Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project
Densho is a nonprofit organization based in Seattle, Washington, which collects video oral histories and documents regarding the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Densho offers a free online digital archive of the primary sources for educational purposes.
The Japanese word denshō (伝承) means "to pass on to future generations." The organization was founded in 1996 with a primary goal of collecting personal testimonies from Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. Over the years, its mission expanded to "educate, preserve, collaborate, and inspire action for equity". Densho uses digital technology and best archival practices to collect, record, preserve, and share its oral histories, documents, photographs, newspapers, and other primary source materials documenting the wartime detention of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent without due process of law.
Densho is a 501(c) 3 organization, with tax-exempt status, founded in Seattle in 1996 as a project of the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce of Washington State. It became an independent organization in 2002. The annual operating budget is approximately $.5 million. Densho has a Board of Trustees with nine members and a staff of seven, led by Executive Director Tom Ikeda. Program activities are supported by over 100 volunteers and graduate student interns. Financial support is provided by foundation and government grants, corporate sponsorship of the Sushi & Sake Fest fundraising event, and individual donations.
Densho received the first NPower Innovation Award for groundbreaking use of technology; the Association of King County Historical Organizations Long Term Project Award; an American Library Association citation for online history; the Washington State Historical Society David Douglas Award; the Stetson Kennedy Vox Populis Award of the Oral History Association; the Society of American Archivists Hamer-Kegan Award; and the City of Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award for Cultural Preservation. The Executive Director, Tom Ikeda, has received a Humanities Washington Award for outstanding contributions to the humanities; the Japanese American Citizens League Biennium Award; the Japanese American National Museum Founders’ Award; the Association of King County Historical Organizations’ Charles Payton Award for Cultural Advocacy; and the Washington State Historical Society’s Robert Gray Medal; among other honors.
Densho's online archive contains over 700 hours of indexed and transcribed video interviews and 10,000 historic photos and documents. The website also includes free social studies curricula meeting Washington-State standards. Over 350 video interviews detail individuals' experiences at the 10 War Relocation Authority camps as well as the Justice Department and War Department detention facilities. In addition, Japanese Americans who were not detained, as well as Caucasian employees in the camps tell their stories to Densho. Prominent people such as Norman Mineta, Senator Daniel Inouye, Dale Minami are included in the collection, but the organization's goal is to capture life stories of diverse Japanese Americans from all walks of life. Densho continues to interview survivors of the camps and others who can describe how the forced removal and detention affected people's lives. The broader goal is to inform the public about the false basis for the mass incarceration so that a similar injustice does not affect another group.
Densho presents public education programs such as author talks, and collaborates with cultural organizations such as the Wing Luke Asian Museum, the Museum of History and Industry, and the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center. Densho assists oral history generation and preservation by other ethnic heritage and cultural organizations, such as the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. These efforts expand and enrich Densho’s mission by drawing connections with the Japanese American experience and other little-recorded and seldom discussed stories of discrimination, racism, and stereotyping faced by many ethnic communities, both in the past and today.
Densho offers curriculum units investigating civil liberties issues. For example, the lesson "Causes of Conflict" guides students through a study of the issues of immigration via the essential question: "How do conflicts over immigration arise from labor needs and social change?" In the unit "Dig Deep", they explore the media and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II by asking the question, "How do members of a democracy become fully informed so that they can participate responsibly and effectively?" In the unit "Constitutional Issues: Civil Liberties, Individuals, and the Common Good", students find answers to the question, "How can the United States balance the rights of individuals with the common good?" Densho's education efforts encourage students' critical thinking and respect for everyone's civil liberties.
The Densho Encyclopedia tells the Japanese American story during World War II as a free and publicly accessible website, that went online in 2012 with about 360 articles. A second phase brought the article count to over 1,000 in 2015 and in 2017 the Densho Resource Guide to Media on the Japanese American Removal and Incarceration went online. Brian Niiya, director of content at Densho, is editor. Funding has come from the California State Library's California Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and the National Park Service. The content, including most 3rd part materials, is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0).
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