Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. At the time, Judi Smith was the Deputy Mayor of Cowra Council. She 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 Judi Smith was recorded on 21 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.

Judi Smith  00:31

My name is Judy Smith. I was for over 30 years a Japanese teacher at the Cowra High School. And I’m currently the Deputy Mayor at Cowra Shire Council. I was born and grew up in Sydney and I moved here with my husband when I was 27. We had both had careers and education in Sydney. But we decided that Sydney was no longer the place for us, and particularly no longer a peaceful place to bring children up. So we did have relatives who owned a farm here and we came and lived near them. And I got work as a teacher both at the high school and at the local TAFE.

Mayu Kanamori  01:16

Did you know Japanese then? How did you start teaching Japanese?

Judi Smith  01:23

I’ve always since I was very young had an interest in languages. And for some reason that I can no longer remember, lost in the mists of time, I really wanted to study Japanese at university. It wasn’t available at school very much in my day. And so I went to Sydney University, studied for three years there. And during that time, I took a year off and I worked for the Australian Government in Japan for a year. So that really promoted my interest in all things Japanese. I speak German, French, I used to speak Italian. But Japanese is my major language. And I find a lot of things that I try to speak in other languages tend to come out with a bit of Japanese in them.

Mayu Kanamori  02:12

We may or may not do this, but I was thinking, knowing that you spoke Japanese and you’re a Japanese teacher, we thought this this app probably going to try to organise a Welcome, hopefully in Wiradjuri, as well as we’ll have an Elder. And the narrator, will obviously say, Welcome to Cowra’. Maybe you’d like to say, ‘Yokoso Cowra e’ in Japanese for us.

Judi Smith  02:37

Minasan, Yokoso Cowra e.

Mayu Kanamori  02:41

Do you want to tell us about the Seikei program?

Judi Smith  02:45

The Seikei program by 2020, will have been going for over 50 years. Long before I began working with it. It was begun by a very far-sighted Cowra Mayor, who had served in World War II. And who really believed that the future of reconciliation between Japan and Australia, and in particular Cowra, lay with young people getting to know and understand each other. He also of course was instrumental in establishing the Japanese and Cowra War memorials. So he began this exchange with some contacts, which he had in Japan. And the first Japanese person, who is still very active in the Exchange came to Cowra in 1969, which I think was a huge cultural shock for him.

Judi Smith  03:50

The Mayor who began the Seikei Exchange was Ab Oliver. He is a very famous person in Cowra history and will go down as a very far-sighted person I believe. As the program evolved after a couple of years, it became an annual exchange, whereby one Cowra High School student went to Tokyo for a year, lived with a number of host families and attended Seikei Gakuen, a very well known private school in Tokyo. And in the same way, one person came from Seikei Gakuen to Cowra High School and lived with three or four host families. That program has been continuing uninterrupted for nearly 50 years. And it has expanded so that every two years, we also take a group of young Cowra students to Japan for what we call the short term exchange, for about two weeks. And in the other year, the Seikei students come to us for two weeks as well.

Judi Smith  05:09

My involvement in the program came as a high school teacher, where I was involved in, of course, teaching the students to speak Japanese. And it was generally speaking, from the students who studied Japanese with me that we had our exchange students. And of course, the students who came here would come to my senior classes, and they would help out with real language, which with much better accents than my own. We have also developed over the years that Exchange whereby, for example, we have had the two high schools’ rugby teams visit each other, and other people like that. In Cowra, we have a Seikei Exchange Committee, which consists of a number of host families who have remained with the program for many years, some of them. We say that once you join the Seikei family, you can’t ever get away again. And we also have Rotary representatives, because Rotary is a big supporter of the Exchange, and our current President and Secretary Treasurer are Rotary people. And I became and was for probably 25 to 30 years, the coordinator of the Exchange.

Mayu Kanamori  06:41

Can you think of, I know, you probably have many, many students go over there and come back, well, hosted many students that came. I’m sure you’ve got many, but we’d like to hear some specific stories. You don’t necessarily need names. You can if you want. But can you tell us some, you know, one or two specific examples that really remain with you?

Judi Smith  07:12

All of the students who go on the Exchange, whether from our end, or the Seikei end, are changed for the better by their experience. And one of the great pleasures that I’ve had is watching those students as they’ve developed become more independent, more understanding of the rest of the world. There are a number of those who remain very connected with the Seikei program. One is a man called Paul, who now lives and works in Sydney, but who will, for example, be in Cowra, this year as he is every year for the Sakura Matsuri. And the Seikei Exchange program as a fundraiser, makes a number of Japanese foods, which we sell, we make yakitori and okonomiyaki in fact. And he buys the ingredients for us in Sydney and comes up and is one of our chief chefs. And he goes back to Japan probably, at least every second year to see his host families, who I think have become for him, his own families in many ways.

Judi Smith  08:33

There’s another woman called Alison, who again, although she lives in Sydney, was –  and while her work is no longer connected with Japanese, she believes in the Exchange so strongly and its benefits that she is in fact compiling a digital account of the history of the exchange. And so she’s often here in Cowra, when we have events that are connected with Japan, such as Sakura Matsuri, such as the World Peace Day events, and such as the anniversary of the Cowra Breakout, as we call it, the Dasso.

Mayu Kanamori  09:22

Any particular stories that you might be able to tell us as a teacher, maybe of tears, laughter?

Judi Smith  09:32

One of the things that I say to every student before they leave here is that the year they’re about to experience will be the hardest year that they’ve ever had in their life, but it will be the most rewarding. And when they come back, they say, ‘you were so right’. The first three or four months were really tough. Everyone seemed to speak at a million miles a minute, and I could hardly understand anything, but by the time leaving time comes, all of them without exception, except for a couple who became unwell while they were there, without exception, they don’t want to leave, they do want to see their families and their friends again. But they have very strong ties with families and friends in Japan. And it’s exactly the same for the children who come here from Seikei Gakuen as well.

Judi Smith  10:32

There are, there are funny stories, there are tears and laughter. I do remember one of the very early exchange students had had a long flight. And this is some time ago, the airport that she landed at, and it was the pre-Narita Airport, I think, if I remember correctly, only had Japanese style toilets. And she was too scared to use them. So she was really dying to use the facilities when she got to her Japanese home. So the first thing that she did was rush into the house without taking her shoes off at the genkan. So she had to then come back down and take them off. And then she rushed into the toilet to discover that it was a computerised toilet, and she, I think, was so overwhelmed by the whole experience that she couldn’t really figure out the buttons. So I do remember her telling me that her host mother had to knock on the door when water started seeping out. (laughter)

Judi Smith  11:40

But we have students who absolutely fall in love with Japanese food and who proudly tell me that they’ve eaten fugu, and they love sashimi, and so on. You don’t hear quite so much of the times when they’re a bit lonely and a bit overwhelmed. What you do hear is the wonderful times they have, how kind everyone is to them, and how they so much want to go back again.

Masako Fukui  12:14

So there is that person-to-person contact. How does that translate into something bigger? You know, something bigger as in the sort of stuff that Cowra does? How does the personal experience of being in a Japanese home with a Japanese host family translate into something that is about peace and reconciliation on a much bigger level, on a community level, even global level?

Judi Smith  12:44

I’ll tell you one story. Again a reasonable while ago, back when a number of my students had grandparents who still remembered the war, and were not always entirely in favour of their son or daughter studying Japanese. And I do remember one such student, who had a short term Japanese exchange student staying with her. And that she was really worried about how her grandparents would react. And she took this exchange student, who was not a Christian, to church with her on a Sunday and introduced her round and, and the student had this experience. She introduced her to the grandparents, and the grandparents later said to her, ‘seeing you so happy and having so much fun with the Japanese girl you are with, we realised that we need to let go of old resentments’ and embrace the fact that young people, and this is something that I very strongly believe, young people all over the world, despite the fact that they may have a different language, different customs, and so on, have similar interests and needs and desires. And if those young people can make personal connections, then that overcomes any sort of stereotyping about a different nationality or a different appearance. And so I think that that is something that has been very important as a personal result of this exchange.

Judi Smith  14:39

It’s multiplied of course because not only do those students spend a year with different Japanese families, their family often goes to visit them. And the same is the case with the Seikei students. So the family gets to see their child so happy and so well looked after by a whole lot of people who are then really wonderful to the family. And these parents and grandparents often always come back and say, oh, ‘people were amazingly kind to us, we really appreciated it’. So there’s that wider connection and understanding. And in the same way, over 50 years, where we’ve had 50 students, plus all the short term exchange students, and that’s usually 15 to 20, who have been hosted by various families in Cowra, those families have come to view their Japanese student as another son or daughter. And they too have this window into a wider world, which is so important for Australians, who live a long way from a lot of other countries, and particularly for people who live in a small country town like Cowra, where they don’t have the opportunities for a variety of experiences that people do in big cities like Sydney.

Masako Fukui  16:15

I’m just wondering, for you, being in Cowra, how that’s changed you, you know, being around not just you know, the Japanese people or the Japanese connection, but being with people in Cowra, how that’s changed you?

Judi Smith  16:35

I think firstly, Cowra has made me see a lot of things in a different way. I live on a farm. And really the first culture shock that I had, when I came to Cowra, was that so many things that in the city, I took for granted, you turned on a tap and water came out. And if it didn’t, you call the plumber, and so on. Those things didn’t always happen. If on a farm, you turned on a tap and water didn’t come out. You had to fix it in some way. So I became a lot more connected with the rhythms of nature and the seasons. We’re undergoing a drought now, although it doesn’t really look like it. But we – while we’re all having tough times, we know that eventually that drought will break. And we’ll get again the rain that we need, and in the meantime, we have to tighten our belts. Another thing that I’ve been able to experience in Cowra that I certainly didn’t in Sydney was living amongst an Aboriginal community. And in Cowra there are a number of very, very strong Aboriginal families, very strong men, and particularly very strong women, who’ve made their way in public life in the wider Australian context. And in Sydney, I didn’t ever meet Aboriginal people. In Cowra, I taught them, I taught with them, I was on committees with them. And again, I had to learn about another culture and other customs that came from that culture. And I’ve come to really value the First People in Australia and what they have to give to us, when we have any sort of formal event in Cowra.

Judi Smith  18:40

One of the things that we do is acknowledge the Wiradjuri people as the traditional custodians of the land. And that really has a great deal of meaning for me, because when I look at climate change and the consequences of climate change, and I think back to the way Aboriginal people managed their environment, I think we have a lot that we can learn from them. And of course country people have a different way of being with each other, I think than most city people in the – we call it a lane that I live in, which is a dead end lane, there are probably a dozen farming families there. And we have get togethers. We all know each other. We all know that if something happens, a machine breaks down or something bad happens we can call on a neighbour who will come and help us. In the same way people in Cowra as you walk down the street will say, ‘gooday’.

Judi Smith  19:52

So you know your neighbours, you’re more relaxed about the people you meet. Whether it be just passing in In the street, whether you know them or not, you can smile at them, shopkeepers will smile at you. Whereas in Sydney, I think a lot of people will live in apartments and not know the people who are living next to them. So apart from really, through my work as a teacher, and my many, many trips to Japan, either for study myself, or taking students, so I’ve probably been 15 times or more. I’ve come to understand and really appreciate both past Japanese culture and modern Japanese culture. But there is that wider context about living in a small country town, and despite some of the things that I miss, like restaurants, and theatre, and so on, there’s no way I would ever change that decision that my husband and I made 40 years ago this month, in fact.

Mayu Kanamori  21:01

You’re an educator and teaching language. How important is learning language to understanding cultures? How much of the –  how is that important to cultural understanding?

Judi Smith  21:17

Australia’s quite an, well, is a very insular country. And particularly here in Cowra, we are quite isolated from the rest of mainstream Australia. Perhaps I’ve taught students who’ve never been to Sydney or Canberra, never seen those bright lights, big cities. And for them, when I teach them Japanese language, and have also taught them French, you can’t study that without coming to some understanding of the culture that embodies the language. So even a few words of Japanese, even the few words that students learn in Year Seven, not only enable them to have a very basic beginning of communication with other people, but empower them, I think, to understand that, not everyone thinks the way English speakers are taught to think, because not every language works the way English works, thank heavens, because it’s such a complex language. And the way we believe is not necessarily the only way to believe. So I think language empowers people to enter into somebody else’s world, not just through communicating with them, but through understanding where they’re coming from and what they’re all about. And so I think that’s very important.

Mayu Kanamori  23:05

What about some specific excursions you’ve taken out – taking your exchange student out to, maybe the cemetery or the POW Camp? What happens there? What have they said?

Judi Smith  23:18


Mayu Kanamori  23:19

Do they feel and cry in front of the four guards’ cemeteries, you know, the Australian Cemetery for an example, you don’t just –

Judi Smith  23:28

Japanese students who come here, are very keen to become involved in anything to do with the World Peace Bell, with the Japanese Prisoner of War Camp, with the War Cemeteries, and they’re always involved in our August 5th celebrations, which are commemorations of the Breakout on the 5th of August 1944, from the Cowra POW Camp. For them and for the many Japanese visitors, not just the students, but the many Japanese visitors who come here, the whole Peace Precinct experience is something that’s very important to them. And they start with going to view the hologram at the Cowra Visitors’ Centre, always the short term exchange students – (Peace Bell rings) it’s the Peace Bell. It’s rung all the time. Yeah, and probably I can, I could shorten all that anyway. (unintelligible)

Mayu Kanamori  24:41

If you can think of like a specific example, if you can remember one student or one –

Masako Fukui  24:46

Like a student who might have said something to you or–  like we brought some students out in February as part of this project. Design – university students, design students from Hokkaido. And, you know, they did a tour with Lawrance and met Paul, and none of them knew any of this history, and they were really moved by it.

Mayu Kanamori  25:10

One of the girls was almost in tears when we were at the POW Camp.

Judi Smith  25:21

You don’t get so much of that from the younger students. All of the Seikei students, who come here, whether for the one year exchange or the short term exchange, the two week exchange, are very well briefed by the teachers at Seikei before they come out here. So they do have a very good understanding of the origins of this wonderful relationship, which we now have. Actually, my students often are very concerned about how their Japanese friends will react, to do with the whole Breakout concept. Particularly as the short term program often visits in August, and in August, we do a lot of work around commemorating the Breakout. We always used to make an origami no tsuru, the peace crane in memory of Sadako. And I always used to teach that story to my students. And we would also watch some quite horrific footage of the bombing of Hiroshima. And we would have these exchange students in the classroom with us and my students would be very, very worried about, is this going to make them feel terrible. But in fact, these young students, while for them, it’s a very important series of events, it’s quite far removed from their lives. And while they do appreciate and understand what happened, they’re more focussed, and more likely to cry as they’re leaving Cowra, because even on a two week exchange, they’ve formed such close friendships.

Judi Smith  27:26

I’ve had students from Japan, whom I’ve had to take their hand and physically force it away from their host mother or from even a fence once, and push them onto the bus saying, ‘no, no, you have to go’. And I do remember the first time I took Cowra students on the short term exchange to Japan, being a little bit worried that they might be a bit more hard boiled, and might not show the emotion after only two weeks, which is a very short period of time to connect with a family. But I have been very pleased and relieved in a way, that they have reacted in exactly the same way. They’ve really formed these close bonds of friendship very, very quickly. And that, I think, transcends just feelings of sorrow about events that happened a long while ago. And it shows to me that while these events were absolutely horrific, a little bit like when you have a Japanese tea ceremony, a sado, where you have very bitter tea, and a very sweet cake, imagining that you had the tea before the cake, the bitter tea was during the time of the war, and the misunderstanding and enmity that there was at that time. But we’re now able to continually eat the very sweet cake of the relationship that has developed over the last nearly 75 years. And that to me is the important thing. The horrific events of the past have led to a more genuine peace and understanding amongst young people and the wider Cowra community who are very, very proud of their connection with Japan and very proud of maintaining the War Cemeteries and the Campsite and making them the best that they can be, so that they provide a wonderful resting place and a viewing place for people who come to see what had happened.

Mayu Kanamori  29:57

Have you first made personal friends through this, whether it’s Seikei or through the peacemaking process? And can you tell us a little bit about that?

Judi Smith  30:12

I have many very good Japanese friends, many of them teachers from Seikei Gakuen, because they’ll come out and stay at my place, I’ll go and stay with them. There are lots of other wonderful Japanese people whom I have met, including two who came and taught with me, one for a year and one for six months. The one who taught for six months now lives in Sydney, and is an actor, and can be seen on television programs and in some movies. The other one went back to Japan and works in Japan, but has published books for Japanese students learning English, which are based on Cowra, for example. And we’re still very good friends. So that’s a wonderful thing.

Masako Fukui 31:08

Who’s the actor?

Judi Smith 31:11

Shingo Usami. Yeah, his first experience in – in Australia was here. He was sort of an assistant teacher with me.

Masako Fukui  31:26

Was there any of the other, any sort of personal stories that you might have in any of the stops that are going to be on the app, so –

Judi Smith  31:37

Every four years, Cowra Shire Council goes to Japan to visit the many people in groups with whom we have a relationship, including the Seikei High School of course, various other people in Tokyo. And we also have a very strong relationship with some of the families of the former POWs, who were in the Prisoner of War Camp, including Mr Murakami, who is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. He came to visit us in Tokyo. He’s in his mid 90s, but when we were in Tokyo this year, he flew up to visit us and to have dinner with us. And he told us that all being well, he plans to come back to Cowra next year for the 75th anniversary of the Breakout. So that’s wonderful and there are a number of families of former POWs with whom we maintain a strong connection. We also have had a connection for many years with the family of Saburo Nagakura, who founded and paid for the Saburo Nagakura Park here. He’s since passed away, but his son, Seiji Nagakura, has taken up his work and we went to visit him in April. We had three wonderful days there, where we were shown around to one of the temples in Fukuoka. We were taken to an onsen as we are every four years by Seiji and his wife Reiko, and a number of their other friends. And we always enjoy a few hours in the onsen. We have dinners with them and with their Rotary friends, and they enjoy coming out here as often as they can. We’ve very much tried to get them to stay longer when they come to Cowra. They’re all great golfers. And our Cowra Golf Course is a wonderful golf course. We really tried to get them to spend a day in Cowra playing golf and we’d like to take them to our farms and show them an Australian barbecue. Because Seiji Nagakura always gives us a wonderful dinner at his place. His wife Reiko is an amazing cook. But we find it very difficult to get them to spend more than one day here. So that’s a work in progress. But that connection is a very strong connection and will only get stronger over time, I think.

Masako Fukui  34:34

They don’t play golf? They don’t play golf in Cowra?

Judi Smith  34:39

They have, they have once before gone through Cowra, spent a little bit of time with us and then played golf in Canberra. But no, they haven’t played golf here yet.

Masako Fukui  34:50

Do you play golf?

Judi Smith  34:50

No, I don’t.

Masako Fukui  34:52

Well, that’s the problem.

Judi Smith  34:54

Oh, we have plenty of good golfers. Cowra’s renowned for its golfing prowess. And we would certainly make sure that they had a good time, played with some good golfers.

Masako Fukui  35:07

Okay. Okay. I think that’s good.

Mayu Kanamori  35:10

That’s good. Thank you. Anything else you want to say? We’re done.

Judi Smith  35:16

I wasn’t here when the Crown Prince, now Emperor Akihito, came to Cowra. But I was here when the then Crown Princess came. And I do remember taking the then Japanese exchange student up to the War Cemetery, where she planted a tree and where we had a little ceremony. And the exchange student was absolutely beside himself, because there is no way ever in Japan, he would get to meet and bow to someone so eminent. So it’s wonderful that these people do come out here and that Cowra is important to them.

Masako Fukui  36:02

That was the Empress Michiko when she was Crown Princess. Is that right?

Judi Smith  36:07

No, no, no, no, no, it was the current Emperor’s sister. I can’t remember her name. But it is on a tree, a plaque near a tree just to the right of the Japanese War Cemetery.

Judi Smith  36:26

We actually get – tried to meet with the current Emperor, when we went over there in – at, well it was May actually, not April, I said April. But that couldn’t be arranged. Unfortunately. I think we were there that week after Goruden Week (Golden Week) and I’m sure that he was very busy during that time and I understand he’s not very well also. But yes, there’s a connection from the highest to the lowest and everybody in between.

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