Story Trumps Tech, Says Densho’s Tom Ikeda

November 23, 2016 • Homepage Feature, In-depth

Tom Ikeda, executive director of Densho, speaks at JANM on Nov. 5. Photo: George Toshio Johnston

By George Toshio Johnston, Contributor

A visitor to Densho.org could spend weeks trolling its all-digital collection of oral histories, transcripts, photos, “internment” camp newspapers — not to mention an encyclopedia — that encompasses the World War II-era forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans.

But for Densho’s co-founder/founding executive director, the site’s tech wizardry is not the star. For Tom Ikeda, it’s all about serving the power of story.

And that’s the point Ikeda made to attendees on Nov. 5 during a Town Hall meeting that was held at the George and Sakaye Aratani Central Hall of Little Tokyo?s Japanese American National Museum. Joining the discussion was the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which held its board meeting that weekend as well.

When JANM’s art director, Clement Hanami, introduced Ikeda, he called him “truly a visionary” for his efforts in creating the digital archive meant to document the WWII experiences of mainland Japanese Americans whose lives were massively disrupted with the stroke of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pen when he signed Executive Order 9066.

Ikeda admitted, however, that he didn’t feel like much of a visionary 21 years earlier when, at age 39, he and Densho co-founder Scott Oki came from Seattle to Los Angeles for two reasons. One was to see what was under way at Universal Studios, where Steven Spielberg was helping to launch the USC Shoah Foundation, which the “Schindler’s List” director was using his Hollywood clout to record and document the Holocaust with oral histories and the like.

The other reason was to share the technological vision the two Microsoft alumni had on how to do something similar for a major part of the Japanese American experience during WWII.

“We were really excited by this concept,” Ikeda said, “of using digital technology to collect, preserve and share the stories of Japanese Americans — and to share them all around the world — and we were going to set up this system where we?d have hundreds of oral histories video recorded so at the touch of a button, people could do a search, maybe for a camp like Manzanar and all of a sudden see these stories.” In addition, he said there would be historic photographs and documents, digital exhibits, curricula and more.

That digital vision, however, was just a bit too advanced. “We didn’t get that we were way ahead of our time,” Ikeda allowed, noting that the technology — digital video, broadband Internet, acceptance of the World Wide Web that is commonplace now — to deliver this vision was not quite ready.

Oki and Ikeda returned to Seattle, admitting nevertheless that he was a little disappointed the people at the museum and UCLA weren’t jumping onboard their vision like, “This is the future!”

Ikeda also admitted, “We didn’t know Japanese American history.” Back in Seattle, as he himself would start conducting more than 230 oral histories on video, he got a “graduate level course in Japanese American history.”

An early interview conducted by his wife, Sara Ikeda, was a turning point. The participant was the late Martha Nishitani, a Seattle-based giant in the world of modern dance. When the interview concluded, tears were streaming from Nishitani’s eyes. Concerned, the Ikedas asked her if she was OK. Nishitani’s reply — “Now I can die” — floored them.

According to Ikeda, the interview was a long-delayed opportunity for Nishitani to unburden herself by telling her story, which to that point she hadn?t even shared with her family. “It was like this huge weight was off her shoulders,” Ikeda said.

That and other interviews led him to realize that the process for the more than 900 people Densho has interviewed was also, for many, part of a healing process for former incarcerees. “The point I want to make that is so powerful to me is that it’s the stories, not technology. That’s the foundation of Densho,” Ikeda said.

Ikeda also said he felt that JANM and HMWF also were, in their own ways, the keepers of stories. “The Japanese American National Museum does it their way, as does the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation,” he said. “That’s my thesis for this event. It’s really about the stories, and that’s what we need to remember.”

Shirley Ann Higuchi introduces members of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation board of directors and advisory council at the Town Hall meeting held Nov. 5 at JANM in Los Angeles.

Shirley Ann Higuchi introduces members of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation board of directors and advisory council at the Town Hall meeting held Nov. 5 at JANM in Los Angeles.

When HMWF Chair Shirley Ann Higuchi took over the microphone, she called up that group’s board of directors and advisory council to join her up front in chairs facing the audience.

She noted the departure of HMWF Executive Director Brian Liesinger (who would also take the floor later and address the crowd) after more than three and a half years of service and the just-completed fifth anniversary of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.

“In the past year, many of you know that Heart Mountain has taken on the role of advocacy because we feel that just being a museum and sitting back and taking care of the precious artifacts is one piece of what our vision is,” Higuchi said. “But it’s also trying to correct the wrongs that we see in society or things that we feel uncomfortable about, so we try to speak out and try to correct those wrongs.”

As an example, Higuchi cited the HMWF’s role in halting the public auction of the Allen Eaton collection of artifacts — made by incarcerees — by the Rago auction house, now housed at JANM. She also noted HMWF’s role with the All-Camps Consortium meeting in Washington, D.C.

“We have to figure out a way to bring all the camps together and work together as a team,” she said.

Higuchi also introduced Sam Mihara, a Nisei board member and former Heart Mountain resident who continues to speak publicly about his first-hand experiences as an incarceree.

Mihara related an experience from his speaking tour of the Midwest and the East Coast, including a date at Harvard Law School.

“I was ready for the speech. I studied my four [Supreme Court] cases — Korematsu, Hirabayashi, Yasui and Endo — expecting questions along the lines of details of the court cases,” he said.

“When it came time for the Q & A, they didn’t ask a single question about these lawsuits. Not one,” said Mihara. “What they wanted to find out — and by the way, these were kids, Yonsei, Gosei, there were about 300 kids, almost all Japanese, many Chinese and some other people — they asked, ‘How did it feel?’ ‘How did it feel going on a train to a place you never heard of?’ ‘How did it feel going to northern Wyoming?’ ‘How did it feel coming out of the camp and going back home and facing all that racial hatred?’ They don’t get that out of the books. That’s the legacy I think all of us have. When it comes to the question, ‘What do you want to know about these camps?’ and you pass on the word, it’s a feeling. It’s inhumane what they did. And that’s what young people want to hear.”

A highlight of Higuchi’s presentation was the recognition of Jack Kunitomi. The 101-year-old former Heart Mountain incarceree and Military Intelligence Service veteran walked up to the front on his own to take a seat next to Higuchi and accept a round of applause.

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