Executive director change at Densho signals new generation of JA leadership

Tom Ikeda. photo by Tani Ikeda

When Tom Ikeda got together with a small group of volunteers in 1996 to start Densho, he was considered a young upstart within the Japanese American community. Now, 26 years on, he is passing on the reigns of an organization that has become one of the most authoritative resources of Japanese American wartime history.

The incoming executive director, Naomi Ostwald Kawamura, aims to continue Densho’s work as a relevant and informative resource on the Japanese American incarceration experience.

Kawamura is a new leader, looking at using technology to guide the online database of Japanese American incarceration history.

Starting with oral histories, Seattle-based Densho has collected more than 1,000 stories on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, as well as the ensuing movement for redress in the late 20th century.

“Like other community organizations, it was a volunteer group that was just grappling with the issue of, ‘How do we collect and preserve these stories?’” Ikeda told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a Zoom interview.

Ikeda, who had recently quit his job at Microsoft, worked with fellow Microsoft cohort Scott Oki and a staff of around six people. He said Densho drew some inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project documenting the Holocaust and combined it with Ikeda’s thoughts on how the Internet would play a role in distributing the digitized interviews.

Digitizing JA stories
“I remember the early conversations, and people were saying, ‘Yeah, we’ll do these video recorded ones … and then we’ll copy them on video cassettes, VHS, and we’ll just make hundreds of copies and send them to libraries.’ And I just said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. We’re gonna do it all digital and we’ll wait for the Internet or the World Wide Web to catch up. And guys, before you know it, we’ll be able to distribute,’ which played out the way it does.”

Densho, however, became more than a repository of oral histories. The site now houses the Densho Encyclopedia, a resource of scholarly articles on the wartime incarceration.

“Densho is the gold-standard of factual information about the camps, no question. The go-to resource for historians and writers,” Frank Abe, a Seattle-based journalist, told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview.

Abe said Ikeda’s contributions to the study of incarceration history and technical savvy has been “incalculable.” He also praised his personal contributions moderating panels and working in the Seattle Nikkei community.

“I see the Densho Encyclopedia, Densho materials now regularly cited, commonly cited in bibliographies, as a reliable, if not the most reliable nonpartisan, independent source of verified and peer reviewed knowledge about the camps,” Abe said. “Densho is irreplaceable as the most comprehensive resource of incarceration history. I mean, it is quite literally the Wikipedia of Japanese American incarceration history, literature and culture.”
Ikeda said the site’s growth has been somewhat organic.

“It feels like it’s been a series of thousands of little steps to get to where we are and a lot of what we created came from this very interactive feedback loop with our community, in terms of what they thought, what they wanted,” Ikeda said. “We start off with the interviews, and very quickly, people said, ‘Oh, we have all these photographs too,’ and they make sense, so we put those together. And then documents and then letters — we had to figure out how to do that and, when we first started, there was nothing out there that did it really well.”

Organic and strategic growth
Ikeda, however, knew that as a founder-led organization, he needed to start planning a transition to a new generation. Six years ago, when Densho celebrated its 20th anniversary and Ikeda his 60th birthday, the organization began asking itself how a transition in leadership would work. It also started implementing necessary changes within its staff and board of directors to make it work.

“With that in place — a year ago — we started the process of trying to find the right person to lead the organization after I left. And so it’s been a very thorough, intentional process, stretching back six years and we’re still in there,” he said.

Naomi Ostwald Kawamura. photo by Yumi Freitag

Through their search, Densho found Kawamura, a San Diego-born Shin-Nisei, who most recently served as the executive director of Nikkei Place Foundation in Burnaby, British Columbia. She previously served as the director of education at the San Diego History Center in San Diego, Calif.’s Balboa Park and the associate director of next generation programs at Bay Area Video Coalition Media in San Francisco.

Kawamura has an undergraduate degree in metal smithing from the University of Washington, Seattle, a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and recently completed her dissertation on curriculum and pedagogy at the University of British Columbia.

Ikeda said the organization’s staff and board unanimously agreed Kawamura was the best person for the job.

Kawamura introduced herself during a Sept. 7 online open house held over Zoom, on her fourth day on the job. Ikeda, who is staying at Densho through October, will work with Kawamura as she settles into her new role as executive director.

During the open house, Kawamura candidly spoke about her own family history and work experience. She noted she had an outsider-insider perspective as a Shin-Nisei whose parents immigrated to the United States after the war. She doubly felt her outsider perspective as an American immigrant in Canada working with the Japanese Canadian community.

“When I moved to Canada, we didn’t know anyone here,” Kawamura said. “But from the outside, when I started working with the Japanese Canadian community, they wouldn’t know that I wasn’t JC, … I kept looking at the differences to funny things, like in Southern California, basketball is like a huge JA activity, but here, it’s baseball. What kind of food gets served at community events, like here chow mein is like a big thing, and that was interesting.”

Kawamura, however, said if her Shin-Nikkei heritage can help connect newer immigrant families to the Japanese American wartime experience, she would be interested in doing that as well.

Kawamura remains in Vancouver as she starts her new job. Approximately three hours away in a different country, she comes to help the Seattle-based nonprofit in a time where remote work has become more common through the world-wide pandemic. As a priority, she said would like to explore how the rest of Densho can adopt remote work.

“I’m coming in new and so I’m spending a lot more face time in the next few months, and my first few days was in Seattle and had a great time meeting the majority of the staff in person, and I still think that I will find that to be really important and a value I continue,” Kawamura said. “So it will be a balance, but I will be … conducting research on organizations that have pulled this off, or ways that they sort of think about a remote workplace, but I’ll definitely be doing this with the staff, informing me along the way as to what works for them, and what they value and what those needs will entail.”

Aside from remote work, Kawamura said her priorities include ensuring a smooth transition from Ikeda’s leadership to herself and meeting the local community in Seattle as she settles in. She also said she would like to study “what motivates Densho’s pedagogical approaches and identify these educational offerings and where we can extend them.”

Ikeda said Kawamura was chosen through a comprehensive and “exhaustive” search. While Kawamura has taken over the organization and he is looking toward retirement, he told the Nichi Bei Weekly he is as busy as ever juggling his work to help her assume her new role.

As the organization’s founder, Ikeda said he hoped Kawamura would lead Densho in a way he did when he first started the organization more than quarter of a century ago.

“When Densho was started, … I was about in my late 30s or 40-years-old and back then, most Japanese American organizations were led by Nisei, my parents’ generation.

And coming in as a late 30-40 year old, there was a sense that I was too young, inexperienced and my ideas were maybe not aligned with what the Nisei generation thought,”

Ikeda told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “And so when Densho started, I really felt this generational divide and that, in terms of the community, there was an opportunity for newer ideas in terms of how things can be done. I think especially, I felt in the last several years, that this similar transition needs to happen in the community.”

Ikeda went on to say that Densho should evolve to address future issues without the constraints of the values and ways of thinking carried over from the baby boomer generation.

Abe commended Ikeda for hiring young progressive women to his staff at Densho to make the organization a thought leader for the Japanese American community.

“Densho and Tom are not just archivists, historians or collectors, they’re thought leaders, and that’s been critical leadership,” he said. “Ever since the election of 2016, when we began this creep towards white supremacy and fascism in America, Densho and Tom have been there as thought leaders to point out the history of America, and how we’ve seen this before. And that has been one of the most important contributions Tom has made.”

As he readies to totally hand off the organization to Kawamura, Ikeda reflected on his 26 years leading his organization. He said his biggest accomplishment is how many people he has involved in his organization.

“I guess the biggest accomplishment is that, I feel like we’ve created a space, some people call it a platform, to preserve and share the Japanese American story in ways that are reaching millions of people,” he said. “And I think, helping to create that space, to allow so many people in our community to be able to preserve and share the story, I think is the biggest accomplishment.”

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