Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. Kelsey Sutor was asked to speak about Sakura Avenue, which is location number five on the app.


This audio interview with Kelsey Sutor was recorded on 17 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.

Kelsey Sutor  00:30

My name is Kelsey Sutor. I am 26 years old, I was born and raised in Cowra, and I will be speaking about Sakura Avenue. Sakura Avenue is a part of the reconciliation efforts between Cowra and Japan. So it’s just one of the many things we have here in Cowra that represent our friendship, and our connection to Japan. So, I’m not quite sure how many years ago it started. But ever since I’ve been here and been a child, there have been cherry blossom trees or crabapple trees planted from the Cemetery, to the Japanese Gardens. So you know, that idea of people can walk down it and look at the different trees and look at the different people who sponsored the trees, the Cowra people and the Japanese people.

Masako Fukui  01:18

So how does that sponsorship stuff work?

Kelsey Sutor  01:21

So it’s through Council. People can opt to buy a tree and a plaque. And then it’s organised where the tree is planted. And normally, it’s with the Cowra person who sponsored it. Mostly it’s children. A lot of families do it for their children. And the Japanese representative, who comes to Cowra to plant the tree together.

Masako Fukui  01:46

So how did you get to plant the tree there, so can you tell me that story from sort of beginning to end?

Kelsey Sutor  01:54

I was probably 10 years old when my parents decided to buy my sister and myself a tree. And then we met up with Council who, you know, supplied the tree, supplied the plaque, and they set down a date. And I remember that my sister and I were in our school clothes still. And we went out of school to do it. And we did our trees with members from the Japanese Air Force. So they had flown all the way to Cowra just to plant a tree with us. And it was a really great day. I can remember, you know, these giant Japanese men in uniform. And they helped us plant the tree. And then they put the plaque in place. And we got a couple of photos. So yeah, that’s how, that’s how it went.

Masako Fukui  02:39

So, just backtrack to when you’re planting the tree. Can you remember how you – like the digging process and all the like, can you give us a picture? Imagine me looking at the app at Sakura Avenue, and I might be standing in front of your tree, so.

Kelsey Sutor  02:53

I remember the Air Force members, they were the ones who grabbed the shovels, obviously, because we were quite small and tiny. If I was 10, my sister would have been eight at the time. So they dug the giant holes in essentially, they lifted the giant trees into the ground. And we just had a hand on them. So you know, it wasn’t a matter of us little girls being able to plant trees, they helped us along the way. And then yeah, they helped us dig the soil back into the ground and put the plaque into place. So it was probably – there’s been hundreds of them planted, but it was just before the Japanese Garden. So it was probably one of the last few that’ve been planted in recent years.

Masako Fukui  03:36

What’s on the plaque, so tell us about the plaque?

Kelsey Sutor  03:38

So each plaque has a number. And so that represents the number, the person that they’re up to, you know, the number of trees they’re up to. And my number was 880. And my sister’s was 881. And each one has my name on it. And my sister’s has hers on it. And it’ll say – it also says Japanese Air Force. So, representatives from the Japanese Air Force.

Masako Fukui  04:04

Okay, and what do you remember thinking like, you and your sister, like were you giggling? Or were you scared or like, can you remember the emotions?

Kelsey Sutor  04:14

We thought it was pretty fun. We thought it was a good opportunity to get out of school (laughter). But it was a really nice afternoon because we got to meet these Japanese men who, – I mean, living in a small rural town, we have a lot of connections to Japan but you don’t necessarily meet Japanese people or anyone from overseas when you’re that age. So it was really nice to be able to converse with them and they couldn’t quite speak English, but they could speak broken English. It was nice to converse with them and learn a little bit about Japan and being in the Air Force. They told us a lot about how Japanese military works. So that was really interesting conversation to have.

Masako Fukui  04:51

Like what do you remember?

Kelsey Sutor  04:52

They tell us all the different training about having to – like the training to fly, the years it takes, you know, all the protocols, all that sort of stuff. Yeah.

Masako Fukui  05:05

What was the most special thing about that day?

Kelsey Sutor  05:08

The most special part of that day was definitely being able to meet the Japanese members of the Air Force. But also, the one thing that sticks out in my mind more than anything is the photo we took on the day. So my sister and I in our school uniform, it’s an overcast day. And we’re next to these really tall Japanese men, complete in uniform with medals. Very prim and proper. And, you know, we just got us two short girls next to them. So that’s definitely the one thing I remember from the day.

Masako Fukui  05:43

So, tell us a little bit more, can we go back now? Because we’ve talked a little bit about the planning. Can you go back to the – re-explain that, the whole process of the sakura trees, and what that means, what you think that means for Cowra?

Kelsey Sutor  06:02

So the process of planting the trees involves getting a tree and plaque from Council. And then it’s organised that a Japanese member of society, so it might be the Air Force, it might just be, you know, a resident of a town in Japan. They will come and sponsor the tree with a Cowra resident. And to me, that’s a really lovely symbol of friendship and reconciliation between the two countries, especially after our Prisoner of War Breakout. It to me, it just symbolises friendship, and a moving on from such a tragedy that, you know, only happened over the hill.

Masako Fukui  06:40

Like, do you go and visit the tree?

Kelsey Sutor  06:41

My tree is no longer up. Yeah, a number of trees have been hit by drivers. And unfortunately, my tree was one of them. So the plaque is currently sitting at council depot waiting for a new batch of trees to be planted. But I did used to always walk past the tree. And you sort of stop and you read it. And you think about back to that day. And it was always just such a nice memory to be able to walk past it and see my plaque and my sister’s plaque. And how the tree grows of course. It was always fascinating to see if it had the blooms out, or if it had lost all its leaves because it’s winter, or, yeah.

Mayu Kanamori 07:18

I wanted to know what it means for a Cowra resident, a child, to be given a tree in their name, and to grow up with it, and what it means as an adult now.

Kelsey Sutor  07:32

Yeah. I think as a child, it gives you a good understanding of the relationship between Cowra and Japan. It, you know, you sort of – it’s a part of that learning process that we all receive when we grow up in Cowra about, you know, our relationship with Japan. We learned it all through school. So it’s just another element of what we learn. But as an adult, the way I think about the tree is, it’s sort of the thing that is left behind in Cowra. And no matter where you go, no matter what you do, your plaque is there and your tree is there. So part of you is always in Cowra, I mean, Cowra will always be part of me. But part of what you did as a child is still there and Cowra and thriving and growing as a tree.

Masako Fukui 08:16

Perhaps you can just – could you reflect on what it might mean for a visitor like me to come and look at that, like –

Kelsey Sutor  08:23

I think for a visitor it’d be a really good learning experience. And it gives little hints to stories about the people who live both in Cowra and Japan. I always found that anytime I walked past one of the plaques, I would wonder who that person was in Cowra, if I didn’t already know them, and who that person was in Japan. So I think it gives a nice –  little hints of stories about people as you walk along and you read each one.

Masako Fukui  08:50

That’s lovely. So how would you tell the peace and reconciliation story? Like, as someone who’s grown up here, what does it mean to you?

Kelsey Sutor  09:01

As I said, we, when you grew up in Cowra, one of the main things that you’re taught from kindergarten to year 12, is the importance of the friendship and the reconciliation of Japan and Cowra. We have a school exchange, we have, you know, our Sakura Avenue, we have a Peace Bell, we have a POW Camp, you’re taught about the significance of that history, and the significance of what happened after so the friendship between the two countries. The attempts to repair, you know, a friendship that was once broken because of wartime. And you also get taught the significance of what just happened here. It was the only inland battle of World War II in Australia. So for that to have happened, just a, you know, across the hill from where I’ve always lived here, it’s pretty, it’s pretty mind blowing. And it’s always wonderful to be able to learn about that. About that history and they’re always uncovering new stories. I noticed last year, they uncovered a new story about an Italian prisoner of war, you know who built an electrical hut. So, they’re always constantly finding things out about that time. And it’s really fascinating to be along with that ride.

Masako Fukui  10:16

That’s fantastic, thank you.

Kelsey Sutor  10:19

My name is Kelsey Sutor. I’m 26 years old, I was born and bred in Cowra. And I’m going to tell you a little bit about Sakura Avenue.

Masako Fukui  10:29

Is there anything else?

Mayu Kanamori  10:30

I want to know why, in your words, why you think that your mum and dad decided to buy you and your sister, a cherry tree, cherry blossom tree?

Kelsey Sutor  10:43

It’s almost – the reason I think my parents decided to buy it myself and my sister a plaque and a tree, I think it’s almost tradition for children here in Cowra to purchase a tree, hundreds have. It’d be almost incountable (sic) how many kids have grown up here with their tree growing on the side of the road. And, yeah, it’s also part of a tradition, I think where we, a lot of Cowra residents leave their names. I know our family’s name is on a brick up near the Cowra Japanese Garden. Because it’s part of a path. So that path, the idea of path to reconciliation. So a lot of families chose to do that a number of years ago. So whether it’s a tree or a brick, it’s just part of tradition of growing up in Cowra.

Mayu Kanamori 11:29

And do you see that as like, citizens’, each individual’s contribution to peace in a wider sense?

Kelsey Sutor  11:37

Yeah, I see it as part of a contribution of each resident to peace, and to show an understanding about history and what’s happened here, so yeah.

Masako Fukui  11:51

Do you think that you’re being a Cowra resident and being a part of this, this peace story, I suppose. Does that make you see the world differently or anything? Like can you sort of extrapolate it out to a bigger view?

Masako Fukui  12:07

I think the history of Cowra and growing up here does make you see the world a little bit differently. I think I’m more inclined to a peaceful – thinking peacefully, you know, maybe even a little bit pacifist. Just because you know the horrors of war. I wasn’t born when this happened but it just happened over the hill. And it’s sort of hard to believe that that could happen in your hometown. And then the steps that the two nations have taken to become more peaceful together after those horrors. It’s – I’ve lost my train of thought, sorry. What was your question again?

Masako Fukui  12:46

What was my question again? And I sort of asking you to extrapolate wider.

Kelsey Sutor  12:51

Oh, yeah, sorry. Sorry, did you want me to start all that again?

Kelsey Sutor  13:00

So being brought in, sorry, I’ll start again. Being born and bred in Cowra, and being a resident for most of my life, you learn about the atrocities and the horrors that happened just over the hill from where I live. It’s really hard to comprehend. And you also learn about the peace efforts that both nations have attempted. Whether it be you know, the Peace Bell, or Sakura Avenue and the planting of cherry trees, we’re trying our very best to bring Cowra and Japan together. And when you look at other atrocities that are happening into the world, different wars, you sort of get this idea that you want peace. You know, because you’ve grown up learning about peace efforts. It would just be nice to see other towns across Australia and across the world, you know, adopt those symbols of friendship with nations they’ve been at war at, or nations they’ve had conflicts with.

Masako Fukui  14:03

What about some of the other, as you said, the Peace Bell all of those things, growing up here? You know, did that mean something to you?

Mayu Kanamori  14:13

Stories about any of those places that we’re talking about?

Kelsey Sutor  14:17

Probably the the POW Camp if, are you doing one on the POW Camp? Yep. So the Prisoner of War Camp has always been something that I’ve always walked past, I’ve always walked through. As a child, I found it really fascinating, the different parts of the camp that are still – there’s remnants of all these buildings and objects that were there in the 1940s. One of the most – one of the things my sister and I used to always do is go into the electrical hut or the remains of the electrical hut that are near the Camp. And we used to play in there you know, pretend it was a kitchen. And you know, be chefs. And looking back, that might not have been such a great idea, because it’s a historical artefact. But it was always fun sort of imagining what had happened there. And I remember in the hut, there were two slabs of what looked like metal. And I always wondered what was on those slabs. So I used to think it was a kitchen and that there was a stove placed there. I’ve only just learned as I’m older that it was actually electrical hut. So it was probably some sort of radio communications equipment that was placed there.

Masako Fukui  15:34

Anything else you did there that was a bit naughty?

Kelsey Sutor  15:38

Oh, man, don’t tell Council I did that. They put a gate up around it now.

Masako Fukui  15:42

So we can’t use that bit?

Masako Fukui  15:44

Oh, you can use that bit, that should be fine. This is years before they – they put a fence up now. So this was years and years and years ago, probably 10, 15 years ago. The Peace Bell is always a place that a lot of children go to. Growing up, you tend to ring the Peace Bell a lot, just to be an absolute nuisance. Because it’s very, very loud. And you always sort of do the joke that you can put somebody’s head into the Peace Bell and then ring it, that would be horrible, you’d be deaf, or you’d be hit by a huge bell. (Laughter) It’s not until when you get older that you realise just how important that – it’s one of the few in the world that we have. And you know, it’s made out of the coins, and it’s– you know, melted down coins. And the whole structure has got symbolic meaning in what it’s been made with and the different style choices. So when you’re a kid, it’s a bit of fun, you know, to be ringing the Peace Bell. And then as you get older, you realise the significance of having a Peace Bell in Cowra.

Masako Fukui  16:49

Do you have any memories of events, particular events like someone visiting or?

Kelsey Sutor  16:55

Nothing comes to mind as a child, but as an adult there are certain things. So I work at our local newspaper, and I’m a journalist. So I always get to cover a lot of the different events that occur. You know, World Peace Day, during the time the Cowra Breakout anniversary each year, and it still amazes me, you know, there are people that gather for this, you know, to celebrate the significance and commemorate the significance of these events. And it’s very moving in sombre to see some of the wreath laying ceremonies that occur up at the War Cemetery. Some of the commemorations at the Prisoner of War Camp each year, and the fact that they’re still alive and people are still remembering it really – it’s really heartwarming to think that people are still keeping these traditions alive.

Masako Fukui  17:50

What’s special about Cowra for you, as a kid growing up here and now an adult and working here?

Kelsey Sutor  18:00

Yeah. For me, what’s special about Cowra is it’s always been a town of about peace, about peacekeeping efforts and attempts. And it’s very, I guess, it’s very peaceful here. You know, you grew up there’s not a lot of noise, you know, and there’s a lot of history to reflect upon wherever you walk, wherever you drive down. There’s something to reflect upon in Cowra’s history. But also you make – you know, a lot of my family is still here, a lot of my friends are still here, and it’s, they’ve always got that connection. No matter where you go, you’ve got that connection back to home back to Cowra. And yeah.

Masako Fukui  18:44

So you don’t want to leave Cowra?

Kelsey Sutor  18:47

Maybe one day, but not right now.

Masako Fukui  18:51

Okay, that’s lovely. Thank you so much.

Kelsey Sutor  18:53

That’s all right.

Masako Fukui  18:57

So, the tree died?

Kelsey Sutor  19:01

Yeah, got hit by a drunk driver about –

Masako Fukui  19:05

Maybe we should include that?

Kelsey Sutor  19:09

Let’s just record it and see if we can.

Kelsey Sutor  19:14

So I think it was about 10 years ago now. A gentleman came to our front door. It was about eight o’clock, nine o’clock at night. And he had my plaque in his hand and the plaque of what he said was his grandson’s. And he had said a trunk driver had come along and hit both trees. So you know, they were immediately taken out of the ground, what was left of them. And he returned our plaque to us, which was really lovely. He didn’t have to go out of his way to do that. But I believe the plaques at the moment are with Council.

Masako Fukui  19:48

Are the trees going to be replanted?

Kelsey Sutor  19:50

Yes, I believe they have the plaques waiting for when they get the next shipment of trees, whenever that may be. When they first started planting the trees it was all cherry blossom trees. But then they discovered that crabapple trees do better in our climate. So they started planting them because they look very similar.

Kelsey Sutor  20:11

But I could touch on Sakura Avenue a little bit more if you like. So when I was studying art, I studied art at University in Wollongong. And for my very last major artwork, I had this sudden thought to be inspired by my very own backyard. So I did an artwork based on cherry trees. So I really was fascinated by the juxtaposition of – you grow up in a backyard so there’s memories, they’re all very happy, you know, you and your sister running around outside. Just up the road a little bit, the Prisoner of War Camp Breakout happened. So I was really fascinated by that juxtaposition of violence and peace, and history and you know, shared history and personal histories within the same space of a backyard. So I gathered a lot of my childhood objects, so Barbie dolls and anything we could find, my dad’s tools. My dad has a bullet casing that he found in the backyard one day, so we grabbed that. And I made 238 fabric, cherry blossoms and wrapped them around the objects. So this idea that we have a very happy childhood, and a very personal story about our backyard, but you can’t escape the fact that there’s this history attached to the location that you are in. So yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve explained that artwork. (Laughter)

Mayu Kanamori  21:42

Have you got a photo of that artwork?

Kelsey Sutor  21:44

I sure do, I can give you that one of them. Yeah. Yeah.

Mayu Kanamori  21:47

That would be great.

Masako Fukui  21:48

Does it have a title?

Kelsey Sutor  21:49

It was called ‘Death in the Backyard’, which is not a very pleasant title. But yeah, I was trying to touch on the happiness of our childhood versus the atrocities of, you know, the horrors of death and war, and what happens when you put these two things in the same location? Yeah.

Masako Fukui  22:12

Kelsey Sutor atmos take 2.


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