Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. Bob Griffiths was asked to speak about the Japanese Garden primarily, which is location number four on the app. 


This audio interview with Bob Griffiths was recorded on 18 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.

Bob Griffiths  00:30

My name is Bob Griffiths. I’m the Chairman of the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre. My background is that I came from Sydney back in 1984, with my family, did a tree change as they call it, and went into business in Cowra. And not long after that, I joined the Cowra Rotary Club, and a whole new world of Japan-Australia relationships opened up before me. Firstly, the Cowra Rotary Club has a sister Rotary Club in Inazawa in Nagoya. And we’ve had three or four visits to Japan, between the clubs, reciprocal visits. And in another project that Rotary is heavily involved in is the Seikei exchange program, which is a student exchange between Cowra High School and Seikei High School. It’s been going for 49 continuous years. Was started in 1970 by Mr Ab Oliver, the Mayor of Cowra at the time, and a Rotarian.

Bob Griffiths  01:38

The Cowra Rotary Club has a long history of involvement in the Cowra-Seikei student exchange program. Seikei is the High School in Kichijoji in Tokyo, and it is associated with a university complex. It’s quite a famous school in Tokyo. Indeed Prime Minister Abe is an old boy from Seikei High School. So we’ve had a long relationship there, and Rotary’s involvement is that Rotary through Ab Oliver, the then Mayor of Cowra in 1970, started that program. And ever since that day, a Rotarian has been the chairman of the exchange committee. And following my year as Rotary President in 1995, Mr Oliver invited me to take on the role as Chairman of that committee. And what is it 25 years later, I’m still there.

Bob Griffiths  02:36

My other involvement following that, as part of that, is that Ab Oliver also became involved with a Japanese choir by the name of Chor Farmer. That’s a choir made up of students and graduates of the Tokyo University of Agriculture. And Hiroshi Matsumoto started that choir way back in 19 in the late 1960s. And in 1977, came to Cowra as part of a goodwill tour of New Zealand and Australia. And they performed concerts in New Zealand. In those days, they used to do Melbourne, Adelaide, but always Cowra, and Cowra was their hometown. And it was as a result of the history that Cowra has with Japan through the – starting through the Breakout, of course, and then the War Cemetery, and then the Japanese Garden. So Chor Farmer became a very important part of the program. And I’ve been involved in organising the concerts and managing Chor Farmer in Cowra for the past 22 or 3 years.

Bob Griffiths  03:47

So as a result of the –  my connection with the Seikei exchange program, I was then exposed to the role of looking after Chor Farmer and that’s now been a period of close on 25 years. It’s a magnificent choir made up of graduates and students of the Tokyo University of Agriculture. They tour Australia and New Zealand every two years on a goodwill and friendship tour. And only this week, they were in Cowra in September, on their 21st visit to Cowra spanning a period of 42 years. And there’s still a handful of the original choir, including of course, Hiroshi Matsumoto and a handful of, as I say, a handful of those that have been coming right from the very start.

Bob Griffiths  04:42

At our concert last week, we had members of the audience who hosted the choir on the very first visit 42 years ago. And most of the students or the choir members are billeted out with Cowra families. And many of them have been with the same families for decades, which is just lovely to see. The concert was just marvellous. They’re truly, truly a great choir. The choir spent three nights in Cowra and on the last morning, they gather at the war cemeteries, and pay their respects in both cemeteries. They lay wreaths and they gather and they sing a choral tribute in each of the cemeteries, both the Japanese and the Australian. And there is nothing more beautiful than a lovely sunny morning, nine o’clock in the morning with just the birds overhead. No music, just a beautiful 30-man, male voice choir. There were tears everywhere as we waved goodbye to them, they got on their bus and back to Tokyo.

Mayu Kanamori  05:52

Unless you have something you want to add, we should talk about the Garden.

Bob Griffiths  05:57

Well, the only thing was the Seikei program, the Seikei Exchange Program is now in its 49th continuous year. And next year, we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of that wonderful program. I’ve been fortunate enough to go to Japan for the 30th anniversary celebrations and the 40th anniversary celebrations. And I expect to be going in 2020 for the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Masako Fukui  06:24

Just going back – to so, because you’ve been appointed to speak about the Gardens. So could we ask you about your – how you got involved in the Japanese Garden.

Bob Griffiths  06:34

I was invited to a  – the Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre Limited is a community owned company. It’s a not for profit organisation. And it’s made up of a board of directors that consists of representatives of Cowra Tourism, the Cowra Council, with New South Wales Government, The Japanese Garden Maintenance Foundation, which is a fund set up by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and three community based members, generally businessmen or people in the community that have been involved in Japanese affairs. And I was invited about five years ago to come on the board, given my business background in town, but also my connection in various Japanese activities. So here I am. And a short while later, Mr Kibbler, who was then the Chairman and has been a long standing chairman of the committee stood down a couple of years ago through ill health, he’s still on the board, but stood down as Chairman. And I assumed that role.

Masako Fukui  07:43

Can you just go back a little bit then to tell us how the Garden came to be? Perhaps Don Kibbler’s role in that.

Bob Griffiths  07:50

Well, the Cowra Japanese Garden was an idea that was formed amongst a group of members of Cowra Tourism back in the very early 1970s. And those people certainly included Don Kibbler, Ab Oliver, who was Mayor of Cowra just prior to that, and quite a group, a solid group of people that had been involved in both the setting up of the War Cemetery, and we’re really keen to try and do something to develop and build on that special relationship we have with Japan. And there was a hard grouping, a hard working group of people, led by Don Kibbler, and Ab and Gordon Austin and quite a lot of people that were involved in those early days. And it took a long time, it took several years of planning before the first sod was turned, and before the community was convinced that it was a good idea. 

Bob Griffiths  09:00

And it was 1977 in fact, when the first stage was open, so it was a period of probably four or five years from when the idea was first conceived. And at the time, to be honest, no one dreamt that it would ever end up where it has today being the pinnacle, the the number one point of reconciliation and an example if I should say, the best example you could see in Australia, as far as I’m concerned of reconciliation between Australia and Japan. It tied in the whole story that we have in Japan of the Breakout, the War Cemetery, the exchange program, the Chor Farmer choir and the Garden. Just that total package of peace and reconciliation. And there’s some wonderful  examples in the Garden of, of the reconciliation aspect.

Bob Griffiths  10:00

For example, there’s an enormous amount of effort put into building the lovely waterfalls and whatever in the Garden. Now the rock, the limestone rock that was bought in to build those waterfalls is not natural for this particular location. All the other rocks, these magnificent boulders and rocks are exactly as they were, as nature put them. But they had to build, bring in to make the artificial waterfalls so they bought the limestone in from a property nearby. And that limestone was donated, the family that owned that property, was donated the Dunhill family, their relative who lived on that property was one of the Australian soldiers who perished on the infamous Sandakan Death March, as it’s known, when thousands of Australian prisoners perished at the hands, of course of the Japanese soldiers. And yet that family, saw fit in the 1980s, in fact, 1970s, so soon relatively after the war, as an act of reconciliation, to donate the limestone, the limestone to build those waterfalls in a Japanese garden. And that’s, that’s pretty special.

Bob Griffiths  11:23

The other important aspect of the Garden when it comes to peace and reconciliation was the love and respect that Ken Nakajima put into the design of the Garden. Ken Nakajima was the landscape architect who designed, and was commissioned to build this Garden. When the committee in Cowra decided to go ahead, they sought advice from the Ambassador in Canberra, who recommended three landscape, Japanese landscape gardener’s names, and Ken Nakajima’s name and company was selected. Ken came out and was shown the sites that we were looking at, and was blown away to be frank when he saw that hill with those lovely boulders. He’d never seen rocks, anything like that. He instantly knew that’s where he had to build his garden. And he said about to do that.

Bob Griffiths  12:28

Ken is quite famous. He has built gardens all around the world, Montreal, Moscow, the world famous Japanese gardens. But he said he would never ever build a better garden than the one at Cowra. And we believe him and we know it’s right, because when he died in 2000, his family brought his ashes out here, and there in the Garden at the base of Yogaseki, that big, big flat rock at the top of the hill. And he’s there looking out over his pride and joy.

Bob Griffiths  13:03

Ken Nakajima selected the site in Cowra because of the particular significance of the rocks, and in particular, the two rocks that stand out. When you stand at any point in the Garden and look back to the hill, you’ll see there’s two magnificent rocks.

Bob Griffiths  13:22

Whenever you stand in the Garden – from wherever you stand, you’ll see those two very significant rocks, the large pointy one Shugoseki is a deity rock that Ken Nakajima saw as the rock that holds the Garden together. And he stated that when he saw it, it was if, that rock, which had been there for thousands of years, was just waiting for someone to come and build a garden, and it had to be built there. The other rock, the big flat rock Yogoseki is the guardian deity where the gods descended from their heaven. And that rock, too, Ken said, is the place where the Australian and Japanese deceased soldiers can also descend from the heaven. So it’s a very special place. And as I said earlier, when Ken Nakajima died, his family brought his ashes out here, and they’re at the base of that Yogoseki, that guardian deity.

Masako Fukui  14:26

Beautiful thank you. What’s your favourite place? And if you’re not answering the question of saying my favourite places or the place I like to go to or whatever – 

Bob Griffiths  14:38

The place I love to go to in the Garden always, is the top of the mountain, up – standing between the two deity rocks, looking out over the beautiful expanse of the Garden. The Garden layout, the mountain stream going down to the mountain lake, and then the river going down to the sea, and all the rolling hills in between, and then out beyond, over the tops of the pine trees, the extended view, the beautiful view of the Cowra Lachlan Valley. The borrowed view as Ken Nakajima would call it. My favourite spot by a longshot.

Masako Fukui  15:21

What do you do there?

Bob Griffiths  15:23

You just sit. When I go there, I just sit and contemplate and just look. And I think of all the meaning that Ken saw in that Garden. Those magnificent gum trees, hundreds of years old. Ken insisted when he built the Garden, the gum trees should stay. There are no gum trees and Japanese gardens overseas. But Ken Nakajima insisted they should stay, because he saw those gum trees as representing the spirits of the Australian soldiers, and the magnificent rocks as representing the spirits of the Japanese soldiers. So when you sit there and you look out over that lawn, there’s beautiful landscaped hills, with the water running down the waterfall, the spring seemingly coming out of nowhere, creating life, rebirth. That’s how he, Ken saw it, and I just love to sit up there and enjoy that. And I love talking to people that I run into up there as well. Whenever I see people up there or sit and chat with them, tell them the story. And point out where Ken Nakajima’s ashes lay. And that really adds to the moment for those people.

Masako Fukui  16:49

That’s lovely, thank you. I have to go there – 

Bob Griffiths  16:52

You should go there.

Masako Fukui  16:53

Oh we will. But we want to take some sound recordings.

Bob Griffiths  16:57


Masako Fukui  16:59

The seasons, because it’s a really special thing for the Japanese. Is there a sense of the seasons here?

Bob Griffiths  17:06

The seasons are very special and very meaningful of course, in Japan. Sakura time is the rebirth, the new season. And just looking out on the Garden at this time of year, I anxiously await the first blossoms. And as we await our Sakura Matsuri next weekend, I notice the blossoms are just poking out just on time. So with all being well we’ll have a great show next Saturday. But the seasons here are much different to Japan of course.

Bob Griffiths  17:43

We have much harsher summers, that’s the main significance. So, it is a little more difficult, the gardening challenge here. But nonetheless, we have beautiful colours all year round. We have the lovely pink blossoms of spring. But we have some magnificent greens and reds throughout the autumn as well. And even winter. Whilst there’s not many flowers about some azaleas and a few others, there’s always something different. It changes all the time. And the magnificent light in the Garden, it’s beautifully positioned. The concept of the mountain, the river – the mountain, the mountain stream, the mountain lake, the river, the sea. It flows from east to west, just as exactly as it does in Japan from Mount Fuji out to the West. It’s exactly a representation of, and meant to be a representation of the Japanese landscape. It’s a true strolling Japanese garden. You won’t find red bridges, you won’t find bright red flowers or bright blue flowers. Everything is nice and sedate as Ken Nakajima planned it, and less some pretty clear instructions on how we were to maintain, and in fact his words were, maintain not change.

Mayu Kanamori  19:13

I think you know when you first started talking about the seasons, you said sakura, which we understood. Can you just say sakura or cherry blossoms?

Bob Griffiths  19:28

Yeah, yeah, sorry, yeah. Our most important season, the one we look forward to, is springtime which is our Sakura, cherry blossom time. And we hold an annual Cherry Blossom Festival, Sakura Matsuri. It is very popular. And we are very anxious every year to make sure, or hopefully that the blossoms arrive on time. Otherwise there’d be a lot of disappointed people. But generally speaking, we do and one of the challenges of gardening is that the seasons are changing and blossoms are not always coming as you expect them.

Mayu Kanamori  20:07

Wonderful. Thank you for that.

Masako Fukui  20:13

So, people come from all over the world to experience the Japanese Gardens, what are some things that you want people to take away? You know, that signifies, is symbolic of this Japan-Australia relationship that you’ve talked about?

Bob Griffiths  20:34

The main thing that I would like to see visitors to the Garden take away, and particularly those visitors from overseas, from Japan, is a sense of understanding the extent of the true spirit of reconciliation that does exist in Cowra. Cowra, from what I can see, leads Australia in that area. Before I came to Cowra, to be honest, I hadn’t thought much of it hadn’t been exposed to it. But since coming here, I’ve been exposed to the whole range of activities. I’ve made many, many friends in all aspects both in business, through the Embassy, the Consulate, through touring school groups, through Inazawa Rotary Club, the list goes on and on of all the contacts that you make. And at the end of the day, in my time in Cowra we’ve made numerous Japanese friends and we have some wonderful friendships and relationships. In my four trips to Japan, we’ve enjoyed wonderful homestay accommodation with members of Inazawa Rotary Club. We’ve become like grandparents to some of their children. And likewise, we’ve hosted them back here.

Bob Griffiths  22:07

Similarly with Chor Farmer choir, we again renew our friendships every two years, exchange greetings throughout. It’s just like one continuous family and there’s lots of tears every time we say goodbye. The student exchange program, many of the former students who are now involved in running the program in Japan, come regularly to Cowra and have stayed in our home. The friendships are just wonderful and the appreciation that is shown by the visitors – their understanding of the reconciliation efforts of the people of Cowra and their joy that they show and their thanks that they show for it is really rewarding.

Masako Fukui  23:05

You know, at the beginning you said something about you know, because you can here, came from Sydney to Cowra – why do you think Cowra people do this? Like what’s your explanation for why a little country town like Cowra has made this effort?

Bob Griffiths  23:28

It’s very hard to explain how we got to the point where we are today. My feeling is that the most important aspect was probably the actions of the members of the Cowra RSL, who when tending their graves of their fallen comrades in the Australian War Cemetery, looked over the fence so to speak, and said these guys were just soldiers just like us. Their graves need to be tended and looked after, they were just doing their job. And as a result of their actions in starting to maintain those graves, that in time developed into the establishment of the War Cemetery, which is the only Japanese War Cemetery in the world. There are no others. And that’s a very significant point. And the Cowra community, whilst probably not all on board in the early days, I would think not, were indeed, eventually came around to realise that, hey, you feel pretty good when you do this. You get this return love and respect.

Bob Griffiths  24:53

And the more and more we became exposed to all these young people visiting us, we’ve had 49 different students come to live in our town for 12 months, over the last 50 years. We’ve had these 40 members of the choir come every two years and stay in our homes. All that rubs off, we all become part of that program, whether we try to or not, we become involved in it, anyone that goes to the Cowra High School, spends time with a Japanese student, have done for the last 50 years. All those things, and those kids go out and play in the local sporting teams. So they become involved. They make other friendships outside of the school. So we have many of our host families who have gone back to Japan, to attend weddings, from students that they hosted as their host daughter or son, when they were spending 12 months living with them in Australia. So there’s beautiful stories like that, and you can’t help but get involved. And, you know, in one of my visits overseas to Japan, I saw examples of it on the other side. So it’s the feeling is mutual and the – I’m getting a bit tongue tied, but you just can’t help getting involved in, and caught up in the emotion of it because it is very special. And anybody that went to the farewell, the Chor Farmer’s farewell, the other day where they were singing in that cemetery, there were tears everywhere. It was just special.

Masako Fukui 26:50

That’s lovely, thank you. Did you have things to ask?

Mayu Kanamori  26:53

Yeah. So you mentioned that how moving that was. And I’m just, I find the whole Cowra story very moving but you’re the first person that we’ve interviewed that used the word ‘moving’.  And I’m like, I just find the Gardens, you know, moving. And I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how you find this, is it moving for you?

Bob Griffiths  27:24

Oh, certainly is, yeah, it’s moving. It’s very moving for me, more because of the close personal contact that my wife and I have with many people in Chor Farmer and Seikei in particular, those, and in Inazawa. We’ve stayed in each other’s homes and every – in each of those situations. And we regularly, you know, get together, socialise whenever we’re in each other’s country. So it’s more of a personal side, I guess, in my case. But having said that, I still get the little tear in the eye when I watch the Chor Farmer stand and kneel, one by one every choir member went to each of those five Australian soldier’s graves. Every one of them kneeled, and every one of them placed a flower, you know. If you don’t get a tear watching that, boy, you’re hard, I reckon.

Bob Griffiths  28:32

You know, I can remember going a few years ago to Joetsu City, where there was an Australian prisoner of war camp in Joetsu City. So Australian prisoners captured by the Japanese. And there were some pretty horrific things happen in that prison camp. And lots of Australians perished. Because in the cold winter, they had no shoes and clothing, all that sort of thing. At the end of the war, there was war crimes trials. And there were five guards I think executed as a result of war crimes, because of their treatment, or might have been more might have been six, seven, eight guards executed. And I was over there not long after a new Peace Park had been opened in Joetsu City. And there was a delegation of Australian ex-prisoners who’d gone over for the opening of this Peace Park and museum. And here I saw a photograph of an Australian ex-prisoner embracing the widow of one of the executed guards. And I said, wow, that’s reconciliation on her part. On the Japanese person’s, lady’s part. She’d lost her husband. And here she is embracing an Australian prisoner. It was the opposite to what we see out here. And that’s when the penny dropped that, hey, this applies both ways. It’s not the victors and the – you know, it’s both ways.

Masako Fukui  30:26

Do you think you would have come to these realisations if you hadn’t come to Cowra?

Bob Griffiths  30:33

It’s most likely that I’d still be working away in Sydney oblivious to the whole Japan story other than what I’d pick up on the newspapers. And highly unlikely that I would have known very much about the Breakout, or in fact, the extent of Cowra’s involvement in reconciliation. I certainly wouldn’t have known and I’m sure not many people in Sydney would know that there’s been an exchange program going for 50 years, it’s the longest running exchange program between Australia and Japan. No one in Sydney would know that. It’s sad, but they wouldn’t.

Masako Fukui  31:14

So how do you think Cowra has changed as a result of all this peace and reconciliation initiatives?

Bob Griffiths  31:21

Well, there’s no doubt that it’s been of great benefit to Cowra in many ways. The obvious one, of course, is the harsh reality of economics, the fact that we, you know, it brings people to Cowra in a tourism sense. But I don’t see that as the main thing. The main thing that I see is the gains that humanity has made from this connection, you know. The story, the peace, the reconciliation story, and, you know when the Chor Farmer were here last week, and they make their speech at the end of the concert, it’s all about peace, and reconciliation, and about making sure those terrible events never happen again. That’s what it’s all about.

Bob Griffiths  32:16

And when you see people like that, giving up 40 years of their life, they’ve been doing these tools at their own expense, to promote that ideal. You soon realise that, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about economic benefit to the town. Sure, the Garden’s great, it’s a great attraction in its own right, it’s a beautiful garden. And lots of Australian tourists come here without knowing the full background. But by the time they leave, they know it, which is great. But they don’t all know when they arrive, they come because they’re told it’s a lovely garden. But you know, quite often they come thinking that the Garden was perhaps where the prison was, or those sorts of misconceptions, But they they often come with a little bit of info. Our job is to make sure they go away with a lot. And that’s what we try and do.

Masako Fukui  33:17

Which is what? I think I asked this question before, but I’m gonna ask again. Coming to the Garden, what do you want people to take away?

Bob Griffiths  33:29

Well, I want them to take away a sense of, well, two things. One is I want them to take away a little bit of Japan, I want them to say –

Masako Fukui 33:37

Actually , would you mind saying –

Mayu Kanamori  33:36

When they come into the Garden – when people come into the Garden – 

Bob Griffiths  33:44

When people come into the Garden, I’d like them to go away, taking a little bit of Japan with them. I want them to know that, hey, we’ve got one of the best Japanese gardens in the world. Better than many in Japan I might say. We have got a beautiful Japanese garden, and I’d like people to understand and appreciate that. But I’d also like them to take away the message that this Garden demonstrates. It is the symbol in Cowra of peace and reconciliation. And we’ve got the War Cemetery and we’ve got the Prison site, the memorial sites. But the thing that ties it all together, and brings people from all over Australia and around the world is the Japanese Garden.

Masako Fukui  34:34

Is there like a memory for you, that’s very special, that might resonate, you know?

Bob Griffiths 34.44

For the Garden? 

Masako Fukui  34:46

The Garden or just Cowra peace and reconciliation, something for you that tells a story or you know, an event, some moment – 

Bob Griffiths  35:05

One of the, one of the joys I have here is –  in Cowra when Chor Farmer visit, and the farewell at the Cemetery. Not only do they go into the Australian and Japanese War Cemeteries and sing, they then go off into the general cemetery. And they go and visit six or eight graves of everybody that’s ever helped them in the 40 odd years they’ve been in Cowra. The likes of Ab Oliver, the Mayor, Don Thomas, Dr Warren Whiley, who, with his wife, Jean hosted the first concerts here. Marion Starr, who lost her husband during the Second World War, who they’ve had great friendship over the years and was one of their organisers and promoters. They never forget anybody. And that, to me, I find amazing, and to me is really special. And it’s just a personal thing though. It’s – yeah. 

Masako Fukui  36:24

That’s great, thank you so much.



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