By the shore of Yamashita Park in Yokohama, the city where Japanese and American culture intersect, there stands a statue of three girls. Two are shaking hands while their other hands are raised to their heads to show respect, and a third girl stands beside them.
Erected in 1962, the statue is a symbol of the borderless friendship the Girl Scouts of the two nations share. It also symbolizes the re-establishment of Japan-U.S. relations after World War II.
Last year, Girl Scout leaders in both countries embarked on a quest to find the three girls the statue was modeled on, hoping to reunite them.
Fifty-two years after the statue was erected, promising perpetual friendship between Japan and the United States and their fellow scouts, two of the models, Libby Watson and Hiroko Tanaka, met Friday at Narita International Airport for the first time since posing for the project.
The scout leaders involved in the reunion project weren’t certain if any of the three were still alive, so bringing Watson and Tanaka together was a happy accomplishment. They have yet to find the third model for the statue, Audrea Cox.
“It was a wonderful, emotional journey . . . back to the place where I loved to live with my family,” said Watson, who now sits on the board of directors for Girl Scouts of Texas, Oklahoma Plains.
It was her first visit to Japan since 1965, when she was a 15-year-old Girl Scout who lived in Yokohama with her family because of her father’s job.
“The tie that Girl Scouts bring, that bonds never be broken. . . . Girl Scouts are friends and sisters all around the world,” she said.
Tanaka, who is now an artist who teaches people with intellectual disabilities, left the Girl Scouts when she was 18. With tears in her eyes, she also remembered the moment when she and Watson pledged the two nations’ friendship.
“Hopefully the meaning of the handshake can spread not only between the U.S. and Japan but to everyone around the world, promoting the bonds of people. That is my ultimate hope,” she said.
“As long as the friendship statue stands, our friendship will also prevail beyond all borders,” Tanaka added.
Satoko Kajima-Best, who settled in Washington to support the intercultural activities of the Girl Scouts of America and Japan, started the reunion project in March last year, hoping to bring the three who posed for the statue together. She expressed her thanks for the people who have been supporting her.
Kajima-Best started her quest after being inspired by an article about Watson that she read in the U.S. Girl Scouts magazine in October 2006. She suddenly realized that three girls actually posed for the statue in Yamashita Park. Six years after reading the article, she came across it again in her home and launched the reunion project in March 2013, simply out of curiosity to learn about the roots of the statue that symbolizes the friendship of the two nations’ Girl Scouts.
With scant information to go on and with the people involved in the statue’s establishment either no longer in the Girl Scouts or possibly no longer alive, the Girl Scout network helped track down Watson and Tanaka.
To bring about the pair’s reunion, the scout leaders launched the Japan branch’s first-ever crowd-funding project. Between July 14 and Aug. 31, it collected ¥308,000 from 23 contributors.
Research into the Girl Scouts also revealed unknown facts about the statue and Japan-U.S. relations during Japan’s rapid economic growth in the 1960s. The statue was built in 1962 to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the Girl Scouts of the United States, along with the celebration of Japan’s return to the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, a group that Japan had forbidden participation in during the wartime ban on Western customs.
Girl Scouts of Japan and the U.S. worked together to erect the statue. The U.S. scouts sold marigold seeds to raise money while Japanese scouts collected donations.
Thanks to cooperation by Toshiko Uchiyama, a former Girl Scout and the wife of then-Kanagawa Gov. Iwataro Uchiyama, the statue was erected in Yamashita Park, a symbolic location for U.S.-Japan relations as the area was commandeered by Allied Occupation authorities after the war before being returned to Japan in 1959.
Watson will stay in Japan until Friday to spend time with Tanaka and Girl Scout members. She plans to visit Hakone and Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture, places she visited with her family half a century ago.
“Unfortunately, not many people are aware of the Girl Scouts in Japan,” Kajima-Best said. “People who had never heard of Girl Scouts before, I hope they are going to get interested in what we are doing, and how wonderful an opportunity for girls to be involved in (a project like this),” she said.