The “Peace Gardens”, Featherston, South Wairarapa and The Chor-Farmer

Yukiko Numata Bedford1

Sixty-eight cherry trees are in full bloom each year in mid-September at the Japanese Memorial Gardens near Featherston, South Wairarapa (New Zealand). The trees have grown so strongly that blooming branches are even touching each other. People call the place the Peace Gardens. This is a story of a particular struggle, the struggle of people trying to overcome cultural differences through grassroots efforts. What is known as the “Featherston Incident” broke out at the Prisoner of War (POW) camp on 25 February, 1943, during World War Two. The people of Featherston were deeply affected by this wartime tragedy, which led to the deaths of many soldiers. Decades later, the site now stands for many as a proud symbol of reconciliation achieved through tolerance, understanding and acceptance.

James Nachtwey, American war photographer, in a recent televised interview, pondered that we humans are still using the most primitive method – war – as a means of overcoming differences. But he believes that his war photographs would have the power to eventually help bring world peace.2 In his review of Michiharu Shinya’s book, Beyond Death and Dishonor: One Japanese at War in New Zealand, Vincent O’Sullivan, New Zealand writer, playwright and critic, pointed out that ‘No one who survived the Japanese and their camps in World War Two had much reason not to loathe them… It is a difficult story to forget, and to concede that there may be another side’.3

The Featherston incident

The Prisoner of War (POW) camp was located at Tauherenikau, 2km east of Featherston along State Highway 2. Previously, it was the site of the largest military training camp in New Zealand established during World War One. More than 40,000 men were trained there before being sent to the battle fronts. At the request of the United States military, the site was re-established as an internment camp for Japanese POWs in 1942.

Widespread fears prevailed in New Zealand at that time that the Japanese might invade New Zealand. In 1942-1943, a total of 868 Japanese soldiers and paramilitary personnel taken prisoner in the South Pacific (mainly in Guadalcanal) were interned at the camp. The earlier arrivals were mostly paramilitary personnel drafted into the Japanese navy. Later, captured or injured military personnel were also interned in the camp.

Accounts leading up to the incident, as well as details of the incident itself and its aftermath are by no means clear. It is generally agreed that the paramilitary personnel in general accepted life at the camp. On the other hand, it is assumed that some military personnel strongly felt it was disgraceful to be captured alive and to have to work for the enemy. On 25 February, 1943, some 240 soldiers staged sit-down strike and refused to do the assigned work. They demanded a chance to meet with the camp commandant, but to no avail. Negotiations on work at the camp had been going on, but the soldiers seemed to have felt that their demand was not seriously taken up and the negotiations had come to a deadlock. The camp commandant instructed the camp adjutant to order them back to work.

It is not clear the sequence of what happened next, but it is believed that the camp adjutant’s shot wounded Lieutenant Adachi, who was the negotiator for the group. The unarmed soldiers tried to charge, with stones. Spontaneous firing of rifles and sub-machine guns by the guards started. There was no order to shoot. The firing continued for some 30 seconds, only to stop at a third order to cease firing. A total of 68 Japanese lost their lives – 31 died instantly, 17 soon later, and 20 more died within a month in hospital. Those 20 were among 74 men who were injured. On the New Zealand side, a ricochet killed a New Zealander, Private Walter Pelvin, and six others were wounded. According to the investigation performed immediately after the incident, the firing by the guards and the attack by the Japanese POWs with stones started simultaneously.

One of the factors which seems to have led to the soldiers’ discontent was that, although the Japanese government signed the Third Geneva Convention adopted in 1929 dealing with the treatment of prisoners of war, it did not ratify it. Thus Japanese military personnel were not aware of that international agreement. Also, both sides might have been working on different assumptions, lacking a common language or culture.

Cultural differences

Wartime secrecy came to be gradually lifted in the 1950s, and there were many different interpretations and accounts of what had led to the massacre at the camp. Although a military court exonerated New Zealand, it made it clear that cultural differences played a role. In his play, which revolved around the theme of cross-cultural conflict, O’Sullivan was one of the first New Zealanders who came to interpret the incident as cultural conflict between east and west4 along with an Australian, Charlotte Car–Gregg. Mike Nicolaidi, in his work, The Featherson Chronicles: A Legacy of War,5 has made it clear by painstakingly combing through the official documents that there was no revolt before the shooting. Despite all those findings, there lingered emotional animosity toward Japanese among New Zealanders.

It could be assumed that the animosity arose not just from the incident itself, but it had grown from the experiences and assumptions of New Zealand soldiers about Japanese on the war front and in Japanese POW camps. We find, concluding his review of the above-mentioned Shinya’s Beyond Death and Dishonour, O’Sullivan as saying:

His [former POW, Adachi’s] long campaign to establish a memorial garden near Featherston …was snookered even quite recently by the RSA. A great pity. The proposed “peace garden” would not for a moment have let the Japanese off the hook for their wartime atrocities. But it would have conceded how the facts of the future are now in other hands.

The idea of establishing something at the site of the former POW camp, which would keep alive the memory of the unfortunate wartime incident in the hope of realising a peaceful world, had been afoot for some time since the 1970s, when the first group of former POWs revisited Featherston. Official envoys from the Japanese government had already visited Featherston on several occasions. Certainly there were people of goodwill working toward reconciliation in Featherston, but the rather unhappy feelings of the townspeople in general toward Japanese had not been overcome. Clearly, there was a need for both sides to come closer and have deeper contact in order to understand each other’s cultural differences as well as commonalities. The lack of a common language may have been a great barrier, but not necessarily an insurmountable one, as will become clear later in this paper. The task to reach mutual understanding and reconciliation seemed insurmountable on both sides.

The beginning of reconciliation

In the mid-1970s, a small rest area was created at the suggestion of the neighbouring Greytown Returned Service Association (RSA) to erect a sign to inform people of the site of World War One camp. Funds were raised to purchase the land, and the area was dedicated by the Greytown RSA to all who had trained at the camp. The commemorative plaque states:

Figure 1: Signpost at the rest area

Featherston Military Camp W.W.I. officially opened 26.1.1916. One time 5th busiest Post Office in N. Z. This area immediately opposite the main camp entrance was known as Canvas Town It served for a “Hardening Up” process and departure point prior to the inevitable Rimutaka Route March and final embarkation. This camp was the last New Zealand home for thousands of W.W.I. soldiers.

Many other memorial plaques are also found there. There is one donated by the New Zealand American Association, and another by the Belgians: ‘Donated by the Belgian people in gratitude to NZ servicemen who were the first to liberate Messines in World War One.’

A plaque carrying a seventeenth century haiku by Basho in Japanese and with translation was donated by K.J. Nysse of Batavian Rubber Company in 1979:

Behold the summer grass
All that remains of the dreams of warriors.

A plaque from the Japanese Embassy simply reads: ‘In memory of 68 servicemen who died here in World War Two.’

Two Japanese characters with English translation are engraved on a plaque dedicated by some of the campmates of the Japanese POWs: Chin Kon (Repose of Souls). The plaque was placed in the rest area when it was established in the mid-’70s. It is noted that the original plaque engraving seemed to have had an English translation below the Japanese words, but the English had been scratched out, perhaps most likely by vandals. On a more recent visit in 2008, however, it was a pleasant surprise to find the English inscription back in place.

In the meantime, some of the former POWs expressed a desire to establish a “peace garden” where graves of the dead soldiers would be erected together with other amenities suitable for a garden. Adjacent to the extant memorial rest area, a piece of land was purchased by a donation from Japan. It was a difficult decision to make for the South Wairarapa District Council; the plan was met with strong opposition by the Featherston RSA. The council accepted the opposition respecting the feelings of the veterans. The proposal was left pending for some years.

The Memorial Park and the Chor-Farmer

A ray of hope breaking the deadlock came about in 2000, by a concert visit of the Chor-Farmer, a group of amateur male-voice singers from Japan. They staged an evening concert at the ANZAC Hall, which was used as an emergency field hospital at the time of the shooting incident in 1943. The Chor-Farmer proved to be an instant success, receiving a standing ovation. (Chor is the German word for choir.) Music provided a common language. This was the first time Featherston had ever experienced close physical and cultural contact with so many non-military, ‘ordinary’ Japanese since the war. Prior to their visit and overnight stay in town, people were not completely convinced about the amateur Japanese singers’ visit to Featherston. But by the time the group left town, people felt the atmosphere of the town was changing.

Figure 2: Sixty-eight cherry trees are ready to bloom at the Japanese Memorial Gardens

Almost miraculously, the singing voices of the Chor-Farmer seemed to have worked as a catalyst to break the deadlock at the District Council concerning the establishment of Japanese memorial peace gardens. The issue came to be deliberated again at the council. Debate continued for several months. In the end, when the term ‘peace’ was dropped, the opposition reluctantly accepted the creation of ‘a garden’ alongside the existing rest area.6 The President of the Featherston RSA is reported as saying that there were just a few RSA members opposed to the garden: ‘Some are dead against it, some don’t mind it, and some are for it.’7 The passing of the controversial proposal at the Council would indicate that the majority of the councillors were understanding and accepting of the plan.

The pace of creating a Japanese memorial garden quickened. It was completed in July, 2001. Sixty-eight cherry trees were planted by volunteer townspeople, in straight rows appropriate for soldiers on duty, to commemorate the sixty-eight victims of the Featherston Incident. The day after cherry trees were planted, vandals uprooted some 40 plants, but they were quickly replanted and luckily survived. Nearly ten years after the planting, the cherry trees have grown, and branches come to touch each other, as if shaking hands in friendship. In the cherry blossom season, they attract many Japanese and other visitors. Despite the official name having to drop the word ‘peace’, people keep calling the garden “Peace Gardens”. Certainly the desire for peace is ubiquitous.

Foreign culture: experiences of the Chor-Farmer

The great success of the concert, however, was a hard-won result brought about by the goodwill of many people, including New Zealanders, Australians and Japanese New Zealanders. And most notably it was a result of a trial and error struggle of the Chor-Farmer’s to understand different cultures gained through their repeated overseas tours with Conductor Masumoto at the helm.

It was more than 40 years since the choir group was organised by Hiroshi Masumoto, now conductor and composer, in 1967. It began as an extra-curricular chorus group, with only three members, at the Tokyo University of Agriculture. Asked why he organized the group, he mused that he thought a university of agriculture would need more culture on campus. And that involvement with culture seems to be continuing in a different way even now.

Masumoto majored in forestry, but went on to study conducting and music composition professionally after graduation. He has been with the group as a leader, directing them for more than 40 years. Although the choir members are non-professionals, the group has received numerous top prizes in music competitions in Japan. The 30-odd members, conductor Masumoto included, all belong to the post-World War Two generation, and naturally have no direct experiences or memories concerning the war. At present, the members are mostly graduates actively working in business, but even now a few are student members. Their concert schedule includes regular domestic concerts a few times per year in addition to the bi-annual overseas concert tours. The overseas tours are done on a strictly voluntary basis.

Figure 3: Chor-Farmer singers performing in front of the New Zealand soldiers’ memorial

On the occasion of their 10th anniversary, they initiated an overseas concert tour. Although their initial choice was Australia8 it was only by chance. However, they were aware of Cowra, a POW camp site in Australia where on 5 August, 1944, 1100 Japanese prisoners of war attempted a break-out. Approximately 378 Japanese prisoners escaped outright, 234 Japanese and 5 Australians died, 331 escaped for the period up to nine days. It was the biggest such escape in Australian history. The Chor-Farmer members were quite young, all under 30, and had no wartime experience. Although they toured and performed in several cities each time, and they were welcomed cordially, it was felt that repeated visits would be necessary to gain even some degree of trust among their Australian hosts, unaccustomed to such visits. New Zealand was added in their itinerary in 1981.

In 2010, they successfully completed their 17th tour, of what is now called the Goodwill concert tour. They came to feel that their overseas tours would be meaningless unless grass-roots understanding were achieved between different cultures. Home stay became the rule. Through close contact and communication, the Chor-Farmer members gradually learned to think from the viewpoints of the other cultures, to put themselves so to speak in their shoes. For instance, their concert repertoire includes various genres: Western classic ballads and airs familiar to the audience as well as Japanese songs. Hymns are also an important repertoire, although the members are not Christians; they have found the strength of hymns in multicultural communication. Popular native songs of the country they visit are also powerful. At the end of a concert, spontaneous chorus of native songs with the audience would inevitably follow.

On the occasion of both Cowra, Australia, and Featherston becoming twin-cities in 1998, the Chor-Farmer came to learn about the tragedy at Featherston for the first time, although they had been visiting New Zealand since 1981. In 2000, after accepting an invitation to visit they immediately included Featherston in their itinerary. The above-mentioned first visit to Featherston in 2000 was thus realised. Based on the long years of experience gained through trial and error elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand, the preparations were made carefully in accordance with what they thought were the needs of the situation.

A visit to the memorial rest area was high on the list of priorities. Once at the site, visits to New Zealanders’ memorials came before those of the Japanese. Earlier, they did not realize the importance of the visits to the graves of the dead Australian soldiers in Cowra, although they visited those of the Japanese until, after about ten years of close contacts, an Australian suggested the visit to the Australian graves. At Featherston, they sang impromptu Po Karekare Ana, New Zealand’s “second national anthem” with the audience to conclude the programme. As their concert tours are repeated every second year at Featherston, the quality of communication gradually improved. The town paper, the Phoenix and the local newspaper, the Wairarapa Times-Age, began to run articles on the visits of the Chor-Farmer. Not only the local people, but also people from outside Featherston are now regular audience members. Although the group was not able to secure home stays on the first visit, from their second visit, the members were cordially welcomed by the townspeople at their home, which provided opportunities for further deepening mutual understanding.

Figure 4: Newly arrived piano accompanies Chor-Farmer: from: Wairarapa Times-Age 22 August, 2008

The Chor-Farmer’s visits also inspired the people of Featherston. In 2006, on their fourth visit to Featherston, the Chor-Farmer members were surprised to be greeted by a newly organized local male-voice choir, Gentlemen Singers. Motivated by the presence of the Chor-Farmer, those interested in chorus decided to emulate them, but they were careful to keep it a secret until the arrival of the group. Townspeople were also happy to see the two groups performing together, inspiring each other. Further, in 2007, a local initiative raised funds to donate a concert grand piano to the ANZAC Hall. The hall was not equipped with a decent piano, and providing one had been a problem. The project turned out to be a collaborative work also. A piano was selected in Japan by Conductor Masumoto and Pianist Ms Masako Yuyama. Through their efforts, the ANZAC Hall is now adorned with a beautiful, and high quality, grand piano. When introduced to the new piano for the first time at the ANZAC Hall, Conductor Matsumoto, Pianist Ms Yuyama and all the singers of the Chor-Farmer were deeply touched and delighted by the scrupulous and loving maintenance of the piano at the ANZAC Hall. Now the ANZAC hall attracts renowned professional pianists such as Michael Houstoun.


At home in Japan, there is much serious activity devoted to trying to bring about reconciliation with Australia and New Zealand. The Chor-Farmer members join memorial ceremonies and dedicate their chorus to the annual ANZAC Day ceremony, paying their respects to the military personnel and others entombed at the Yokohama War Cemetery in Hodogaya-ku, Yokohama. The cemetery, established by the Japanese government in 1946, is permanently leased to the London-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A total of 1873 war dead is buried, including Americans and Dutch, and an unknown number of soldiers numbering 335 in all. The Chor-Farmer also makes regular pilgrimages to the memorial peace garden in Naoetsu, Niigata, a port on the Sea of Japan, where an Australian POW camp stood during World War Two. Sixty Australian POWs died from heavy labour, hunger and cold. After the war, eight Japanese guards were sentenced to death at the military court. Epitaphs are erected for the Australians and the Japanese, respectively, in the memorial park created in 1996.

The Chor-Farmer led by Conductor Hiroshi Masumoto, is now a big tree grown from a little acorn. But through their overseas experiences, they have come to strongly realise that the unfortunate experiences of the war must not be forgotten, and the memories must be handed down for generations to come. In this sense, people might call their goodwill tours a pilgrimage. In any case, long and arduous roads still lie ahead. Let us hope that at least the roads will be lined with cherry trees, sometimes bare, but sometimes in full bloom, with peaceful rest areas on the way.

Appendix: A Brief Chronology of the Australia-New Zealand Goodwill Tour by the Chor-Farmer

1967 Birth of the Chor-Farmer: Three volunteer students established a male chorus group at Tokyo University of Agriculture, Mr. Hiroshi Masumoto as leader/ Christmas concert
1968 1st regular concert
Annual regular concerts and many others continue to be held in Japan to date
1974 1st overseas concert tour, to Korea, was organised, but forced to cancel the plan due to an unexpected political unrest in Korea
1977 1st overseas concert tour= Australia concert tour, commemorating 10th Anniversary of the establishment of the Chor-Farmer
*1st visit to Cowra Each tour itinerary thereafter includes Cowra
1979 2nd Australia concert tour
1981 3rd overseas concert tour=Australia-New Zealand concert tour
*New Zealand was included in the itinerary for the first time
1984 4th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
1985 Mayor Oliver, of Cowra, Australia, visited Japan
1986 5th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
1988 Christchurch (NZ) Youth Brass Band visited Japan
6th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
1990 7th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
1992 8th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
1994 9th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
1996 10th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
1998 11th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
2000 12th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
*1st visit to Featherston. Each tour itinerary thereafter includes Featherston
2002 13th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
2004 14th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
2006 15th Australia-New Zealand concert tour
2008 Mayor Adrienne Staples, of Wairarapa (Featherston), and Mr. Don Staples, Vice-president of Featherston ANZAC Club, visited Japan on occasion of the Chor-Farmer’s 40th Anniversary celebration
16th Australia-New Zealand goodwill concert tour, commemorating 40th Anniversary of the Chor-Farmer
2010 17th Australia-New Zealand goodwill concert tour

Source: Compiled by author from the Chor-Farmer Homepage

Bibliography (English sources only)

Bullard, Steven (2006) (Bi-lingual–Japanese. translation by Keiko Tamura): Blankets on the wire: The Cowra breakout and its aftermath, Australia-Japan Research Project, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Car-Gregg, Charlotte (1978): Japanese Prisoners of War in Revolt. University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.

Doi, Takeo (1973): The Anatomy of Dependence, translation by John Bester, Kodansha International, Tokyo.

Hall, D.O.W. (1949): Prisoners of Japan, War History Branch, Internal Affairs, Wellington.

Huntington, Samuel P. (1996): Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Mason, W. Wynne (1954): Prisoners of War, Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War, War History Branch, Wellington.

New Zealand Center for Japanese Studies-Massey University (1999): Japan and New Zealand 150 Years, New Zealand Center for Japanese Studies-Massey University, Wellington.

Nicolaidi, Mike (1999): The Featherston Chronicles: Legacy of War, Harper Collins, Auckland.

O’Sullivan, Vincent (1985): Shuriken, a play Victoria University Press, Wellington.

Sanders, Owen (1990): Incident at Featherston Heinemann Social Studies, Auckland.

Shinya, Michiharu (1979): The Path From Guadalcanal, translated by Eric H. Thompson Outrigger Publishers, Auckland.

Shinya, Michiharu (2001): Beyond Death and Dishonour: One Japanese at War in New Zealand (translation by Eric H. Thompson.

Text revised for this edition by Kay Wall), Castle Publishing, Auckland.

Storry, Richard A. (1960): A History of Modern Japan, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Taylor, Nancy M. (1986): The Home Front Vol.II, The New Zealand People at War Government Printer, Wellington.

Wood, F.L.W. (1958): Political and External Affairs, The New Zealand People At War, Historical Publications Branch, Internal Affairs, Wellington.

Yerex, David (2007): Featherston –The First 150 Years: 1857-2007, Featherston Community Board, Featherston.

[1]Professor Emeritus, Setsunan University, Osaka, Japan

[2]November 4, 2010, NHK (Nihon Hoso Kyokai Japan Broadcasting Corporation)

[3]September 8, 2001, New Zealand Listener

[4]“Mutiny, protest or snafu?” Listener, October 6, 1979

[5](Harper Collins Publishers, 1999)

[6]Yerex, D. (2007) Featherston: The First 150 Years 1857-2007, South Wairarapa District Council.

[7]Wairarapa Times-Age Monday July 9. 2001

[8]Korea was chosen first in August, 1974, but an unexpected political turmoil (the assassination of Mrs. Yuk Young-soo, wife of President Park Chung-hee) forced them to cancel the plan.