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Densho: Passing of the Torch

By David Yamaguchi The North American Post

Densho held its annual virtual gala, “Telling Our Next Story,” online on Nov. 2. And what a gala it was!

Tom Ikeda outgoing Densho executive director with incoming new director Naomi Ostwald Kawamura All photos screenshots from the video DY
MCs Toshiko Hasegawa and Dominique Stephens

Superbly hosted by Toshiko Grace Hasegawa and Dominique Stephens, the two former Garfield High School classmates guided us through a program that concisely summarized Densho’s past 27 years of accomplishments under its first executive director, Tom Ikeda. They and Ikeda also introduced Densho’s new director, Naomi Ostwald Kawamura.

Ikeda was described as a “visionary” who understood the reticence of many Nisei elders to film the painful stories of their WWII incarceration but also that the time window for doing so was closing. He described how what he had thought “would be a five-year project” evolved into a several-decades one.

Opening dance interpretation pictured Jacqueline Burnett
Above A young Tom Ikeda near the start of his Densho journey

While this much is widely known, Ikeda also shared some key behind-the-scenes moments: how noted Nisei educator Aki Kurose had stepped forward to say, “Tommy, what you’re doing is so amazing… I’ll be your first interviewee.” And how she had visited him in the small Densho office, behind the Seattle Buddhist Temple, to give him a desktop trophy as a “symbol of her belief in him.”

Ikeda related how “what I didn’t know was how much I would be changed by sitting down and interviewing Japanese American elders.

“When you listen to these stories, you cannot help but be changed.”

The bottom line is that Densho to date has interviewed over 1000 JA elders, representing about 1% of the incarcerated JAs.

After gathering the interviews and posting them online, Densho realized it needed supporting documents, so began finding them as well.

In turn, it recognized it needed an online JA encyclopedia for viewer use, so built that too.
Ikeda closed, with tears welling in his eyes, by saying “The past 27 years have truly been an honor.”

Naomi Ostwald Kawamura

He then gracefully transitioned to introducing Ostwald Kawamura, who was a standout in the international applicant pool from the start. The two also discussed their differences, and how that will likely influence Densho’s future directions. Ikeda was trained as an engineer. By contrast, Kawamura has been a teacher and educator.

Not incidentally, during the broadcast, Densho surpassed its event fundraising goal of $850,000 by raising $860,806 (101%) in donations.

Emily Teraoka Kurt Ikeda Minidoka Historic Site interpreters who rely heavily on Denshos work
Sarah Okada Sato 2022 who graduated from high school in the Jerome Arkansas camp with the honorary diploma she received in 2015 from the State of Hawaii

I encourage all who missed the broadcast to watch it. It encapsulates in 71 minutes how an immigrant people, in four generations, can transform themselves from “inscrutable, unassimilable foreigners” to natives with mastery of the English spoken word, of digital technology and of the arts. In the process, all participants — interviewees, staff, board, and downstream educators, authors, artists and journalists — have learned to share the WWII history of JAs in a way that is more accessible, understandable and inspiring to the world, and leaves a better legacy.

Near the end of the broadcast, Tom Ikeda handed off his meaningful Aki Kurose trophy to Naomi Ostwald Kawamura.

Info: densho.org