A curiously stoic statue dressed in robes stands proudly near the entrance of Seattle’s Wisteria Park, a small, private patch of land that sits along South Main Street in Seattle’s International District. Through grey, time-worn eyes, the robed figure watches over a neighborhood whose stories are mostly forgotten by the surrounding communities.
It is here, in a brick building, that the Densho Project preserves the memories of Executive Order 9066, which in 1942 relocated about 120,000 Japanese residents in the United States to internment camps. About two-thirds of those incarcerated were American citizens.
Tom Ikeda — whose grandparents were incarcerated at the concentration camp in Minidoka, Idaho — founded Densho in 1996. Ikeda’s grandparents were Japanese immigrants, known as Issei, making Ikeda a sansei, a third-generation Japanese-American. Second-generation Japanese-Americans are known as Nisei.
Ikeda saw a need to document the history of internment as told by those who lived it. Many survivors had been reluctant to share their stories, and as they grew older, Ikeda feared losing those fragments of history.
Much of Densho’s existence has been focused on collecting and sharing oral histories — by way of more than 900 interviews — but what began as a documentation effort has evolved into a political conversation. Densho’s goals are not relegated to capturing the past, but include using the powerful narrative of internment as a lesson in contemporary topics.
Bill Tashima has spent 50 years as a member of the Japanese American Citizens League’s Seattle branch. He currently serves as a board member and has served two terms as chapter president in the past.
Tashima maintains that Densho has been an important force to keep the history of Japanese-Americans in the American conscience, and he said that the JACL will always support the project’s mission.
“We need to tell these stories so that we don’t do this again and so that we don’t persecute another group in the same way that Japanese-Americans were persecuted during World War II,” said Natasha Varner, Densho’s communication and public engagement manager. “It’s more about creating a community dialogue and partnerships.”
That community dialogue has seen Densho partnering with other local organizations such as the Northwest African American Museum, Casa Latina and the Nisei Veteran’s Committee. Varner said that since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Densho has focused on the Muslim community and preventing the same type of vilification that Japanese-Americans faced in the lead up to World War II.
Varner said Densho uses the story of internment as a reminder to the public that individuals cannot be targeted and stripped of their civil rights because of predetermined fears and prejudices.
Densho is funded mostly through federal grants, with additional money coming from private foundations and community fundraisers.
The Densho Project’s mission is to spread the story of Japanese internment during World War II, in the hopes of preventing similar incidents from happening.
“The organization started out pretty grassroots, barebones,” Densho spokesperson Nina Wallace said. “The early focus was really on getting the Nisei and a few of the Issei who were left to tell their stories and kind of get it out in the open.”
Densho partnered with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in February to recognize the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 in a “Never Again” event at the Seattle Center. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal and other speakers attended the event. It provided personal and statistical analyses of discrimination, urging audience members to make a difference in their own communities.
CAIR-Washington State Executive Director Arsalan Bukhari shared at the event his personal experiences as an American Muslim. His story, paired with Ikeda’s narrative, illustrated the powerful forms of social and institutional discrimination that have existed and continue to exist in the United States.
“Saying ‘never again’ through action followed by action will result in ‘never again,’ ” said Bukhari, in a speech given at the event. “I hope that you all exercise the power you have in your hands by influencing millions.”
While Densho has spent the past 20 years recording hundreds of oral histories, the current mission is getting those stories into classrooms. The organization is developing a curriculum to be implemented in schools and museums in an effort to target discrimination early.
“The curriculum is kind of based on using oral histories to talk about the history of racism and discrimination, and then carrying that over to today,” Wallace said.
An education team made up of historians is refining the curriculum, which has been tested through in-person workshops for teachers in Seattle, Spokane, New York City and Birmingham, Alabama. A final workshop is set to take place with students in Seattle.
Inside Densho headquarters, visitors gaze upon infographics filled with quotes and facts. Nearly 120,000 Japanese were relocated to internment camps during World War II; about two-thirds were American citizens.
The building that houses Densho’s headquarters is rented from the Seattle Buddhist Church, a temple that has operated continuously since 1941. The temple is one of the last remnants of the old Japantown, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
After Executive Order 9066 removed Seattle’s Japanese-American community, many were forced to relocate to the Midwest and other regions in the country’s interior.
Although some returned to Seattle after the war, many Japanese-Americans eventually moved out of Japantown and into surrounding areas such as Bellevue and Beacon Hill.
Wallace said that despite the strides Japanese-Americans have made, those who remember still harbor the pains of internment, and many in Seattle still face poverty and discrimination.
“There is a lot of psychological trauma around incarceration,” Wallace said. “If you think about Japanese-Americans as part of a larger Asian-American community, there are still a lot of issues that need to be addressed.”
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