Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project

  • By Antonia Kelleher
  • Posted 10/16/2015
  • Essay 11128

Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project is a Seattle-based nonprofit organization founded in 1996. The word Densho means "to pass on to the next generation," and this concept of legacy lies squarely within the content and mission of the Densho Project's website -- Densho's website houses and makes publicly accessible oral histories that chronicle Japanese American incarceration during World War II, as well as the Japanese American experience more broadly. In its first two decades Densho developed into a far-reaching organization and resource serving to "educate, preserve, collaborate, and inspire action for equity" ("About Densho"). In addition to preserving and curating more than 800 visual histories, the website grew to include more than 12,000 digitized images of photos, documents, and newspapers; a Learning Center for educators; and an encyclopedia containing some 1,000 articles. All of these materials are free to access. As a digital resource, Densho is a living project that continues to grow and evolve.


The Densho Project has addressed its use of terminology to describe the Japanese American experience during World War II. Densho typically refers to Japanese American "concentration camps" rather than "internment camps," "incarceration" instead of "internment," and "exclusion" in place of "evacuation." This language reflects the "Resolution on Terminology" used by the Civil Liberties Education Fund.

There is no set of agreed-upon terms for discussing this historical event. This feature essay utilizes the terms employed by Densho.

Densho's Beginnings

In 1995, a group of 20 volunteers from the Seattle area gathered to produce a Japanese American oral-history project. The founders of Densho resolved to conduct oral-history interviews documenting those lives affected by Executive Order 9066. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this executive order began the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast. Of the approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated, nearly two-thirds were U.S. citizens. The founders of Densho quickly realized that in addition to documenting the historical narratives of Japanese Americans during World War II, Densho could serve as an institution and resource that enabled researchers, scholars, educators, and students to more fully examine the unconstitutionality of this historical event. For Densho's founders, Japanese American incarceration was one instance of U.S. wartime hysteria and prejudice -- the United States government targeted a group of people solely because of their Japanese heritage. They hoped that if they could highlight this historical injustice, history would not (or at least would be less inclined to) repeat itself.

At the time, two of Densho's founders, Scott Oki (b. 1948), a former Microsoft executive, and Tom Ikeda, a former Microsoft general manager, had become familiar with another organization with a similar mission. That was the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, now known as the USC Shoah Foundation: The Institute for Visual History and Education. Created in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation was involved in a significant oral-history project that employed new digital and computer technology to collect and preserve the stories of those who had survived the Holocaust. Several of those involved in the Shoah Project shared their methods with Scott Oki and Tom Ikeda, providing them with some guidance as they began their own undertaking. Oki and Ikeda understood the overwhelming significance of the Shoah Project as a historical and digital resource.

With their technological expertise and foresight, Oki and Ikeda recognized that personal-computer technology and the internet would become more accessible in coming years. Densho had no intention of serving as a repository; the organization wanted to produce a purely digital product -- With the contents of the oral-history videos on the internet, rather than in the pages of a book or in the stacks of an archive, members of the public would be able to access the materials from the comfort of a computer, and most importantly, do so for free. In spite of their eagerness to construct a digital home for these interviews, Densho's founders did not want to rush into creating this comprehensive website. Computer technologies available in the late 1990s were not quite ready for the scope of the Densho project.

The first priority was to conduct a set of interviews. One of the primary reasons that Densho was founded when it was was that 50 years had passed since World War II. Many of those who had been incarcerated were in their 80s and 90s. From 1996 to the fall of 1998, the first 93 interviews were conducted. The age of this first set of narrators ranged from those born in 1899 to those born in 1955 (children of incarcerees). It was also important for Densho to have a balanced gender representation in its interviewees. Nearly half of the first 93 narrators were women. This inclusiveness and balance allowed the Densho Project to amass a diverse collection of narratives. With Densho located in Seattle, those early interviews focused on experiences of the Pacific Northwest region. Over time, however, interviews and documents began to reflect a wider incarceration narrative, including those from California and Hawaii.

Oral-History Methodology

Tom Ikeda, Densho's executive director since its founding, authored a chapter about Densho for a 2014 book titled Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement. In this chapter Ikeda outlined many of the decisions that Densho confronted regarding the organization's oral-history methodology. To ensure that they were following best practices, Densho leaders consulted with different professionals and specialists. After contacting many top oral historians, they decided that each interview would be collected using modern digital-video technology, and thus the visual-history collection was born. Even though this would prove to be an expensive investment, visual histories afforded a more palpable and "human" understanding of the historical event. Not only would researchers be able to learn about historical details surrounding a narrator's life, they would be able to hear and see the wide range of emotions attached to these events.

This was not the only methodological choice that Densho's founders made. They also decided to index and segment each interview. Segmenting an oral history breaks up the interview into more "user-friendly" intervals that each span about 3 to 7 minutes. Densho's segment breaks typically occur around individual topics including instances of discrimination, a typical day at the Tule Lake concentration camp, Japanese culture, etc. Rather than wade through the several hours of a full interview, someone accessing a segmented and indexed interview can more easily target a particular topic of interest. Densho also arranged to professionally transcribe each interview. Along with making the material more digitally searchable, transcriptions gave the narrators an opportunity to read through their own interviews and easily make any necessary corrections in the transcript (the audio interview would remain unedited). Each interview employed a "life course trajectory model" (Oral History and Digital Humanities, 136). The interview process typically began by discussing the interviewee's life prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and progressed to incarceration and beyond. This was done in order to depict how each life course was changed as a result of Executive Order 9066. became active in 2000 and was officially launched the following year when the visual-history collection was released. According to Tom Ikeda, at this time "[t]he internet was just starting to happen, so the technology was pretty much bleeding edge ... A lot of the tools and hardware weren't yet there. We were starting from the ground up" (Kay). With this groundwork, Densho soon became a resource receiving local and national accolades and critical acclaim for its significant impact. The organization received the Stetson Kennedy Vox Populi Award of the Oral History Association, the Society of American Archivists Hamer-Kegan Award, the American Library Association Online History Award, the Association of King County Historical Organizations Long Term Project Award, the Humanities Washington Award, the Japanese Community Services of Seattle Award, and Seattle's 2015 Mayor's Arts Award for cultural preservation, to name a few.

Visual Histories

These distinctions should come as no surprise. By 2015 the Densho Project, attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers in the past year, had amassed 1,689 hours (and counting) of oral-history video. The project grew through funding from a variety of government and foundation grants, the Sushi & Sake Fest (Densho's annual fundraising event), and donations, in addition to paid work processing interviews for other organizations. The Densho Project included a diverse array of historical voices. In addition to his role as co-founder and executive director, Tom Ikeda conducted more than 200 of Densho's interviews. According to Ikeda, the 120,000 individual incarcerated Japanese Americans should not be thrust into one set wartime story, because each one had a distinct and unique experience.

Densho's visual histories encompassed the stories of well-known Japanese Americans and innumerable voices of "everyday" people of Japanese descent incarcerated in America's 10 concentration camps. Included was Gordon Hirabayashi (1918-2012), a Nisei famous for his civil disobedience during World War II. Hirabayashi was interviewed by Densho five different times resulting in more than 10 hours of interview material. Other famous narrators included Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga (b. 1924), a Nisei woman who played an invaluable role in the Redress Movement. Alongside these well-known individuals were countless Japanese American mothers, fathers, children, draft resisters, community activists, business owners, teachers, and more. Also included in the visual-history collection were Japanese American narrators who were not incarcerated, and Americans not of Japanese descent who were involved in or witnessed the event.

According to Tom Ikeda, about 50 interviews are added to the collection every year. Densho also includes other videos, film clips, and a YouTube Channel that as of October 2015 contained around 150 highlight clips of some of the most frequently researched videos and topics, including life in the concentration camps, resettlement, and military service, as well as the Redress Movement, a process that "sought to obtain the restitution of civil rights, an apology, and/or monetary compensation from the U.S. government during the six decades that followed the World War II mass removal and confinement of Japanese Americans" ("Redress Movement").

Connecting Injustices

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the relevance and significance of the Japanese American incarceration story became readily apparent to many. According to Ikeda:

"The light bulbs really went off for us on September 11, 2001 ... After 9/11, what was happening to people in the Arab American and Muslim communities was really similar to what happened to the Japanese American community during World War II. At that point we realized that we're an educational organization, and not just an historic project. 9/11 really put it in our faces how hate and fear can affect so many communities in America" (Kay).

The Densho Project has connected the injustice of wartime incarceration with other patterns of discrimination and intolerance found in United States history. For example George Takei (b.1937), originally famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, is a pioneering human rights activist, best known for his involvement with the Japanese American and LBGT communities. As someone who experienced the World War II incarceration firsthand, Takei narrated a video produced by Densho titled "What Does an American Look Like?" In it, Takei discusses the creation of the "enemy within," an enemy constructed because of its Japanese heritage. The Densho Project also produced "Why Does this Matter Now?" -- a segment that looks at how the documentation of a historical event can keep the civil rights conversation alive and help prevent future injustices.

Digital Collaboration

In addition to its visual histories, Densho created an extensive Digital Archive that by 2015 contained more than 12,000 digitized images of primary-source materials, including newspapers, photographs, and documents. The digitization of primary-source materials began when oral-history narrators provided Densho with unique documents -- newspapers, photographs (historic and contemporary), copies of exclusion orders, etc. -- to help supplement their own interviews. Depending on the circumstances, once a document had been digitized, it would either be returned to its owner or given to a museum, historical society, or other organization.

Densho also acquired digitized historical sources from other organizations, including the Museum of History and Industry, the National Archives and Records Administration, the University of Washington Libraries' Special Collections, and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Being an organization dedicated to a collaborative spirit, Densho focused on cultivating partnerships with other Japanese American organizations located outside of Washington, including Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Wyoming, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, the Japanese American Museum of San Jose, and the Oregon Nikkei Endowment. These partnerships have expanded over the years to include the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, the Hawaii Times Photo Archives Collection, and The Pacific Citizen. Through these partnerships and a use agreement, Densho has acquired many additional documents and videos. As of 2014, around half of Densho's interviews were originally from partner organizations.

The Densho Encyclopedia was launched on September 1, 2012. According to the encyclopedia homepage, the project was made possible by grants from the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grants Program administered by the National Park Service and the California State Library through the California Civil Liberties Public Education Fund. Creation of the Densho Encyclopedia was led by Brian Niiya, the encyclopedia's editor and content director. During the 1990s Niiya was editor for the encyclopedia Japanese American History: An A-to-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present. When Tom Ikeda initially wanted to create an encyclopedia for Densho he contacted Niiya, who was then working at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii in Honolulu. Brian Niiya commissioned around 100 contributors who specialized in Japanese American history, including scholars and graduate students, to write articles for the encyclopedia. Originally launched with 300 articles, the encyclopedia greatly expanded in a relatively short span of time, reaching a milestone in August 2015 with its 1,000th article. By that time the encyclopedia was the most frequently accessed part of the Densho Project.

Alongside the primary and secondary sources Densho developed a Learning Center devoted to providing course materials and curricula to middle-school and high-school educators. The Learning Center includes a Civil Liberties Curriculum, a Sites of Shame map of detention facilities, the virtual exhibition In the Shadow of My Country, and other educational materials. In 2012 and 2013, more than 600 educators from around the country attended Densho's teacher-training workshop.

Densho's Future

In its first two decades Densho expanded from its original goal of documenting Japanese American incarceration during World War II to "a mission to educate, preserve, collaborate, and inspire action for equity" ("About Densho"). As of 2015 Densho was looking to focus on furthering collaboration with other Seattle-based cultural organizations, including the Northwest African American Museum, El Centro de la Raza, and the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, to enable different groups to both continue sharing their stories and experiences and to serve as allies for one another. In addition, Densho was developing ways to expand its educational resources and make those sources already available more easily accessible and usable for students.

As it neared its 20th anniversary, Densho remained dedicated to keeping the wartime incarceration story alive. Honoring its role as both a historical organization and a legacy project, Densho continued to document the stories for those who endured this prejudice, as well as for today's society and future generations.


"About Densho," Densho website accessed October 2, 2015 (; Alice Yang, "Redress Movement," Densho Encyclopedia website accessed October 2, 2015 (; Cherstin M. Lyon, "Gordon Hirabayashi," Densho Encyclopedia website accessed October 5, 2015 (; "Do Words Matter," Densho Encyclopedia website accessed October 6, 2015 (; Thomas Y. Fujita-Rony, "Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga," Densho Encyclopedia website accessed October 5, 2015 (; Brian Niiya, Tom Ikeda, and Roger Daniels, "Japanese American Incarceration -- Densho," Journal of American Ethnic History, No. 4 (Summer 2014), 49-55; "History of the Institute," USC Shoah Foundation website accessed October 10, 2015 (; Antonia Rath interview with Tom Ikeda, Seattle, Washington, October 8, 2015, audio recording in possession of Antonia Rath, Seattle; "Densho, Japanese American Legacy Project," Rainmakers Television video, YouTube website accessed October 9, 2015 (; Tom Ikeda, "Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project," in Oral History and Digital Humanities: Voice, Access, and Engagement ed. by Douglas A Boyd and Mary A. Larson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Tony Kay, "Mayor's Arts Award: Densho," City Arts, September 1, 2015 (

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