Commemorative address for the 75th anniversary of the Cowra breakout

The Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson AO
Director of the Australian War Memorial

4 August 2019

It is to the young whom I speak.

I’m 60 years of age now and I’ve come to learn that you don’t realise what you’re learning when you’re learning it.

And the most significant ideas, concepts, and events that most shape and transform…and challenge your thinking and attitude…often come in random moments of quiet revelation when you really don’t expect you’re going to learn a great deal at all.

And the power is in the story.

Thousands of years of happy reign be thine;
Rule on, my lord,
till what are pebbles now
by age into mighty rocks will grow
whose venerable sides the moss doth line

Kimigayo – the ancient poem which is the foundation of the Japanese national anthem.

Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free.

The first line of the Australian national anthem.

Those two anthems reflect a deep difference in culture, in history, in meaning to our two peoples.

The great paradox of life itself is that it’s often those things that are most important to us in our lives, human beings that we are, we have a tendency to take things for granted

…the magic…the vitality of youth…you don’t really appreciate it until it’s gone…forever.

Families who love us give meaning, support and context to our lives.

The transformative power of even a small amount of education.

To live as we do today, modern Australians and Japanese, in countries that give us political, economic and religious freedoms.

We live in societies where faith coexists with reason; free academic inquiry, an independent judiciary and a free press.

We don’t think about it much but what makes us Australians – what makes us Japanese – is not our constitution or our democracy, in our case given to us by the British, as important as they clearly are…

It is our values, our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world.

We are shaped most by our triumphs, our failures, our heroes - those who we choose to honour, our villains…the ways we as a people have been shaped, transformed and changed by adversity.

…And how we will endure the inevitable adversities that are coming, and respond to emerging, unseen and threatening horizons.

The most important year in this country, is 1788.

The British first fleet arrived, devastating millennia of rich aboriginal history, custodianship and culture.

But from that event and everything that would follow, the origins of the Australia we are and the people we have become.

The next most important year was 1942.

And it was in that year that the American-born English poet T.S Elliot wrote:

A People without history is not redeemed from time
for history is a pattern of endless moments

The events that bring us here this weekend, and this evening, changed us. They shaped and changed Australia and Japan.

They played a significant role in making us the people that we now are. And the nations that we have become.

The most devastating, damaging conflict and cataclysm that human-kind has ever known is the Second World War.

Sixty million lives lost. Including six million Jews murdered in the holocaust. A life was extinguished every three seconds.

And yet for Australia, for Japan, for every country that was involved…the world had changed. It would never be the same again. Human-kind had moved to a new age.

It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for headlines, broad-brushstrokes, popular imagery and mythology of our history.

Our comfortable lives that we now live bread easy indifference to individual sacrifices made in our name, devotion to duty and to our respective countries.

In 458BC, in Armageddon, the Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote:

In our sleep, a pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.

When Mr Hagime sounded that bugle on 1.50am on 5 August, he would unleash not only a series of tragic events…but a chain of events that which in the longer term would see Australia and Japan reveal our respective character.

One-thousand-one hundred-and -four Japanese Prisoners of War, here in Cowra, broke out. One-hundred-and-thirty-eight stayed in their huts. Huts were burned and they ran head long into machine-gun and rifle fire.

They threw coats and mattresses onto the barbed wire…and many died on the wire.  Some took their own lives and others asked their own Japanese, fellow prisoners-of-war, to take their lives for them.

We know that four Australians were killed. Ben Hardy and Ralph Jones firing those two Vickers machine-guns…realising that they were going to be overrun…with great courage …disarmed those machine-guns knowing they would be killed. In doing so, they knew that machine-guns would not be subsequently turned on the Australian soldiers. Both were posthumously awarded the George Cross.

And as we’re also reminded, the Japanese soldiers were adamant that no Australian civilians would be injured. And we understand that this was most certainly the case.

And the power is in the story.

Mr Murakami was here in 2013 and he said this:

I never imagined I would ever see Japan again. When I finally got home my family said a ghost had returned from the war. 

When he was asked why, despite the relative good treatment that was given to the prisoners, they would wish to escape. He said:

The prisoners didn’t know how the war was actually going. But we had no doubt about the rule that Imperial Japanese troops must not allow themselves to be prisoners of the enemy. There was no alternative for us except to die. And we agreed to finish our lives that way. Yet because of a basic human instinct many of the men, including me, didn’t want to die.

Australian soldiers captured Mr Murakami….took him back to his fire damaged hut where he fully expected to be executed for trying to escape. To his astonishment, he was sent to work cleaning up the mess.

In 1964, Army Sergeant Masaru Moriki became a founding member of the Cowra society in Japan, for survivors of the camp. And he wrote:

For Japanese prisoners-of-war it was never a break out. The only thing they had in their minds that August night was honourable death.

Seiji Ogi, a hut leader, gave a stirring talk to his men on the night before the breakout. Literally seventy five years ago. He said:

The whole thing, you must know, is more about dying than fighting. That is why it is so important for you to think tonight about the carp; its spirit, its bravery, the way it battles against onrushing currents, the way it can even swim up waterfalls. You know well that the carp is a symbol of a fine Japanese boy, that the true Japanese has to be able to fight and finally die like the carp.

When the time finally comes to plunge the knife into it, it doesn’t wriggle like any other fish. It doesn’t flinch. It is dignified in death. That is how I wanted these young soldiers to be. When I finished, they were quiet, and a lot of them were nodding in agreement. I knew they were thinking about the people they loved at home.

Sergeant Moriki described his return to Japan on 3 April 1946. He said:

The cherry blossoms at the pier were scattering in the wind. Seeing those falling petals I suddenly thought of Mr Yamamoto, Mr Nozu and Mr Ono who committed suicide in Cowra. They, who were moderates, suicided! Standing on the soil of my home land my heart ached like hot water had been poured into it. Why couldn’t we keep them alive and stand here together?

 In spite of the iron rule called ‘the Combat Code’ [which enjoined captured Japanese to commit suicide], why couldn’t we talk heart to heart without vanity? Why did I tell them artificially brave words? Looking at the cherry blossoms falling I felt the joy of returning home alive and also the sorrow of the comrades we left in Cowra.

Masayoshi Yamada, in a 2004 oral history interview to the Australian War Memorial, said this:

I didn’t expect to be alive after I had climbed over the fence. I thought I would be shot.

 I feel personally that the way Australia treated the dead soldiers, and also the spirit of the dead soldiers, was very thorough and warm. I feel that their spirits are at rest.

 I visited Cowra for the 40th anniversary…the primary school band played the Japanese national anthem. That really moved me. It was the first time I had heard the Japanese anthem played by Australian children. That was a very emotional moment for me.

For us, 75 years on, Australians and Japanese, our responsibility and our challenge is to imbue in young people the imaginative capacity to see the world through the eyes of others.

Almost all of life’s pain, misery, and suffering come from people and nations making themselves the centre of their own lives or their own world. 

To young Australians, to young Japanese, who risk surrendering your idealism to the belief that you can’t make a difference to your community, to your country and to your world, look no further than Cowra.

From May Weir’s extraordinary beneficence to those three Japanese escapees…desperately looking for food, giving them tea and scones…

Through generations of people here in Cowra, whether it’s early World War Two veterans, in an age where Australians were unforgiving to Japan of how many Australians had suffered during the Second World War, at the hands of Japanese soldiers when they were prisoners.

Here in Cowra, World War Two veterans were tending lovingly and diligently to Japanese war graves.

The Cowra Breakout Association, Ken Nakajima’s magnificent peace garden, the World Peace Bell, the hologram, through to Wayne Miles’ sculpture, and almost 50 years of youth exchanges…

What you have taught us, you people of Cowra working with Japanese people, is the importance of us shedding the prejudices of our generation and of our country.

It happened in Cowra. And then it happened in Australia.

And I will tell you one little story as I finish.

In 1998 I was the member for Bradfield in Sydney’s North Shore. Three men of advanced years came to see me. They introduced themselves as members of the 2/30 Battalion Association. I am ashamed now to say I didn’t know what that meant other than that they were World War Two veterans. They said:

We’ve been through a lot in our lives. We were prisoners-of -war at Changi. Two of us were on the Burma-Thai railway. We’re worried about young people and we want to pass on what we’ve learned to young people. And we also want to emphasise the importance of reconciliation.

They’ve done it in Cowra.

They asked if I could help them get an $8000 grant from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. I said,” guys, I love ya, but it would be easier to fight in a war again!” But we got the money.

About six months later a book arrived in my office, reflections of the 2/30 Battalion Association, called Getting on with it. It was in my briefcase for about a month before I had time to read it on a long flight.

There are two things these Australians said that stood out.

One said, “I suppose compassion means being prepared to listen to other people’s point of view and respecting those.”

Another said, “You might want to hate the Japanese for what they did, you might not ever be able to forget. But I can’t hate another human being. I can’t. I need to forgive. And it’s the hardest test of all, but it’s worth it, because I believe in myself and I value others.”

That was motivated by what you did here.

You have led our country, and as I said, you led us in shedding prejudices long before others did in other parts of the nation.

The most fragile, yet powerful of human emotions is - hope.

We all have to believe in a better future. Tomorrow will be better than today. Next week better than this. Next year better than this one.

And what most sustains hope is men and women who reach out in support of one another.

Our challenge is to imbue in the next generation the imaginative capacity, unlike mine and earlier generations of Australians, to see the world through the eyes of others.

To see that we produce young Japanese and young Australians that are imbued with the qualities that have been nurtured here in Cowra - outward looking, compassionate, engaging, and engaged young people who manifest these qualities of care and concern for others, of peace and reconciliation…

And not ever accept that any human being, or any culture, in any way shape or form, is superior to another.

Drop by drop upon our nations’ hearts; by young actions you have given us the gift of wisdom.