Parallels between the political climate 75 years ago, when 120,000 Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, and today, raise red flags, says Tom Ikeda, the founder of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project.
“If people become fearful enough…it will break down the fabric of our society,” he added
This month, Ikeda will be the keynote speaker at an event here commemorating Japanese American internment: “Remembering the Japanese-American Internment: 75 Years.”
The event will be held at the University of Colorado Boulder on Feb. 23 from 4:30-7 p.m. in the British and Irish Studies Room in Norlin Library. The event is hosted by the CU Boulder Center for Asian Studies.
The Japanese word “densho” means “to pass on to the next generation.” Founded in 1996, Densho is a digital archive that collects and preserves the testimonies of Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.
The online database includes interviews, documents, photographs and newspaper clippings, as well as over 900 oral histories from Japanese Americans who lived in what are officially called internment camps but which Ikeda terms concentration camps.
“Hearing the personal stories, for me, has a stronger impact than just reading it in history books,” Ikeda said. He recalls sitting across from a woman who, after sharing her story, said she now felt she could die.
“It was like an emotional release for many of them. They had been holding back these memories…for 50 years,” Ikeda continued. Ikeda himself is a third-generation Japanese American whose parents and grandparents were incarcerated during World War II at Minidoka, Idaho.
“What we’ve witnessed with families and communities is this healing process,” said Ikeda. Twenty-one years into Densho’s work, “it’s much easier for people to share their stories.”
Ikeda contends that sharing the stories from this dark time in America’s history is extremely relevant today.
“It’s really important for all of us to remember the mistakes of the past so we don’t repeat them,” Ikeda said. “It may not be exactly what happened in the incarceration. It may be a registry of a particular group because of their religion or enhanced surveillance. Things like that will really start breaking down the fabric of our society.”
In light of President Trump’s recent executive order barring immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, reflecting on the mistakes of the past sparks a discussion about democracy, civil rights, and citizen responsibility.
“We take so much for granted,” Ikeda said. “We believe that as citizens we will be given certain protections and we don’t really have to worry. What students need to know is that these things can happen.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American citizens faced prejudice and suspicion from neighbors and government officials alike. Today, Ikeda hopes people can see the danger in making assumptions based on fear.
“In a climate of fear, whether it’s real or manufactured, people want to feel safe. To characterize a whole group and treat them as guilty is where it falls apart,” he said. “When confronted with this fearful climate, rather than shrink back from it, we should reach out to each other.”
When Ikeda visits Boulder this month, he will weave some stories he’s collected into the larger historical narrative of what was happening 75 years ago, as well as address why it’s important to commemorate this event today.
“What we find is that every story is unique,” Ikeda said of the stories he’s been told. “What the oral histories have done is to really give us a perspective from the individual. It’s not black and white, how people thought about and what they did in camps and after camps. It varies from person to person. I think it’s important that these stories are told.”
He added, “The more we get to know each other, what we find is how common our stories are.”
“Remembering the Japanese-American Internment: 75 Years” is cohosted by the CU Boulder Center of the American West as well as the history and ethnic studies departments. Ikeda's presentation will be followed by a panel discussion comprising Patty Limerick, director of the Center of the American West; Daryl Maeda, associate professor of ethnic studies; and Marcia Yonemoto, assocate professor of history.