Why Does this Matter Now?

The story of World War II incarceration, and the decades of racial discrimination and government surveillance against Japanese Americans that preceded it, has never been more relevant. As we grapple with contemporary controversies surrounding immigration, terrorism, and the infringement of civil liberties in the name of public safety, parallels between past and present abound. Understanding this story offers opportunities for difficult, thought-provoking conversation and raises important questions: How does a democracy weigh individual rights against national security? Who is considered a “real” American? Does this change during times of fear? What is our responsibility to citizens and immigrants denied their constitutional rights?

Knowledge of this history helps to explain much about the Japanese American community today. Although these events took place over 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 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, Japanese Americans are keenly aware of that history. This gives their voice special authority in speaking out for others.

Densho presents many opportunities to understand how wartime hysteria fanned the flames of fear and hatred after the attack at Pearl Harbor. The materials on this site bear witness to the fact that, when threatened, we can easily discard our democratic ideals of justice and equality to chase after imaginary enemies. 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 for all Americans—citizens, immigrants and refugees alike—to remember as we confront challenges like Islamophobia, increasing hate violence, and the deep-seated nature of institutional racism that criminalizes Black and brown communities across the country.

“Densho” is a Japanese term meaning ‘to pass stories to the next generation,’ or to leave a legacy. We work to preserve the story of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to promote an examination of democracy and the importance of civic engagement. It is our great hope that you will share this story, initiate these important conversations within your own communities, and inspire future leaders to build a legacy of justice and equity for all.

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