After many memorable visits to the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre over the years I finally met William Donald Kibbler. He warmly introduced himself as Don to me, he was proud to showcase the Garden in all its glory and unfold its remarkable story.
Kibbler’s Corner in the Japanese Garden was created as a tribute to this extraordinary man and his vision for fostering reconciliation and friendship.
In 2011 Don Kibbler was recognised in the dedication plaque for “a lifetime of outstanding leadership and commitment to the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cowra Tourism Corporation”.
Don’s Seat of Knowledge sits adjacent to the sculptured stone with the dedication plaque. I was able to sit on the Seat and surrender to the beauty and tranquillity of the Garden.
I felt as I lingered on the Seat that Don was finely attuned to the spiritual significance of the Garden and its properties of healing and celebrating Japanese culture.
I loved discovering Don’s thoughts about the Garden and am delighted to share them.
How and why did the Japanese Garden at Cowra originate?
I was president of Cowra Tourist and Development Corporation from 1971 to 1974 and Peter Carruth was the enthusiastic Tourist Office who wanted to develop something related to Cowra’s history of the POW Breakout.
He suggested a diorama of the breakout and a replica machine gun tower these were not acceptable by the public at that time.
Peter and I were sitting near the river Park one Sunday and I looked across at the Park and said “how about we build a Japanese Garden” that is where it started. November 1972. Peter Carruth resigned from Cowra Tourism in 1973 to take up a new position away from Cowra.
I arranged for a model of a Japanese Garden to be made by a Mrs. Shibaoka a Japanese landscape designer who lived in Sydney. The idea of the model was to sell the idea of a Japanese Garden to the Cowra Public it was not ever intended to be the final design.
The NSW Department of Tourism developed a feasibility model the outcome being that if the cost of construction did not have to be repaid then it would require 50.000 visitors to be financially viable. Don remembers: I took the idea and model to a meeting of Cowra Council who said that they would morally support the project but would not provide any financial support.
I clearly recall that on the way out of the Council meeting one Councillor grabbed my arm and said “I will make sure you never build the Jap Garden.”
How and why did you choose Ken Nakajima as the Garden’s designer?
The Japanese Ambassador at the time was Mr. Yoshio Okawarra and he provided the names of three Japanese Architects who would be suitable.
Ken Nakajima had already worked outside Japan and came with very high credentials.
He was chosen to come to Cowra and select a site and design what is now Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre known as “The Centre of Japanese Cultural Heritage in Australia and A tangible Monument to Peace and Reconciliation.”
Who supported you with developing the concept of the Japanese Garden?
Cowra people generally supported the concept including the other board members of Cowra Tourist and Development Corporation although at that time I did receive a number of anonymous letters condemning the project and some verbal abuse. I would estimate that around 10% of the population opposed the project because of the Japanese connection and a further 30% opposed because of the fear of costs to Cowra.
There was a hard core of around ten people who put in their time and effort to see the project become a reality.
How did you fund the Japanese garden?
Funds for the first stage of the Garden (around 30% 0f the project) came from NSW Govt. $50.000.00. Australian Govt. $50.000.00 the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry $125.000.00. Companies and Individuals in Australia $20.000.00. Expo Osaka $50.000.00 and Cowra Council a loan of $90.000.00 paid back with interest in 1983.
Funds for the second stage came from Tokyo Metropolitan Government 50 Million yen $600.000.00.
NSW Govt. $25.000.00 Expo Osaka $60.000.00 Kanebo $100.000.00 Australia Japan Foundation $20.000.00. Australian Govt. $50.000.00.
Plus around $300.000.00 voluntary labour, I supervised all of the construction of the 2nd. stage over a three year period. Plus around another $10.000.00 from individuals and companies.
The above does not include gifts to the cultural centre or gifts of items for the Garden, these would add another $300.000.00 to the overall figure.
What has inspired and maintained your passion for the Garden to this day?
I think what has driven me for the past 42 years is the positive reaction from Japan and knowing what the Garden means to the Japanese people as well as the adverse reaction from some Australians that said it should not be done and that it could not be done.
What is your role in the Garden today?
My position in the Japanese Garden today is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer as well as Chairman of The Cowra Japanese Maintenance Foundation and Official Representative of Consolidated Garden research Japan (Ken Nakajima Company) for maintenance and development of the Garden.
Did Ken Nakajima continue his commitment and association with the Garden?
Ken Nakajima continued his connection up until his passing in 2000 and his Son Hiro is now president of the company.
What is the legacy the Japanese Garden has given Cowra, Australia nationally and internationally?
The Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centree is now probably one of the most tangible monuments of peace and reconciliation in the world when you consider from whence it came, a bloody massacre. I was indeed fortunate to meet this man whose distinguished achievements in international relationships and admirable service to the citizens of Australia and Japan have gained him very well deserved high honours. He is a Member of the Order of Australia and a Member of the Order of the Rising Sun.
I believe he would strongly encourage me in advocating for all who can, to take time to stroll around the Cowra Japanese Garden & Cultural Centre.
I spent the day thoroughly immersed in the Garden, aware of being in a unique place and completely at peace. There is a wealth of beauty to observe, a meditative space to absorb and connections to make.
Rose Niland, Special Features NSW, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015