These Issei are having a picnic at Alki Point in Seattle. • Courtesy of the Tamura Family Collection, from Densho's website.
These Issei are having a picnic at Alki Point in Seattle. • Courtesy of the Tamura Family Collection, from Densho’s website.

Organizations in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Honolulu, San Jose, and Portland have worked for decades to document World War II incarceration and its aftermath. But in the rural areas and small towns beyond the borders of those cities, thousands of stories remain untold. As the numbers of those who experienced World War II-era incarceration dwindle, their knowledge and material records are at risk of being lost forever.

In response, Japanese American history non-profit Densho will partner with community leaders in underserved rural communities along the West Coast to identify personal collections of photographs, correspondence, newspapers, and other materials pertaining to life prior to, during, and after World War II incarceration. They will travel to these rural communities, arrange for digitization of the personal collections, and add the resulting images to their digital resources, all of which are available online for free.

“The project will give us a better understanding of what life was like for Japanese Americans in these communities prior to World War II incarceration, their experiences in the camps, and the post-war resettlement process,” says Densho Executive Director Tom Ikeda. “It will also show us how they later healed and fought back as a community: from the redress movement and Day of Remembrance to camp pilgrimages and reunions.”

To make this material more accessible to the general public, Densho is simultaneously launching another new initiative that will make their digital records more comprehensive and navigable. They will add the names of all persons held at World War II confinement sites to searchable databases, then convene a consortium of other organizations to form a thesaurus of terms and topics relevant to the era. Together, Densho and other Japanese American heritage organizations will use the names and thesaurus terms to tag oral histories, photos, and other digitized ephemera. This collaboratively developed names database and thesaurus will make Japanese American history more accessible and easier for students, educators, researchers, and community members to use.

When the two new projects are completed and added to the Densho website, its offerings will include a complete set of 120,000 government records of the individuals incarcerated during WWII; more than 100,000 photographs and documents related to the prewar, wartime, and postwar experiences of Japanese Americans; over 1,500 encyclopedia articles about Japanese American history; nearly 1,000 oral history interviews; and online courses for teachers, students, and adult learners.

Together, the grants will help Densho create a bridge between one generation’s experience of the past and current generations’ ability to build a more just future. “This continues our efforts to build a rich online resource for current and future generations to discover the causes and impact of injustice and, we hope, prevent it from happening in the future,” said Ikeda.

Densho was recently awarded funding from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service through the Japanese American Confinement Sites (JACS) grant program to help fund this work.

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