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View from lookout hill of Japanese Gardens, Cowra, NSW, Australia and across plains to hills in distance, 22 September, 2006 - Photographer: John O'Neill

View from lookout hill of Japanese Gardens, Cowra, NSW, Australia and across plains to hills in distance, 22 September, 2006 - Photographer: John O'Neill

The Cowra Japanese Garden: a layered lieu de mémoire

Matthew Graves and Gilles Teulié

Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France


The Cowra Japanese Garden is a memorial landscape commissioned in 1977 to commemorate POWs and guards who died in the ‘Cowra breakout’ on 5 August 1944. Designed by the architect Ken Nakajima as a copy of the first Japanese garden built in 16th century Tokyo (Edo), this 16-acre replica in miniature of the landscape of Japan in rural New South Wales is an example of the “layering” of symbolic and territorial space theorized by John Potts in The New Time and Space (51-74) and discussed as a feature of digital mapping in his article with Toby Davidson in the current issue of E-rea.


Elizabeth Rechniewski (2012) has shown how the landscape was created from a community initiative by metropolitan and inter-governmental agencies with public and private funding through a process of “deterritorialization”, merging symbol and memory, to serve as a venue for postwar “memorial diplomacy” and a focal point for Japanese-Australian reconciliation. The site was declared Japanese territory in 1963 and it contains the only Japanese war cemetery on foreign soil. The 60th anniversary service of reconciliation at the garden was debated in the New South Wales Parliament and broadcast to an estimated 200 million viewers in Japan (Turner). The last able Japanese survivor of the breakout, Teruou Murakami, attended the 70th anniversary remembrance ceremony in Cowra on 5 August 2014 bearing “a message of peace and friendship between Japan and Australia” (Gordon 2014); the publication by the Australian War Memorial of a “Cowra breakout 70th anniversary media kit” for the occasion testifies to its continuing significance in Japanese-Australian international relations.


Both the Second World War POW camp and the Japanese garden and cultural centre which commemorates it were built on Wiradjuri territory. Peter Read records how the Wiradjuri people were systematically dispersed across Central New South Wales between 1909 and 1929 under assimilationist and White Australia policies, a process which resumed after the Second World War, leaving the Erambie Mission in Cowra as one of the few surviving reserves in Wiradjuri country. Paradoxically, the cyclical expulsions strengthened rather than weakened the links between Wiradjuri communities, but as Read reminds us “the smashed houses, the lost homelands, the depressed morale, the stolen children were the terrible cost of survival” (51, 55). When Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss came to write her historical novel about the Cowra breakout, Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (2016), her premise was “I had not read anything about the Cowra breakout that made any mention of Erambie or life for the Aboriginal people at that time” (Ellis). By plotting a romance between a Japanese escapee and the young indigenous girl from the neighbouring Erambie Mission who shelters him, she set out to write the Aboriginal presence back into the memorial landscape and see “Cowra from two viewpoints”, a Japanese garden in Wiradjuri country.



Ellis, Amanda. “Cowra from two viewpoints.” The West Australian. 2 Aug. 2016. Web. 26 May 2017.

Gordon, Michael. “Cowra breakout survivor pays his respects.” The Sydney Morning Herald. The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 May 2017.

Potts, John. The New Time and Space. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

Read, Peter. “’Breaking up these camps entirely’: the dispersal policy in Wiradjuri country 1909-1929.” Aboriginal History 8.1 (1984): 45-55. Print.

Rechniewski, Elizabeth. “The Memorial Path from Darwin to Cowra.” JOSA: The Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia 44 (2012): 48-64. Print.

Scott, Erin. “Media Kit: 70th anniversary of the Cowra breakout.” AWM Media Centre. Australian War Memorial. 28 July 2014. Web. 26 May 2017.

Turner, Russell. “Cowra Prisoners of War Breakout Sixtieth Anniversary.” Hansard. Parliament of New South Wales, 1 September 2004. Web. 26 May 2017.

John O’Neill
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