No matter what nationality you are, it’s likely that several times in your life you have come across a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout dressed in that unique uniform — be it a friend or someone else from the community.
In Japan, however, the number of scouts has declined over the past few years. Girl Scouts of Japan, with its headquarters in Tokyo, is making various efforts to boost membership, most recently by hosting an international meeting for leadership development in the capital.
Girl Scouts from their 20s to their 40s came from 22 countries to the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center from Oct. 3 to 7 to take part in seminars and other activities as part of the leadership training program.
According to the Scout Association of Japan, the number of Boy Scouts in this country has dwindled from 154,292 in 1998 to 106,025 in 2007. Likewise, Girl Scouts of Japan said its membership numbers have plunged from 64,711 in 2002 to 37,556 in 2012 — a 42 percent drop in just 10 years.
The Girl Scouts — or Girl Guides as they are called in some other countries — recognize that the decline is yet another problem linked to the nation’s declining birthrate as well as changing lifestyles that prevent children and youths from engaging in extracurricular activities, including those of the Girl Scouts, whose membership peaked at 98,000 in 1984.
The Girl Scouts is an organization for girls and young women whose members take part in or initiate activities to serve their local communities with a larger picture in mind, which is to become responsible citizens and contribute to society as a whole, according to the Girl Scouts of Japan.
The group says it is open to all females “from a year before elementary school age” without limits on religion, race, nationality or other circumstances. Its members range in age from 5 to 103, and adult members outnumber children.
The London-headquartered World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), which serves as the global umbrella organization, says the aim of the activities is to empower girls so they can become independent individuals. The members are educated so that they can do everything on their own. When setting up a camp in the mountains, this would involve chopping the firewood, starting a fire, cooking the meals, and erecting the tent, according to WAGGGS.
The leaders are adults in their 20s to 40s — including some who have continued to participate in the activities since childhood or mothers of Girl Scout members.
“We, as Girl Scouts of Japan, wanted to help create a platform where girls and young women can learn to fully participate in society,” said Tomoko Oka, 42, national commissioner of Girl Scouts of Japan. “At the same time, we want to empower Japanese girls and young women so that they can be leaders in their Girl Scout community as well as in other areas of their lives — in their career or private lives,” she said.
WAGGGS began the leadership development program in 2008, and has since organized international meetings in England, Switzerland, Mexico and India.
During the October meeting in Tokyo, instructors from various countries, including Italy, the Philippines and Lebanon, organized activities along leadership themes, such as making an impact on people, having a vision and a mission, and mentoring through coaching.
Different workshops focusing on teamwork and role playing were held each day. One problem given to the team was to build a bridge from just one piece of paper. Another was blindfolding a person and leading her to help her overcome physical barriers to reach the goal. They were also able to share their own experiences of acting as leaders in their local communities.
Most of the participants were leaders of local groups whose professions ranged from teachers and nurses to office workers and students.
Only a few members from Japan had taken part in past WAGGGS programs held overseas due to the language barrier and other problems, said Minori Yuda, international commissioner of the Girl Scouts of Japan and one of the organizers of the Tokyo event. Yuda, an assistant professor at a university in Tokyo, had attended some of the earlier programs and wanted to host the event in Japan.
Eighteen members from Japan attended the Tokyo program, in which volunteer staff translated instructions from English to Japanese.
Haruka Hayashi, a 27-year-old school support instructor from Sumida Ward, Tokyo, who has 20 years of experience in Girl Scout activities, said she was unable to fully understand some of the instructions given at earlier programs she attended in England and Mexico. “I thought that if I attended the program in Japan, I can get the most out of it,” she said, adding that as chair of the educational program committee at the Girl Scouts Tokyo Council, she would like to become a leader who is able to offer various opportunities to the younger members in her local group to enable them to take on various challenges.
“I feel this way because I have had role models for myself” — the senior members in her group when she was younger whose “attitude to challenge gave me a goal to aim at,” she said.
Danielle Smith from Australia, a 33-year-old nurse who has been a Girl Scout since she was 6, said that some of the most important things she learned from the program were “appreciation of cultural differences, attaining skills of leadership to enhance vision of leadership and to take it back to the home country to tell the young Girl Scouts.”
Chris Sum Yee Wong, a 37-year-old participant from Hong Kong, said she learned that having a mission and a vision is the most important thing in leadership. “By having a mission and vision, you know how to achieve your goal step by step. It’s not only applied to girl guiding, it’s also applied to your private lives. It helps you to develop yourself as a responsible citizen of the world,” she said.
The Boy Scouts movement was founded in England in 1907 by Robert Baden-Powell. When Baden-Powell saw some girls taking part in an event organized for Boy Scouts, he thought there should be a group for girls, and asked his sister, Agnes, to launch a group for girls later the same year.
The activity has since spread to all corners of the world. At present there are 10 million Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in 145 countries.
The Girl Scouts movement began in Japan in 1920 under the name of Joshi Hododan (girl guiding group). It was started by Muriel Greenstreet, a missionary from the Church of England dispatched to the Anglican Church in Japan. Greenstreet, who also taught at St. Hilda’s School (Koran Jogakko) in Tokyo, organized the group at the all-girls’ school as an extracurricular activity and sent the girls off to camps and had them engage in volunteer activities. Exchange programs with Girl Guides from the U.K. were also organized.
The Girl Scouts developed as a wider activity in Japan, but was temporarily suspended by the government during World War II. Activities resumed in 1949 with government support.
In 1984, the Girl Scouts of Japan opened its headquarters in Shibuya. Today, members take part in camping, peace projects, measures to preserve greenery or cultural exchange projects. The group celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2010.
“For the WAGGGS program, one of our goals was to find out how we can develop leadership among girls who have different backgrounds — be it religious, cultural or language. It was a huge challenge. Now I want to see more and more young Japanese women become leaders and act as change agents of the world,” said Oka of the Girl Scouts of Japan.