News: Countries strengthen bonds over war memorial

25 February 2022

Dignitaries from Japan and Australia underlined the importance of the ties between their countries and New Zealand at a ceremony near Featherston today.

Japan’s Ambassador Mr Koichi Ito and the Australian High Commissioner Patricia Forsythe were among those at a small socially distanced gathering marking the 79th anniversary of the “Featherston incident” near what used to be the Featherston military camp.

On 25 February 1943, tensions at the camp resulted in the deaths of 48 Japanese prisoners of war (PoWs) and one New Zealand soldier, as well as many injuries.

The camp is also considered a heritage site for its role as a WW1 training camp. Over 60,000 trainee soldiers and support personnel passed through its gates from 1916 to 1918.

Although the military camp is no more, a memorial park has been created to honour both Kiwi soldiers and the Japanese PoWs.

In recent years, an annual ceremony marking the incident has also been attended by Australian representatives, representing the town of Cowra, where Japanese PoWs also died.

South Wairarapa Mayor Alex Beijen said the Featherston incident had been “sad and avoidable” but it had resulted in a remarkable bond between New Zealand and Japan today.

All the dignitaries highlighted the friendship that had developed between their countries as they sought to recognise and move beyond events of the past.

Japanese Ambassador Mr Ito expressed deep gratitude for the efforts to keep the ceremony alive under Covid restrictions.

The loss of so many lives had been tragic, but since the end of the war, “our two countries have worked hard to foster mutual understanding and respect”.

The distance Japan and New Zealand had come never would have been possible without the understanding of both countries, and the efforts of ordinary Kiwis and Japanese, he said.

He described the relationship as “close and amicable” and at a level that the ancestors of both countries would be proud of.

Australian High Commissioner Ms Forsythe said the ceremony was “most special,” particularly to those in Cowra.

“It’s not about what happened in 1943, it’s about what has come out of that,” she said.

Cowra, like Featherston, had housed a Japanese prisoner of war camp from which, in 1944, more than 1100 prisoners escaped. Some 231 Japanese soldiers and four Australians were killed.

Ms Forsythe said Cowra now had a deep bond with Japan which dated back to the early 50s, when the local Returned & Services League began to tend the graves of Japanese war dead.

Both towns now have memorial gardens. In Featherston, a cherry tree orchard next to the Memorial Park was created by Toshio Nakamoto, a Japanese philanthropist and former owner of the JNL forestry company.

Today, after a welcome by local kaumatua, wreaths were laid on behalf of all three countries, the local RSA, Anzac Club, Featherston Heritage Museum, JNL and the Japan Society, at the camp memorial.

Then flowers and wreaths were laid at memorials for the Japanese war dead and for Private Walter Allan Pelvin, the New Zealander who died.

The South Wairarapa District Council and Heritage New Zealand have recently improved the site, with additional seating and a QR-driven display board to provide more information about the history of the site.

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