Japanese American Scouting Traditions: A Brief History and Photo Essay

The intersections between Japanese American history and scouting traditions run deep; two national news stories have called attention to that history in recent weeks. In Los Angeles, Girl Scout Lauren Wong drew national attention for working with the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) to create a new badge that promotes learning about World War II incarceration. As NBC News reports, Lauren “grew up hearing her grandmother’s stories of her incarceration” at  the Tule Lake concentration camp.” Although she was inspired to learn more about Japanese American history because of her grandmother, she found that it was neglected in history classes at school.”

JANM-Patch-001a_edited-1In a JANM blog post, Lauren was quoted as saying: “Students do not generally get the opportunity to learn about the mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Even today, many of my school friends do not know about the camps.” She went on to add, “My goal is to educate the general public and inspire them to appreciate the lives they have today and not let history repeat itself.”

A recent PRI’s The World story, How two lives came together at a Japanese American internment camp, recounts how two young boys forged a friendship that would last for decades. The boys were Norm Mineta, who was incarcerated with his family, and Alan Simpson, a Cody, Wyoming resident. Both went on to political careers and, as members of different parties, maintain a friendship from across the aisle.

“Inside the Heart Mountain camp, the adults tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for the children. While waiting for schools to be constructed, they organized Boy and Girl Scout troops, attracting the attention of a scoutmaster from the nearby town of Cody. Among the local Scouts was 12-year-old Alan Simpson, the future US Senator from Wyoming. Simpson and Mineta met during one of the joint activities, and quickly became friends.  ‘Our friendship started in that little pup tent,’ Mineta recalled, ‘and has endured to this day.’” Learn more about this decades-long friendship in the short documentary, Unlikely Friends and a Soldier’s Diary.

Indeed, Girl and Boy Scout troops had a major presence in the camps. According to a blog dedicated to chronicling Girl Scout history, there were 743 Girl Scouts registered in the Topaz, Utah and Manzanar, California concentration camps by December 1943. Robert Peterson, author of The Boy Scouts: An American Adventure writes that scouting flourished in all ten camps, with the most robust program being at the Heart Mountain concentration camp.  In this Scouting Magazine article, former incarcerates recall how belonging to a scouting troop helped get them through the difficulties of incarceration.

Although Scouts were engaged in troop activity–including demonstrating loyalty to America–during incarceration, rejoining troops after the war proved to be a challenge. In this interview with Densho, Shimako “Sally” Kitano recalled trying to rejoin a Bainbridge Island, Washington Girl Scout troop but being told, “the kids are too far advanced now so I don’t think that you would fit in.”

Eventually, Japanese Americans were readmitted to Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, as seen in several of these historic photos:

Watch Shimako “Sally” Kitano talk about the discrimination she faced when she tried to rejoin the Girl Scouts after World War II:

By Natasha Varner, Densho Communications Manager 

Leave a Reply