LETTERS: San Francisco’s Japantown and Boy Scouts Troop 58

Many experiences of the past are stored in our minds. Being able to “recall and relive the past” is a precious and emotional experience when it comes our way. An example is meeting an old friend and finding moments of joy in talking about the “old days.” These experiences are usually personal and passers-by usually are not interested in two old guys having a reminiscent conversation. In rare instances, a passer-by may overhear the conversation and say “Excuse me, but I remember what you guys are talking about. What I remember is…” Now we have three old guys having a good time!

On Sept. 11, 2010 a roomful of people experienced an expanded version of the “three old guys experience” when a wonderful movie of the history of Boy Scout Troop 58 was shown in Japantown. As I sat among the appreciative audience, I saw a parallel between Japantown’s past and Boy Scout Troop 58’s past. We who sat there were privileged to have been part of history during the glory years of Troop 58. This was only one of many community activities that were going on during the glory years of Japantown from the postwar era after 1945 into the 21st century. You who are reading this article may be an “old friend,” but I’m hoping that you might also be an interested passer-by, who may have heard of Boy Scout Troop 58 or of Japantown in the “old days,” possibly through your parents and friends, and might be wondering what the future holds like many of us “old timers.” This is a lot to ask if you were not there. But it might be like being an alumnus of Cal-Berkeley and having a vested interest in what is going on now.

I am mindful of the world we live in and the individual personal challenges that we all face. Time continues to be the one precious commodity that defines all of our lives. We are all given 24 hours every day but wish there were 25. So, what might the hope of a revitalized Japantown and revitalized Boy Scout Troop 58 require? “Heck, I’m busy working on my college degree; I’m trying to hold on to my job, raising a young family and figuring out how to meet the next mortgage payment; I’m a busy mother and housewife; I’m a retired guy, I don’t think I can do much even though I have some free time, because my health is not so good.” All are valid and relevant comments. So even if any of these people were interested, what can they realistically do?

First, we need to be thankful that we can even remember what Japantown really represented in the past. For the Boy Scouts, Japantown was a gathering place where we grew up. The scouting program was like a well-known fraternity that took in “freshmen” and graduated “seniors,” year after year. The boys eventually became men who could always look back to fond memories. Last year in 2009, we looked back and realized that 70 wonderful years had passed and hundreds of boys had passed through Troop 58. Their lives were influenced by supportive parents, leaders and activities that were part of their later adult lives. That’s why so many people came to the 2009 reunion and continued to come to the movie “Boys of Japantown” this year.

We need to establish tangible memories of the past. The movie was the result of more than a year of hard work. Rare photos of Troop 58 events and past leaders, accompanied by narrations of former scouts (who are now “old guys”) formed a fantastic, moving account of the “glory years” of Troop 58. I’m sure we left the movie being emotionally drained and hopeful that somehow, future young boys might have similar experiences.

With respect to Japantown, there have been at least three years of hard work by dedicated advocates to preserve the buildings in Japantown. This has been a courageous task and we must support ongoing efforts this year and beyond. However, even if Japantown can be preserved from a structural redevelopment program, it seems to me that future buildings will only be “silent sentinels” that will sort of remind us of the past but not necessarily fully engage the curiosity of visitors. This brings me to my final thought.

San Francisco needs a Japanese American Museum like the one in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. A Los Angeles friend of mine said, “L.A. was fortunate in terms of timing and availability of funding.” Obviously, these will also be the primary challenges even if such a project could be considered in Northern California in these difficult economic times. But you know what? Japanese people have overcome great obstacles in the past: coming out of camp, facing prejudice, making sacrifices and moving forward day by day, saving dollar by dollar for housing, college, and Boy Scout uniforms! The Nisei and Sansei hopefully have passed these character traits onto their kids: the Yonsei and beyond. This is what defines us as Japanese. This is what the future will be founded upon. Thus, I for one, am not overly worried about Japantown and Troop 58 as both move deeper into the 21st century.

Like the Boy Scout movie which collected the history of the past, a museum would be a permanent storage place for all the photos and memorabilia of Japantown past that I’m sure is just being stored in closets and garages of people like you reading this article. I can see people bringing precious family memorabilia into a museum knowing that people of the future can view and hopefully appreciate this vital part of San Francisco history, not just Japantown history.

Troop 58 has to start all over to even get close to its iconic history. There is hope for increased new scouts in the near future. But you know what? The seeds have been planted. The next generation of parents and leaders are in place. My hope and the hope of all Troop 58 “old timers” is that this legacy will be continued. Likewise, the “roots” for something like a San Francisco museum have already been sown. There is a small museum at 1684 Post St. which has historical Japantown information. In the Presidio, there is a site that will hopefully become a comprehensive and enduring monument about Japanese Americans during World War II. Please visit www.njahs.org to find out more about this grassroots endeavor. Visit the museum on Post Street and check out the Presidio site one of these days when you have some time.

We have done our part; we have a boy scout movie of Troop 58’s glorious past. Japantown’s historic legacy for San Franciscans would be similarly solidified and captured for the future if we begin for now, to dream of a San Francisco Japanese American Museum in the middle of Japantown someday. Maybe a philanthropist will read this article and be moved to help get this idea off the ground! Thanks again for reading my articles.

A former San Franciscan who currently resides in Camarillo in Southern California, Wayne Tada is planning to relocate back to San Francisco soon. The views expressed in the preceding commentary do not necessarily reflect that of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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