to me and he said, I’m not sure what they want because they didn’t speak any English but they pulled out the book called Die Like the Carp that Harry Gordon wrote. And showed me a picture of someone hanging, Kojima, his name was Kojima. And I worked it out that it was their brother.

Don Kibbler  16:43

And they had never knew what happened to him. So they said, well, we’d like to find his grave. And I said, ‘well, okay, I’ll take you up to the cemetery’. So took them up to the cemetery and they said – pulled out a little box, a little box, a plastic box. I found his grave alright, it was a different name, but we worked out it was his so. His name wasn’t Kojima, it was another name, but the grave was marked Kojima. So obviously that’s where his bones were. And they pulled out this little box and said, ‘can we bury this box there, can you get permission for us?’ And I said, ‘I’m not gonna ask anybody’. (laughter) So I went back to my car, and I had a shovel in the back. And I said, here’s the shovel here. But I said, ‘tell me what’s in it’? And they said, well, it took me a while to work this out because of difficulty with the language. Since then, I’ve learned a bit of Japanese but not enough. Anyhow, they opened it out and said there’s some hair of his fiancee that’s still alive in Hiroshima. And she cut some hair off and said if you find his grave, please bury it. So we did, we buried it. I wasn’t going to ask for permission. Once you start asking government for permission, you got all sorts of problems. All the little bureaucrats got reason why you can’t do it. So you don’t ask them, you just do it.

Don Kibbler  18:22

Anyhow, I thought I’ve got to do something. So on the way back, I bought a small crabapple tree. And we planted it, I asked him to plant it in his memory in the Garden. And if you walk out the back door of the shop at the Garden, then you go to the left, well about 10 metres up on your right hand side, that little crabapple tree is about 30 foot high. Beautiful tree. So that’s one story. So these – that’s back in 1981, but I found there’re a lot of other stories since then.

Elaine (Resident at Don Kibbler’s residential facility)  19:01

Will you excuse me if I listen?

Don Kibbler  19:03

I can’t hear you.

Mayu Kanamori  19:04

Please listen. Please.

Don Kibbler  19:06

You can listen, yeah. They’re recording while I’m telling them.

Don Kibbler  19:14

That’s one story. And another story. So all stories have developed since that establishing the Garden to make it central to the creation of the Peace Precinct. Well, one of the other stories, which is another very emotional story. The Japanese Embassy asked me one day that – they said we’ve got a problem. I said, ‘well, what’s the problem’? There was an Australian that died in Queensland, a soldier. But before he died, he went to his doctor and he had a box with the bones of a Japanese soldier that he kept all those years under his house. And he said he felt – the doctor told me he felt very bad about him. He wanted to bury him and do something. So the doctor got in touch with the Japanese Embassy, and the Embassy said that they went to the Council, the Council didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So they came to me to see, and I said, ‘sure, I’ll do something, I’ll find out’. So I wrote to the prime minister about it, John Howard at the time. I think it was John Howard, yeah. He must’ve only just got in though about then. This was only – this all happened in 1999. And so he got in touch with me through somebody else, some secretary who wrote me a letter and said, Mr Kibbler, the Prime Minister has given instructions to his department and the Department of Veterans Affairs’. Trying to think what it said, virtually it said that Mr Kibbler has the authority to do whatever he wants. Good.

Don Kibbler  21:14

So I said to the Ambassador, ‘I think you better assure me that it is Japanese’. So we sent the bones to the Griffith University in Brisbane. And they done forensic tests on it. And they said, ‘yes, definitely Japanese’. And then I said, ‘well, we better try and find out where the guy came from’. So we followed through with the Australian Defence Forces to find out where the soldier that had the bones, where did he serve. And he served in Borneo towards the end of the war, you know, Sandakan and in that area. So then I went back to the Koseisho in Japan and said, ‘this man’s bones, he came from Borneo, what regiment’? So they weren’t really able to help me there. So they left it at that. So then I got in touch with the Veterans Affairs, the Australian War Graves Commission I mean, and I said, ‘we want permission to bury the bones here in Cowra’. They said, ‘well, when you want to do it, and what do you want us to do’? So I asked them if they’d send the unit – they have a special unit you know, the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the six of each from, and they fire a gun salute. So, they sent them all up here, when we buried him up there. That’s a story in itself. That – it’ll been crazy to bury them there if you weren’t sure that it was Japanese soldier’s. You could only – you had to make sure that it was Japanese anyhow. So you’ve got all those things. There’s lots of stories like that.

Mayu Kanamori  23:20

Excuse me. I didn’t, I didn’t quite understand. Where did you bury them in the end?

Don Kibbler  23:24

In the cemetery.

Mayu Kanamori  23:25

That’s the third or the fourth row on the left hand side from the front, there’s a thing that says – from the Borneo (unintelligible).

Don Kibbler  23:33

That one on its own.

Mayu Kanamori  23:35

On the left hand side –

Don Kibbler  23:38

Yep. You know where it is?

Mayu Kanamori  23:40

Yeah, I know exactly where it is. It says unknown, Japanese man from Borneo.

Don Kibbler  23:45

Couldn’t establish – from Borneo. That’s right. That’s how I found out it was from Borneo. Because the guy, the Australian soldier, that’s where he served, in Borneo. So that’s where we would have got the bones from. You’re 99% sure. You can’t be 100 but, he might’ve, I don’t know, he might’ve got them in New Guinea but he wasn’t in New Guinea so. He was in Borneo. Anyhow, that’s the story about that. But if you – and then another one. Some Japanese, there was a report in one of the – Yomiuri, the Japanese newspaper about what I was doing building here a garden. And I had a letter from a man, and he sent some money, which I didn’t need, and I actually sent it back to him. It was to help look after the cemetery because his daughter, when she was about five years old, they were in a camp here. And she died and she’s buried out there, his daughter. There’s stories like that, go on and on and on.

Don Kibbler  24:57

So, as a result of that, when the Garden was completed 1986. And Ken Takura, whom you know, he said, ‘I have an idea, Don, about putting the cherry tree avenues from the Cemetery to the Garden’. I said, ‘yeah, that’d be a good idea’. He said, ‘how about giving us a hand to raise the money’? I said, ‘gee Ken’, I said, ‘look, I spent the last three years, four years of my life doing nothing but raising money for the Garden and building them’, and I said, ‘I’ve never been paid anything. Nothing, sometimes not even expenses’. And I said, ‘I would’ve spent $100,000 of my own money’. And he said, ‘oh,’ he said, ‘it would be worth doing’. I said, ‘look, I’ll go to Japan once’, and I said, ‘you set up a few meetings and that.’

Don Kibbler  25:49

So I went to Japan and raised in about three weeks, I started there, I raised $300,000. Since then, there’s been another $700,000 so there’s about a million dollars. So there’s each tree was one hundred thousand yen. Which equates now to about $800. But at times it was you know, 12 hundred or 14, all over the place. But around about $1,000. The Council project, because the Council road, planned to be a Bicentenary project, in 1988 so. I didn’t want to do any more, raised a million and that’s enough. And I said well, you know we’ve done enough I think. I’ve got to start earning some money for myself as well. I’ve got a family so, that’s how the Cherry Tree Avenue came about.

Don Kibbler  26:58

So from there then – when I was raising the money for the Cherry Tree Avenue, a fellow by the name of Saburo Nagakura, he was then the Chairman of Kyushu Electric Power Company. And with that goes the Chairmanship of JR Kyushu plus a few other things. And him and I became very good friends over a period of time, and he was a remarkable man. A real – if you hadn’t met a samurai, or a daimyo, I should say, he was a daimyo, he was that kind of person. Very impressive. And he said to me, I’d like to do something in Cowra. what would you like to do? And I said, ‘well, there’s one thing I’d like to do’. I said, ‘in the Cherry Tree Avenue, I’d like to build a park’. He said, ‘all right’. Well, he said I’ll put in, and at the time it was $100,000. And then I done some research with Japanese lawyers. And if someone personally donates money, like the tax man takes half of it (laughter). But if he gives it to a foundation, there’s no tax. So I set up what we call the Nagakura Foundation, Saburo Nagakura Foundation. The $100,000 went into there. And then the Kyushu Electric Power Company put in another $500,000. And we built the park, that’s up in the hill there. I supervised the construction of that as well as I supervised the construction of all the Garden, the Japanese Gardens. So then, that’s another story. And of course, the Peace Precinct idea was a natural phenomenon coming from all those things. And I can’t remember half the stories (laughter).

Mayu Kanamori  29:02

It’s obvious that you’ve, you have personally contributed enormously to this, huge amount. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Were there personal costs to that? Were their personal costs, I mean –

Don Kibbler  29:19

Personal costs?

Mayu Kanamori  29:20

I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about your contribution, you know, tell us about it in a personal way.

Don Kibbler  29:28

Well, I’ll put it this way. At times I think I shouldn’t have done it.

Masako Fukui  29:33

Which shouldn’t you?

Don Kibbler  29:34

I shouldn’t have built the Garden or done any of those things because I never got paid for any of them. Nothing, not $1. Not $1. And I put in, some (unintelligible) calculated, because I’ve kept a diary of all the hours and things, something like 30,000 hours working on it. Mind you, I done this in the prime of my life. Not when I was old and retired and somebody else done it, I physically done it. With those two hands and that head. The cost of that, you can’t calculate it in money.

Mayu Kanamori  30:14

And then what is the reward then?

Don Kibbler  30:18

There isn’t any, only the satisfaction when you look back. But I had to put up with a lot of, a lot of flack from people in Cowra, some people. I remember one fellow who was a soldier in – Australian guy, he was in New Guinea. And he came into the newsagency one day and he abused me for building, you know, the –

Mayu Kanamori  30:46

Why’s that? Why did he abuse you for –

Don Kibbler  30:51

He fought against the Japanese, and he hated them. That’s what he said. You shouldn’t do anything with the Japanese. You’re talking a long time ago, you know. That’s all changed now but. That – by completing it, that gave me –  yes I get satisfaction from that point of view. In this case, that fellow, he came back to me after the Garden was finished and shook hands with me and apologised. That’s the satisfaction.

Don Kibbler  31:32

And now, nobody says anything bad. People don’t say anything bad about it.

Masako Fukui  31:39

So why don’t you hate the Japanese?

Don Kibbler 31:43


Masako Fukui 31:44

Why don’t you hate the Japanese?

Don Kibbler  31:46

I don’t hate anybody (laughter).

Masako Fukui  31:48

When was the first time you met a Japanese person, or knew anything about the Japanese?

Don Kibbler  31:54

In 1964, I told you, when I first started here with, when Father Glynn came out to the cemetery. I must admit when I was at school, we had a dartboard with a picture of the Emperor on it, and we’d throw darts at it (laughter). But you know, that was then. But I don’t hate any race. Never have. I don’t think about it that way. They’re just people. You know, the stories I’ve told you, and I’ve told to other people, well, they’re people. Tells you –  like the ladies that come out with the hair from the – piece of the hair off the fiance’s to bury the piece of hair in the cemetery with her fiance. How could you hate anyone like that? Of course you got bad people in every race, you’re never gonna stop that. You put 1,000 people together and 10 of them are gonna be bad no matter where you go, what you do. Australia included. Might be more, at least that.

Masako Fukui  33:08

So when – you grew up in Cowra, right? You grew up in Cowra?

Don Kibbler  33:12


Masako Fukui  33:13

So were you aware of the Cowra, the camp? The prisoner of war camp?

Don Kibbler  33:18

I used to go to the camp and watch the Japanese playing baseball. You could see them through the fence.

Masako Fukui  33:25

So what did you think then? What did you think of the Japanese then?

Don Kibbler  33:30

Oh, I don’t know what I thought, I just thought they were people I guess. I don’t know. I was only nine, ten year old when they broke out. Bit hard to remember. But I can remember the Breakout. And I can remember, in the morning I looked up, we didn’t live very far away from the camp. And you could hear the machine gun, and you could see the lights, the search lights going across, until somebody shot them out. But in the morning, I remember clearly seeing a small yellow aeroplane flying around, a little Tigermonth or something, old fashioned , and they were looking for prisoners that had escaped. And you could see them – they were picking them up everywhere and one come passed in a truck with a heap of Japanese on, taking them back again. They found one fellow hiding in the culvert underneath the – in the culvert, where you drove over the gutter. And he crawled in under there and they find him hiding there. I mean, you know, our fellows tried to escape too, you know. They’re just people, but it’s a good story, but it’s never been told properly. Because nobody knows it like I do. They haven’t had the experience, no way. You know, I’ve been to Japan, what 93 times I think, in 42 years, 44 years. Yeah.

Don Kibbler  35:20

What’s that Elaine?

Elaine (Resident at Don Kibbler’s residential facility)  35:21

There’d have been no Garden without you. You’ve had a lot of battles.

Don Kibbler  35:31

Yeah, took a lot of flack alright.

Masako Fukui  35:34

But it’s worth it huh? Is it worth it, worth the battles?

Don Kibbler  35:38


Masako Fukui  35:40

Beautiful Garden.

Don Kibbler  35:41

I hope so (laughter).

Masako Fukui  35:42

What do you think?

Don Kibbler  35:44

It probably is. It’s done a huge amount for the town. I mean, most people wouldn’t bother to pull up in a car here unless – if the Garden wasn’t here. The Cemetery you can’t promote it. You can’t say, hey stop and come and look at the Cemetery. There’s nothing there, it just a – so it’s bought in millions of dollars into Cowra over the years, millions. You got enough now.

Mayu Kanamori  36:19

Thank you.

Don Kibbler  36:20

Tell you something else I’ve done. I’ve registered only last week, ‘The Australian Peace Museum’ here. There isn’t a Peace Museum in Australia. I’ve got a few people on side, so, some phone calls and that, get it together.  It’s registered now (laughter).

Masako Fukui  36:48


Mayu Kanamori  37:18



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