Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. Belinda Virgo was asked to speak about the Entrance to the Japanese War Cemetery primarily, which is location number eight on the app. 


This audio interview with Belinda Virgo was recorded on 19 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.

Belinda Virgo 0:30

Hello, my name is Belinda Virgo, and I’m the Manager down at the Cowra Visitor Information Centre. So standing here at the entrance to the Australian and the Japanese War Cemeteries, you can see what a beautifully designed space it is. Looking up above you, you can see the gorgeous avenue of flowering trees that in springtime, without a doubt, the most beautiful blossoming trees that we have in Cowra, and also arguably the most photographed as well. So springtime is certainly a time that lots of people like to visit and, and take some photos of such a gorgeous space, whilst they’re of course, paying their respects.

Belinda Virgo 1:15

Now, this space to me is really where the reconciliation story of Cowra began, of course, as we know, with the RSL sub-branch back in the day after World War II, maintaining the graves of the Japanese soldiers. It really is where the whole story started, of course, and the beginning of the understanding that went beyond the actual – perhaps that went against the social norm at the time and what was expected. And I often reflect on the actions of those men, that started the story that we continue to tell today.

Belinda Virgo 1:54

So the story, it’s a story of understanding, it’s a story of reconciliation, and it really is a story of humanity. So, back after World War II, the members of the Cowra RSL sub-branch maintained the war graves of the Japanese soldiers, which from my understanding, certainly went against what was socially acceptable, perhaps, during that time. And that was really, in terms of the whole Cowra story, and the POW Breakout, and our war history, the beginning of the Cowra Peace Precinct and the story that we continue to share with people today.

Belinda Virgo 2:43

So standing here at the entrance, my eyes are always drawn to the actual entrance to the Japanese War Cemetery, which was designed back in 1964, by a Shigeru Yura. And it’s interesting to learn that the entrance itself was designed very strategically, oh my gosh, that’s wrong –  the entrance itself was designed strategically to allow the visitor to make a conscious decision to actually enter through to the Japanese War Cemetery. So back in 1964, the design took into account the social sensitivity that was around the Japanese soldiers after World War II. And if you have a look, and you see the sharp turn in the concrete path after the official entryway, you can see that he designed it to allow the visitors to make a conscious decision to enter that space, which I find fascinating.

Belinda Virgo 3:47

And you know, the entrance for how it’s real sharp, and then this way. And not only that, they actually used to be a wall of trees that sort of divided the Australian War Cemeteries in the Japanese War Cemetery. And that wall of trees meant that when you were standing here at the entrance you couldn’t actually see through, so it was a very private space. However, about five years ago, on Boxing Day, there was a huge storm that came through, and that wall of trees was knocked down. And I think how symbolic and that’s what I just think is a beautiful story that around five years ago, that wall came down through natural through cause –  came down, which is really quite symbolic of the continued understanding and reconciliation between Cowra and Japan.

Masako Fukui 4:44

Lovely –

Belinda Virgo 4:45

I didn’t know that either. I mean, I knew about the storm, but to then be there with Lawrence and for me to make that connection, you know what I mean? Like it’s just beautiful. Yeah, it really is gorgeous. Yeah, so I don’t know how this goes with chopping and changing and what have you, but the actual entrance itself, with these flowering blossom trees, it wasn’t always this way. The area itself was rejuvenated in – oh it was 1994. At which time these stunning blossom trees were all planted, which gave perhaps more fitting entryway to such a special place in Cowra.

Masako Fukui 05:29

Do you want to just go back to the turning right? When you heard that, like, what, how did you feel like what’s significant?

Belinda Virgo 05:39

Well, for me, I can’t imagine needing to make a decision to walk through there, you know, I come from a different time and a different generation. But I reflect on conversations that I had with my grandmother when she was still alive, and some of the comments that she used to make about her reconciliation, her reconciliation –  haven’t got the right word –  I reflect on conversations that I used to have with my grandmother where she would share with me her views on the Japanese even after the war, and I found it – at the time, I would be very uncomfortable with some of the things that she would say. And about the way that she felt after the war. But I also respect that it’s not my story, it’s hers. But I feel the same way, when I hear about the design of that entryway, I don’t understand how those people perhaps felt back then. So I, so I respect their views, and the way things were back then. It’s just completely different now, of course, I just find it fascinating that there was a design put in place to allow people to make a decision to walk into a space, where people deserve respect, and to be remembered, regardless of race or war. That was a different time.

Masako Fukui 7:08 

Lovely –

Belinda Virgo 7:12

Is that weird? I’m so conscious of not being – I don’t know.

Masako Fukui 7:17

Hold on a sec – is that a drone?

Belinda Virgo 7:21

Now that sounds like a whipper snipper.

Masako Fukui 7:25

Yeah, just let that go, it’s quite bad.

Belinda Virgo  07:29

You know what, all the key points really. The only, I suppose the only other comment I could make was just be, you know, in my experience of face to face interaction with all of our visitors to Cowra, the overwhelming response we have from the visitors that come to town that are moved by the story, learning about the story. Whether or not their experience is initially watching our little hologram at the Visitor Centre as an introduction, and then going up to the POW Breakout site in the War Cemetery and the Peace Precinct at large. And just constantly fielding comments from our visitors about their gratitude to be able to learn about the story. And there’s so much respect that comes across. And it’s constant, you know, it’s a constant flow of visitors that are learning the story, and of a certain demographic as well. There’s lots and lots  of travellers roaming around the countryside in their caravans and, you know, they’re looking for stories and to unearth, you know, different –  our history, our heritage, and they stumble across Cowra. And they, they literally stumble across this story. And it’s moving it to see the response.

Masako Fukui 8:55

Were you born and bred in Cowra?

Belinda Virgo 8:57

No, no, no, I’ve been in Cowra for seven years. So I was born in Sydney. So I’m a Sydney girl and been in the country now for seven years.

Masako Fukui  09:09

When you learnt about the Cowra story, what was your initial reaction? You know, how did you feel when you heard about the story?

Belinda Virgo 09:20

Probably much like our visitors to town. I didn’t know much about it at all. In fact, before I came to Cowra I didn’t even know about the Japanese Garden. My interview was at the Japanese garden for the job, and I asked how did I get there?  (laughter) So I’m sure they thought what are we getting ourselves into here? It was a steep learning curve for me. Yeah. And how did I feel? I was shocked. I was shocked, really that this had happened. That this story took place three hours from my home. And that I’d really never heard about it before.

Masako Fukui 9:53

When you say this story, do you mean the Cowra Breakout?

Belinda Virgo 9:54


Masako Fukui 9:55

Can you say that again? You’re shocked. I’m shocked that – Cowra Breakout.

Belinda Virgo 10:01

I was shocked that I wasn’t aware that this story of the Cowra Breakout happened literally three hours from where I was brought up.

Masako Fukui 10:12

Shocked in what way, because it was violent?

Belinda Virgo 10:15

Yes, yes, it was violent, and the act of the Breakout and what happened that night. It’s a violent story. And it’s an incredibly sad story.

Masako Fukui 10:29

So the peace efforts of Cowra, tell us a little bit about that, you know, how you have– if you were to narrate that peace and reconciliation story to me through the app, I’ve never been here before, how would you narrate it? I’m sure it would be different from someone like Tony Mooney, you’re new here?

Belinda Virgo 10:50 

Yes, so for me, I suppose, Cowra’s peace – the reconciliation story of Cowra, I think is driven by the people that live here. There’s people here that are so passionate about continuing that education and continuing that relationship between Cowra and Japan. Perhaps as a responsibility, I’m not sure that has been sort of passed down through the generations of people that have Cowra running through their blood. You know what I’m saying? Because it’s in their hearts, to continue that relationship and continue telling that story. So I feel it’s deeply embedded within them.

Masako Fukui 11:38

Is it in your heart now too do you think?

Belinda Virgo 11:41 

Oh, it always will be? Definitely, yeah.

Masako Fukui 11:45 

In what way, like,how does it manifest? You know, how has that Cowra story changed you? As a mother, as a worker, being in Cowra?

Belinda Virgo 11:59

How has it changed me – this is really early for such a question.

Masako Fukui 12:03

It’s a hard question but you can do it.

Belinda Virgo 12:06

(Laughter) I like your support. Oh, gosh, I don’t want to say this, because it’s probably not appropriate for the app. But I’ll say it anyway, you can do what you want with it. As somebody that’s never really had an interest or a passion in history, or heritage growing up, and as you get older, you start to have an appreciation of learning and telling these stories. Coming to Cowra, was the perfect time for me in my mid 30s. To move to a place that had such a significant story to tell. And whilst I’m not a local historian, and I never will be, I have deep respect for the people that are. And I have enjoyed working alongside those people to share the story with our visitors to Cowra.

Masako Fukui 13:15

Do you think like, you know, Cowra’s a small place, not many people know about it. Not many people know this story. What’s the significance of what’s going on here, that peace and reconciliation, the passion people have to all of us Australia, like, you know, do you know what I’m saying –

Belinda Virgo 13:34

I do. I mean, I think I know what you’re saying. In terms of what’s happened here and Cowra and the reconciliation and the understanding, which was really well before its time, perhaps the rest of the world could learn quite a lot from what Cowra citizens and the community have done in terms of rebuilding the relationship with the people of Japan. Gosh, wouldn’t it be amazing if these circumstances replicated across the world?

Masako Fukui 14:04

What do you think Cowra’s been able to do it though?

Belinda Virgo 14:08

I think Cowra’s been able to do it because Cowra’s a genuinely – Cowra’s a country town that’s welcoming –  that –  it takes the story, you know – a deeply embedded respect for the story. And, and – well, I mean – really, I reflect on the RSL sub branch. They started it. They started that whole process by maintaining that space. And then it flowed on –  by individuals following that same path, you know, you’ve got individuals that were behind the Japanese Garden. That  was their life’s, you know, I wouldn’t say life’s work, because that’s not fair for me to say. But, I think it’s a combination of the community wanting to continue to tell the story, and individuals that were passionate about driving it, and about building that infrastructure and creating those spaces. To the point that we’ve got the Cowra Peace Precinct today, and then Council. I mean, clearly, they play an incredibly important part in continuing to maintain those spaces and to develop the Peace Precinct.

Mayu Kanamori 15:43

Yeah, so I just wanted to know if you could enlighten us on what it means to, for community to look after graves of other people.

Belinda Virgo 15:55

So when you ask that question, I reflect on a conversation that I did have with Lawrence, talking about when those graves were maintained after World War II by the RSL sub-branch. And when quizzed about those actions, the response is that, well, it’s just the right thing to do. So it’s the right thing to do. And the Cowra community has maintained those graves, because –  I mean, I don’t know what other way to say it, other than it is the right thing to do. It’s humanitarian. It’s respect, especially now that so much time has passed. I can’t really delve into any other feelings other than just saying, I just think it’s just human. It’s the right thing to do. At the end of the day, I’m just sorry, I can’t be more in depth.

Masako Fukui 16:51

Do you have any sort of stories about either, it doesn’t matter, it has to be the graves. But about the Peace Precinct, perhaps something maybe surprising reaction from one of the tourists or something that you’ve done with your kids or your family, or something that kind of speaks to this, what you’re telling us about the whole peace story of Cowra? Like –

Belinda Virgo 17:20

I mean, I’ve been witness to people coming back to visit the War Cemeteries, the Japanese War Cemetery, and the Australian War Cemeteries obviously on occasions, all the official occasions. I suppose for me, there’s been stories that, you know, individuals that have come back to –  I don’t know whether or not I can –  I want to get this right. See, I don’t have the names so I can’t, I don’t feel like I can say it. But I don’t have personal accounts. But I’ve heard stories about people that have come back to where their relatives are buried, and brought items like for example, you know, I’m sure it was Don Kibbler, who told us a story about a family that came back to Cowra to visit their relative, who was buried in the Japanese War Cemetery. And the wife of the fallen soldier had a lock of hair that she wanted to bury there next to the grave. And she wanted to know whether or not she had permission to do this. And this gentleman had said, well, consider this your permission, of course, please go ahead. And there she went and buried that little lock of hair next to her husband’s grave. And there’s stories along those lines, where they’re not my personal account, because it’s not my story.

Belinda Virgo 19:01

But witnessing and hearing stories like this, I mean, there must be hundreds of these stories along those lines of people that have come back or that people have got those personal connections to what happened here in Cowra. Well, it’s a physical connection. And you know, because until people come here and you see their connection with their relatives that are laid to rest here, it’s just a story, you know. But when you see that connection between their family members and their story comes to life.

Masako Fukui 19:43

That’s great, thank you. (Unintelligible).Is there anything you’d like to say about the other stops, places to visit? Because we’re asking people not just to talk about their –  because we’re going to interweave all their voices together. So well like, what’s your favourite spot or –

Belinda Virgo 20:14

Now obviously, there’s the obvious one, the Japanese Garden, and et cetera. The Garrison Walk in that area, that scenic view over Cowra and looking down onto the POW Camp and weaving around where perhaps it was the electrical huts and the administration side of the Camp. I think that’s quite a peaceful place. And I enjoy going up there with my family, taking walks and reflecting, I always reflect on what happened every single time I go up there, you sort of look over that space, and it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been. That is the space that the story Cowra’s – yeah, the POW story and, and it’s just got a beautiful vista looking over the landscape. With of course, right in front of you the POW Camp, which –  timeless in terms of that empty space and what went on there. And just the relics and the sort of the old electrical hut and the old sort of foundations, and the glimpses of the time gone by.

Mayu Kanamori 21:30

Do you have children?

Belinda Virgo 21:31

I do.

Mayu Kanamori 21:32

And they were born in Cowra?

Belinda Virgo 21:33


Mayu Kanamori 21:35

And you’re raising them in Cowra – Yeah. Tell me about – you know, what? What they are – you’re from Sydney, but you have Cowra children. How are they going to carry on the story into the future? How has the peace (unintelligible).

Masako Fukui 21:54

They’re only little –

Belinda Virgo 21:55

Yeah, there are only very, very little, two and four. So that’s not something that, you know, we’ve discussed, you know. I can’t even take my little four year old to watch the hologram, just yet. (Laughter). But I have all intentions of making sure that obviously, that they’re aware of and that they appreciate and that they have a full understanding of Cowra’s reconciliation story, by all means. And it’ll be interesting to see whether or not growing up in Cowra, that story becomes part  – that story will become part of them. Just like I believe it has for the people who have been born here and grown up here as well.

Mayu Kanamori 22:42

Can you just say I have two children, because – can you just say I have two children who are born in Cowra –

Belinda Virgo 22:50

I have two children that are born in Cowra.

Masako Fukui 22:56

Is the story a part of you do you think, the Cowra story?

Belinda Virgo 22:59

It is now, yes, the Cowra story is part of me now.

Masako Fukui 23:04

In what sense?

Belinda Virgo 23:06

Well, gosh, probably because I’ve told it over and over. (Laughter) The story is part of me now because I’m part of this community. And I have been now for seven years. And it’s my job to tell the Cowra story. But it’s also now – Sorry.

Belinda Virgo 23:29

So, yes, the Cowra story. My job is to tell the Cowra story. But having been a community member here now for seven years and embracing the Cowra community, it’s now part of me as well. I live it. So I’ve been living this story now for seven years I’ve been living in this community. I’ve been sharing this story now for seven years. It opened my eyes and I think anyone will be changed by that. So it’s part of who I am.

Masako Fukui  24:05

That’s great. Thank you. Okay. Can I ask you to just be quiet for like 15 seconds. Is that okay.



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