Resource: Denshō

How do we preserve peoples’ experiences and stories while placing them in historical context? How can these narratives help us to promote equity and justice? These are some of the driving questions behind Densho, a nonprofit organization begun in 1996 that now hosts an extensive digital archive on the lives of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II. 

As their website states:

We offer these irreplaceable firsthand accounts, coupled with historical images and teacher resources, to explore principles of democracy, and promote equal justice for all.

Densho is a Japanese term meaning “to pass on to the next generation,” or to leave a legacy. The legacy we offer is an American story with ongoing relevance: during World War II, the United States government incarcerated innocent people solely because of their ancestry.

The site offers a wide variety of ways to explore the historical material they’ve curated, beginning with a Core Story section that integrates relevant media into short essays about the history of the racist acts against Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII, ranging from the first growth of diasporic communities to a “Why Does this Matter Now?” commentary on how the historical past directly reflects present concerns about civil liberties.

Their Encyclopedia section includes over 650 articles on people, places, terminology, events, and more, all of which feature citations for the sources used to write each short piece. They also have search options to explore alphabetically, by categories (Arts, Chroniclers, People, Resettlement, etc.), or by a standard search bar function. The articles vary in length, but all are well-sourced and provide critical details for more fully understanding the historical context and actors of this time.

Densho’s Digital Archives section is divided into four parts: Digital Repository, Visual History Program, Share Your Collections, and Create Family Archives. The Digital Repository comprises a wide variety of archival materials, including photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, oral histories, and more, all of which have invaluable and extensive metadata. These can be browsed by subsections: narrators, collections, topics, facilities (e.g. by incarceration camp), or searched by keywords. Many of the digitized materials can be freely used for educational purposes. The subsections and individual collections contain hundreds of archival items. Notably, there is also a “Names” area that includes downloadable and searchable datasets from name registries, which offers information about those held in the ten War Relocation Authority camps during WWII.

The Visual History Program area provides instructions and resources for conducting the oral interviews that help populate their repository and preserve the histories of living individuals connected to Densho’s themes. Similarly, their Share Your Collections page provides an easy way to learn more about how you can contribute to the repository by sharing any relevant materials. The Create Family Archives also instructs community members on how they can best preserve (both physically and digitally) these artefacts, a crucial first step to ensuring they are not lost over time.

There is also a Learning Center that features multidisciplinary lessons related to the site’s content. These units contain even more extensive multimedia resources, such as maps and timelines, and focus on particular themes like examining racism and discrimination through oral histories, usings newspapers as primary sources, geographic examinations of camps, and more. Handy curriculum guides help teachers consider how they can implement these materials in the classroom, from learning objectives and suggested prompts to resources on further developing one’s pedagogy on particular subjects. The volume of materials and coverage is incredibly rich.

Densho also maintains a newsletter so that you can keep up to date with what they’ve been doing and new additions to the site’s collection, as well as a donation page to help support the project’s ongoing development. Densho is an incredible resource for the history of AAPI communities in the US, and an excellent tool for personal learning as well as classroom instruction. You can follow their work on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.


About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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