Cowra is a quiet country town by the Lachlan River, about a two-hour drive from Canberra. This year, Cowra marked the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout which took place on August 5, 1944.
More than 1000 Japanese prisoners of war broke out of the camp, resulting in the deaths of four Australian soldiers and 234 Japanese POWs. One of the last witnesses to the incident, 98-year-old Teruo Murakami, travelled from Japan to attend the anniversary.
The commemoration ceremony took place at the Australian and Japanese war cemeteries, located on the outskirts of the town. All those who died in the breakout are buried in the two cemeteries, which welcomed hundreds of visitors, travelling great distances to remember the tragic incident and pay their respects to those who lost their lives 75 years ago.
The Japanese cemetery was established in 1964 by the Japanese government and holds 524 graves of its nationals who died on Australian soil during the Pacific War. Although Cowra is strongly associated with the breakout, the majority of the Japanese who were buried in the cemetery had no involvement in the incident. Of the 524 graves, 299 belong to prisoners of war, 180 to civilian internees, 31 to airmen, 12 to merchant seamen, and two are unknown.
In 1973, the recently abdicated Emperor Emeritus Akihito and his wife, Michiko, visited the cemetery as the then Crown Prince and Princess. The visit must have left a strong impression on them as they mentioned Cowra to newly appointed Japanese ambassadors before their posting to Australia, and urged them to remember to visit the cemetery.
Because of Cowra's strong association with the breakout, visitors assume all those who buried there were POWs. So when they encounter the graves of elderly men and women or young children who died in internment camps, they are taken aback.
Part of the reason for this confusion was because there had been no official research on the identities of those who are buried in the cemetery. For many years, people assumed that their real identities could never be known since most of the prisoners were using false names. It was said that they did not want to give their real identities because it was too shameful to be captured by the enemy.
In 2014, this narrative was overturned. Michiaki Wakamomi, a sergeant major, was captured in New Guinea, died of pneumonia in July 1945 in Murchison, Victoria, and was buried in Cowra. His family was not aware of his grave in Australia for seven decades, as the official notification had told them that he had died in New Guinea in July 1944. Once the family found out what had happened to him, they requested partial repatriation of his ashes to his home temple. After extensive research and meticulous excavation, their wish was finally realised in 2015.
Wakaomi's case demonstrated the need for comprehensive research on the graves. He had given his real name and all the facts related to his identities to the interrogators after his capture. The grave plaque carries his true name. His records were even digitised and published online by the National Archives of Australia. Yet the family had no idea because they had no reason to question what they had been told by authorities.
In order to fill this information gap, the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery Database was launched in May this year. The database provides comprehensive information on each grave in the Japanese cemetery. The main impetus for this three-year project came from four Japanese female researchers who are long-term residents of Australia.
With support from the Japanese Embassy and Cowra Council, the database is now available online in English and Japanese. It includes relevant information on each individual, such as name, date of birth, birth place, occupation, and military affiliation, which can be browsed and searched.
The records of their movement from the time of capture to eventual death allow us to follow their journeys during the turbulent time of war. The civilian internees were transferred from Thursday Island, Broome, Java or New Caledonia to internment camps in Australia.
Those who visit the cemetery have an opportunity to listen to their personal stories, including Wakaomi's, through a newly created audio-visual storytelling app called Cowra Voices, launched in Cowra on August 3 as part of the 75th anniversary commemorations.
The Japanese cemetery kept its silence for over half a century but finally we can trace the life journeys of those buried there, and listen to their personal stories.
- Keiko Tamura is an academic based at the Australian National University and member of the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery Database project
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