Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. Jemma Pokoney was asked to speak about the Cowra-Seikei High Schools Student Exchange Story, which is under Welcome in location number one on the app.


This audio interview with Jemma Pokoney was recorded on 20 September 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.

Jemma Pokoney  00:30

Hello my name is Jemma Pokoney. I’m from Cowra and I’m 17 years old.

Mayu Kanamori  00:35

Jemma, can you tell me a little bit about your experiences to do with Japan and peace?

Jemma Pokoney  00:42

Yes. So when I was just 15 years old, I decided to go to Japan for the year, after previously never been able to go overseas. At first, I thought it was going to be so easy that I could just go over there, it would be a holiday. But I was very wrong. I couldn’t speak any Japanese, I had no friends. And I was very different to a Japanese person. So the first few months was quite shocking, and a real eye opener. And it was only because of my host families that I was able to kind of overcome the anxiety and the shock of being in a foreign country. What I was really impressed about was that, even though I couldn’t communicate in Japanese that well, and even though they may have not been able to speak English that well, there was still a love. And it was – I think that’s very important because even though we might not be able to speak the same language, our insight are the same.

Jemma Pokoney  01:47

And my Mama and my Papa from my first host family were just amazing. Andthey really helped me get through the year and I joined Kendo-bu, which – Kendo club, and Eigo-bu, and that’s English club. And I was vice captain of that. And I also became the class captain of my class. And I made a lot of friendships during the year. And it’s just amazing to be able to go over to a country and get such a love for it. And when I came home, I got homesick from Japan, because I just loved it so much, and the people there, and the culture, and everything about Japan is just amazing.

Jemma Pokoney  02:31

So I was the 47th exchange student that went to Cowra. And this has been an exchange that’s been going for a very long time. And I was very privileged to be able to have that opportunity to go over there, even though I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Mayu Kanamori  02:50

I think what we what we have to start with, just imagine we don’t know about the Seikei program.

Jemma Pokoney  02:56

Okay. I went to Cowra High School, and I’m just about to graduate from Cowra High School. I’m in Year 10 and – no, I was in Year 10 when the principal came around and said, ‘was there any applicants who wanted to apply’? And I said to my friend, I said, ‘what if I actually go’? And she goes, ‘no, don’t be ridiculous, like, you’re not gonna go to Japan for a year’. Anyway, at first, I thought, only six months, that I could share it with two people because what the Seikei and Cowra program is, it’s a whole year away from January to the next year of January. What it includes is, is that you have a range of host families, I was extremely lucky to have six host families, all sisters. So I had about 12 sisters at the end of the year, which was very different from my home in Cowra, because I just have one brother. And so that was amazing. And I just want to tell people that I think, through all of it, I would definitely do it again. And the hardest thing was moving host families because I created such a strong bond with all of them. And they all became – and they still are to this day, my Mum and my Dad and my sisters.

Mayu Kanamori  04:18

So can you tell – that was two years ago?

Jemma Pokoney  04:24


Mayu Kanamori  04:25

Can you tell us about your language. You went with no language and you now speak Japanese fluently. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how that’s changed your world?

Jemma Pokoney  04:35

Okay. So at the beginning, like I said, I could not speak any Japanese at all. And I was only hanging around the kids who could speak English, which in Japan is actually surprisingly good. They – that’s their second language. In class, I would just sit at the back. And I would try and listen, but nothing was working out. The biggest thing I knew I had to do was to study myself because when you’re on exchange, you have to become the person that’s independent. You have to make the decisions, you have to put the work in, which was far from what I learned in Australia as I had everything done for me. Like, I didn’t have to clean, I didn’t have to worry about you know, trying to do well at school because there was no need for it. Whereas when I went to Japan to really have the – embrace the full experience, I had to learn Japanese.

Jemma Pokoney  05:36

At first, it was quite hard, I just had to sit with a textbook and learn words and the hiragana. And I kept – with each symbol, I would have a different meaning for it. So for ‘ha‘, I just imagined it as laughing because that only has one stroke instead of ‘ho‘, which has two. And it just progressed. And I was actually really fortunate to have two really nice teachers, Japanese teachers, where two times or three times a week, we would sit and we would do Japanese. But the probably the biggest experience with the language was I had an amazing English teacher who was Japanese. And so I sometimes got to teach the class. And that was really fun. Because even though I was teaching them English, they would say, ‘oh, well, this is how you say this word in Japan’. And that’s how I just really learned, and there were times where I thought I just, I just want to give up, like, I know how to say, taberu, and, you know, nomimono and stuff like that, but it just got to a point where I thought, you know, what, I only have a year to do this, and I’m going to try and learn as much as I can in the year. And for anyone who wants to do exchange, I think the most important thing to remember is, is that if you want to learn a language, and if you want to do well in that language, you need to go into that country and you need to immerse yourself in the culture. Because sitting in a classroom is one thing, but having that, you know, one on one face to face experience is priceless.

Masako Fukui  07:16


Mayu Kanamori  7:17

You want to ask anything? Okay. So your awards, you’ve got lots of them. You’ve got the – you’ve got the Rotary Peace Award recently. You’ve also is the youth –

Jemma Pokoney  07:36

Youth Ambassador? Yeah.

Masako Fukui  07:08

Yeah, tell us about that, what’s that about. Hold on, Just this bit noisy, let them subside.

Jemma Pokoney  07:47

When I was in year nine, I was 14 years old. I decided to go into a competition, I guess. And it’s called the Youth Ambassador of the Year. And what that is, is because Cowra has such a strong relation with peace. And we have such a diverse town, that every year we put on a festival parade for a Festival of International Understanding. And that year, it was South Korea. And I decided to join and go in for the fun. And we got to go over to Canberra one day, and get to eat South Korean food and talk to some of the leaders from South Korea. I then raised money as a part of the Youth Ambassador Program, you raise money for a certain charity. A lot of the applicants had chosen to do kind of like global charities. However, I wanted to keep the money in town. And so I raised $1,300 for the Cowra hospital auxiliary. Within that it was presentation night and I had won both the Youth Ambassador Award and the Charity Youth Ambassador Award. I was very surprised and getting that cultural kind of background of one country made me more eager to want to kind of, explore more.

Jemma Pokoney  09:16

So then after that experience, I then went to Japan for the year. I then, while I was on exchange in Japan was a nominee for the Australian Day Citizen of the Year, for my efforts in the Youth Ambassador Program. I then came back to {sic} Japan, where I tried out for the Lions Youth of the Year, which is a program based on speech and politics and the world and world peace, where I won that and successfully won the public speaking award too for the Lions. I then went on to being the nominee for the World Peace Day Forum in Cowra. And that was wonderful, where I got to just learn more about peace and having that experience from Japan, I was able to really go, yes, we need this. Like we need to show kids that we need to create peace. And recently, I just won the public speaking award for world peace.

Jemma Pokoney  10:19

And my subject for that was ‘my pathway to peace’. And what that incorporated was going to Japan when I was just 15 years old. I then talked about having no idea what I was doing in Japan, which then created my first major disturbance. I then go on to talk about coming back from Japan. And I think this is something that’s really important to talk about, and that not many people will talk about in their exchange. Was I came back thinking that all my friends from Year 9 would be the same in Year 11. I was very, very wrong. I came back on the first day of school, and not one of my friends said hello. And they all ignored me. That was very hard for me. And as I said, in my speech, I said that, you know, the concept of losing friends was hard, but trying to explain to them my perspective on the world now, after getting that year of, you know, maturity and experience was harder.

Jemma Pokoney  11:21

I also talk about how in, you know, today’s society, we have to put down our phones, and the only way to create your own pathway to peace is to connect with humans. We are so trapped behind a screen that we can’t let our emotions show. And that was one of the biggest things for my pathway to peace, is that I really do believe that it starts at home. And then you know, it goes domestically, then nationally, and worldwide. And I say, in my speech, if a 17 year old girl can sit down with her family and figure out that you need that human interaction to create your peace, why can’t the leaders of the most powerful countries do the same thing? And that was what my speech was about. And I think that’s very important, because in this day and age, we are so reliant on our phones that, you know, we don’t get to create our own pathway to peace.

Masako Fukui  12:18

Fantastic. Hold on a second.

Mayu Kanamori  12:20

I’m going to – you know, Masako’s explained to you those different sites. I’m wondering if you could tell me your experiences for all, each of, or some of the sites for example, when was the first time you rung the Peace Bell?

Jemma Pokoney  12:36

Ah, okay, that kind of thing.

Mayu Kanamori  12:39

Or your experiences when you first went to the Japanese Gardens? Or the Cemetery?

Jemma Pokoney  12:44


Masako Fukui  12:47

Before you go into that – can I just ask you about what you just said? So when you’re talking about creating peace, and about you know – what was it that you learnt in Japan? Was there a point where you went, oh, you know, like, when you talk about peace, and human relationship, what is that link?

Jemma Pokoney  13:03

Yep. So what I learned about Japan is that everyone is so forgiving. And they’re not judgmental. And that is so different from any other country that we live in. I came in as a 17 year old girl, who looked – had blonde hair, blue eyes, and could not speak Japanese. And they embraced me like their own from day one. And I think that is so important. We need to learn from Japan, because, you know, if we can – if I can be able to go over there, not speak the language, look completely different, have them as complete strangers and let them invite me into their own home, why can’t we do that in the rest of the world? Like, and that’s what I really got from it was that if I can’t speak a language, why can’t America and Australia even, we can do the same thing. Because peace, it’s not about you know, the language, it’s about feeling the same things. And that’s what was really important for me was that we shared a love, and we wanted to make things work for both of our countries. And that’s why the Seikei Exchange is so important is because it is creating peace for the younger generations.

Masako Fukui  14:24

Thank you, sorry, I interrupted you.

Mayu Kanamori  14:30

Okay, good. Thank you very much. Can you tell me your experiences? Have you – specific ones that yeah, Peace Bell, let’s start with the Peace Bell?

Jemma Pokoney  14:40

Okay, just trying to think about the Peace Bell.

Mayu Kanamori  14:43

You don’t have to –

Jemma Pokoney  14:45

I know one, I got one about the POW Camp, that might be – and I was thinking I could talk about Hiroshima. Kind of, if that’s okay. So, on my 15th birthday, I actually got to dance at the POW Camp and act like one of the prisoners. For me the concept of the POW Camp, I didn’t really understand at the age of 15. I couldn’t really understand that so many people had died, and that this was actually such a big thing in history. And probably the thing that really kicked off Cowra and Japan wanting to make that peaceful contact. It wasn’t until I went over to Japan that I realised, wow, this is actually –  this has happened and that not only people in Australia are talking about it, but the people in Japan, you know, are affected too. I was lucky enough to be able to experience going to Hiroshima. That was extremely empowering and life changing for me in a way. Going over there, and it makes me teary when I think of all those people who, you know, lost their lives due to one bomb. Now, I just like to ask the question, did you really know how many lives were going to be lost? When, all the power of one button, one button killed so many innocent lives.

Jemma Pokoney  16:19

And I think in this day and age is that we make so many quick and irrational decisions, that these can be the consequences. And in the same with the peace – with the POW camp, that’s the same thing that happens, you know. If we can sit down and talk, face to face, no matter who you are, what country you know, what religion you follow. We can prevent things like the POW Camp happening, and Hiroshima and make peace for all.

Jemma Pokoney  16:51

That was probably all, I can talk about the Japanese Gardens, do you want to? So the Japanese Gardens is probably my most favourite place in Cowra. It’s so beautiful. There’s so much colour. And it’s – I think it’s very important for Cowra, especially as we have only one of 21 Peace Bells, I believe in Cowra, that we have, I guess four very contrasting places. So to start off with, we have the POW Camp. The history behind there, how raw it is, how so many bad things happened yet, we were able to make it into a really good thing and have peace. The second thing being the cemetery. We see all of those plaques, and we really reminisce and think, wow, we’ve come so far from where we were. We then look at the Japanese Gardens, where there is so much beautiful culture and everyone goes there, that is the number one place to you know, really celebrate peace within Japan and Australia and you know, worldwide. Because if Japan and Australia can do it, anyone can do it around the world. And fourthly, we have the Peace Bell. And that’s really important, because that really shows us that Cowra has such a strong connection to peace and Japan.

Mayu Kanamori  18:16

I’ve got just a couple of things. I’m backtracking because I wrote these down and I just wanted to – you mentioned about dancing at the POW Camp. But yeah, we don’t have any background to it.

Jemma Pokoney  18:28

Okay, yeah. So I was involved with a Dance Youth Ensemble. And we got the opportunity on the 70th anniversary to dance at the POW Camp. The story of the dance was to act as the war prisoners from Japan and Italy. And it was really hard to kind of get into that character because you really can’t feel what’s going on unless you’re that person. And I remember in one of the dances, we were running, just running and running, and creeping like under a barbed wire. And to now look at that and see what we were doing. I’ve actually read a Japanese book, and I really got a very evocative image in my head of the prisoners climbing over the barbed wire fences and the pain they must have been going through. And, you know, to be able to have all those experiences, it kind of feels as though – it was kind of a destiny to be able to go to Japan after I had all of this lead up, and that it’s surrounding us all the time in everyday life.

Mayu Kanamori  19:50

Okay, the other little point that I had was, you know, you mentioned a lot about your host families and love. And I’d like to – I know you had six of them, so there must be many experiences. But maybe can you give me incidents where you really felt that?

Jemma Pokoney  20:08

Yep. There’s so many. So my second host family, I had a Mama and I had two little sisters. And Papa was actually working in Singapore. Mama was a chemist worker, she worked as a pharmacist. And the first day I moved to her house, she gave me a cup of tea, and we sat and she could speak amazing, her English was amazing. And we just talked and talked and I, that family, I think, because they were all girls, there was no Papa, I just loved them. And Mama, every night would put cherry blossom, kind of like a scent in the bath. And oh, kawaii, she was so cute. And I just loved her, and I loved my host sisters. And my youngest sister,  her name was Yuki, and she’s very, very young, she was about six years old. She couldn’t speak Japanese at all, English at all. And at the end of my time there, she was going to class and showing me her English and, you know, trying to connect. So if I could give her you know, the feeling of it’s okay to not know how to speak English, but if you try, you know, you can be like me, you can go on exchange.

Jemma Pokoney  21:43

My second most valuable moment was with my fifth host family. So this was the first time they did the exchange program, had a student over, and I had Mama, Papa and two sisters again. My Papa could speak really good English, but my Mama couldn’t. And Mama was often away doing travel. Although, whenever I got to be with her, she would just make me feel welcome, and we’d talk and by then I could speak quite well in Japanese. I had a very young sister, again, named Ayaka. Ayaka at first just would not talk to me at all. It wasn’t until I was laying on my futon one time where she came in, and we started talking. And she looked on my phone and started taking photos. And it got to a point where we became so close that she would always ask me, would I have a bath with her.

Jemma Pokoney  22:41

So that might those moments of really –  having a bath, and I could wash her hair and help her get changed, and, you know, we would sit at the table. And I’d say, ‘okay, what is nomimono in English’, and she’d go ‘drink’, or ‘inu‘, ‘dog’. And that was amazing because, you know, we could talk in both languages, and we just sit around the table. And that was really, I guess, it’s one of those experiences that I will be able to have again with her. But one of them that, you know, really makes you think, oh, I wish I could go back to Japan in a second. With that host family too just before I left to go, we had a party for Halloween with my American friends from Seikei who came for two weeks. And they set up the party at their house and let me dress up as a witch and you know, really get into that. And they didn’t have to do that. But it was the kindness of their heart and you know, their pure souls that let me have the time of my life. And I’m forever grateful for that.

Masako Fukui  23:50

Were there any hard things though, when you went to Japan apart from the language?

Jemma Pokoney  23:55

Yes. I had many moments where I just wanted to go home. I told myself, the first night I got to Japan that I would let myself cry once a day. The first night, I was hugging my toy and I was crying. Not because I didn’t feel comfortable. But because I had no idea where I was. I then got told when I went to school from one of the English teachers, that I wouldn’t be able to do Kendo. Because it is such a hard sport, and really, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Until I decided, no, I’m going to do this. I’m going to buy the gear and I’m going to have this opportunity. Kendo took me many places. The training was extremely hard. However, my class teacher was also my Kendo teacher that really helped.

Jemma Pokoney  24:51

Another thing that I really, I guess struggled with was, I’m such an open person. And in Japan, they’re not really like that. They’re quite, you know, they’re very quiet. And so I really had to kind of pull myself back in getting to the Japan kind of mode. And that took a lot of work. And also, I have two more. My second probably hardest challenge was having onsen, being naked in front of people was a massive thing for me. Because at that point in time, it’s taken me a long time to really love myself. And Japan did a lot of work for that. Like, it really made me think you know what this is my body. And this is what I encompass, and I’m in Japan. And that’s another thing, the judgmentalness, there’s none of that. They just took me in, and I went with Haruna, who was actually the exchange student from Japan to Cowra last year. And she’s an amazing sister.

Jemma Pokoney  25:56

And the last one was fish. I hate fish. I cannot stand it, I cannot stand the taste, which is really interesting because Dad used to own a fish shop in Ulladulla. And we went to a place called Shikoku for ensoku, which is like a trip or an excursion. And there was this fish with eyes, and a tail, and scales on it. And I’m sitting around the table, I was the only girl, an exchange student, a table around full of boys. They’re probably soccer boys. And in Japan, the boys soccer, they were lovely to me from Seikei. They were like, kind of like my brothers, which I was very fortunate to have because, you know, sometimes they’re not that nice. And I’m sitting around the table, and I’m looking at this fish, and I could have just left it and I thought, you know what, I’m gonna eat it all. And I picked it up and I ate the head and I ate the body. And I went, you know what, I’m so proud. I did that. I didn’t like it that much. But it’s just one of those things that you think, yeah, it’s challenging. But one day, I’m gonna look back and go, I did that. And that’s the biggest thing about Japan and the exchange program. If you want to go on exchange, you need to do everything you can even if you don’t want to do it, because you’ll look back and you’ll go, oh, I wish I did that, or yes, I did that.

Masako Fukui  27:29

Wonderful. I’m sorry, you don’t like fish? How does that relate to the whole peace thing? Eating the fish, doing the stuff you didn’t like?

Jemma Pokoney  27:41

Yeah. So each culture has their own things that you like and your dislike. And for me accepting that back at home, there are things that we may do that I don’t agree with now, and going to Japan and really going, okay, this is how they do their thing. When we relate this to peace, I kind of think of it like, the first key to finding peace is to accept the country for what they are. You need to cut away from, I guess what you’ve grown up with. Because sometimes those things that you’ve grown up with might not always be the right answer. And going to Japan, being able to just go, you know what, I’m going to do it, I’m going to accept their culture, I’m going to take it in my stride. I’m going to eat the fish. I’m going to wake up at six o’clock in the morning to go to school. I’m going to go to Kendo practice for three hours. By doing that I was able to not only gain amazing friendships, not do things that I would never do in my life again, and enjoy my time. I created a peace within myself, but also with my friends and my family from Japan.

Masako Fukui  29:00

Wonderful, gosh we’ve got a lot to learn from this girl. (Laughter)

Jemma Pokoney  29:07

When I was with my family, we went to the Japanese Sakura Matsuri. And – which is the Japanese Gardens Japanese Festival, which is this week. So I went to the Sakura Matsuri, which is the Cherry Blossom Festival. And there was a lovely Japanese woman, who wrote our names in kanji. That was my first experience with a Japanese lady. And I remember thinking to my Mum, and I said to my Mum, ‘wow, she looks very different from us. Is she, you know, is she one of us?’ And Mum goes, ‘oh, she is Jemma, but you know she’s from a different country’. And by having that, I could kind of see where, yes, she is different. But we all are the same in one way. We all want peace. And by having those little experiences, I was then able to really get a good understanding of what I needed to do.

Jemma Pokoney  30:10

And my second host family, my grandmother, could not speak English at all. However, she decided that she wanted to dress me in a full kimono with the shoes and everything. It was a very expensive kimono too. Not that that matters. But the fact that she did that for me, and I could wear it and I can wear it at the Festival, I can wear it around Cowra was extremely special. Because not a lot of people would do that in today’s society, and she went out of her way to make me feel like one of them.

Masako Fukui  30:50

She gave you a kimono?

Jemma Pokoney  30:52

No, she took me to a kimono dress place, got me to choose the fabric I wanted. It got suited for me. And everything. Yeah.

Masako Fukui  31:01

So you kept it?

Jemma Pokoney  31:02

Yes. Yeah.

Masako Fukui  31:04

That’s amazing.

Jemma Pokoney  31:05

I think it was like $1,000 or something. So yeah, just the pure, the pure love that she had for me. You know, it was just I don’t know where else you’d get that. So yeah.

Mayu Kanamori  31 :23

Do you want to just go back to the story of when you first went to the Japanese Garden. I just want to get a sense of how old you were. So you wanted to let us know about –?

Jemma Pokoney  31:33

Yeah, I was about six years old when I went to my first Cherry Blossom Festival in Cowra.

Jemma Pokoney  31:44

I come from a family where we may not be the richest. But I come from a family full of love. And for anyone out there I believe that if you have a kind heart, an accepting heart, and a pure soul, that no matter where you go in the world, you will create friendships. And young, old, no matter how old or young you are, you will then be on the pathway to creating peace, worldwide.

Masako Fukui  32:18

Great, thank you.

Masako Fukui  32:24

So this is Jemma Pokoney, atmos, hopefully.



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