The story of how racial discrimination against Japanese Americans led to World War II incarceration is especially important now as we grapple with contemporary issues surrounding racial profiling, terrorist threats, and the infringement of civil liberties in the name of public safety. Understanding this story offers opportunities for thought-provoking conversation and raises many relevant questions: How does a democracy weigh civil liberties versus homeland security? How does a democracy make good decisions living with the threat of terrorism? When, if ever, should we deny citizens their Constitutional rights?
Knowledge of this history helps to explain much about the Japanese American community today. Although these events took place nearly three quarters of a century ago, they left a powerful legacy, influencing everything from where many Japanese Americans were born and raised to how they relate to their elders and raise their children.
Keeping memories of the incarceration alive also gives Japanese Americans both the power and responsibility to speak out when other groups are unfairly targeted because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or other identity. Having once been victims of such discriminatory policies combined with awareness of that history gives their voice special authority in speaking out for others.
Densho presents many opportunities for understanding a time when many people in the United States were filled with fear and hatred after the attack at Pearl Harbor. The materials on this site bear witness to the fact that, when threatened, imaginary enemies can appear and we can easily discard our democratic ideals of justice and equality to try to feel safer. Furthermore, false rumors—sensationalized and given credence by a profit-maximizing media or vote-seeking politicians—can overwhelm and contradict research and evidence-based analysis.
These are valuable lessons to remember as we confront challenges like terrorism, U.S. surveillance of its citizens, and the deep-seated nature of institutional racism that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has drawn attention to.
Densho works to preserve the story of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to promote the examination of democracy and the responsibilities of citizens and their governments. In fact, “Densho” is a Japanese term meaning ‘to pass stories to the next generation.’ It is our great hope that you will find ways to share this story and initiate these important conversations within your own communities.