August 31, 2015

The Densho Encyclopedia published its 1,000th article this month—a milestone made possible, in part, by a grant from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program.

The Densho Encyclopedia is a free and publicly accessible website that provides concise, historically accurate information about Japanese American history, with an emphasis on World War II incarceration. The first phase of the project, containing more than 300 articles was launched online September 1, 2012. The Encyclopedia is envisioned as a long-term, living resource that will continue to grow over time. In this guest post, Densho’s Content Director Brian Niiya, discusses the significance of the 1,000th post as well as ongoing efforts to develop the Encyclopedia.

[Photo caption: Common Ground contributor Mary Oyama Mittwer, May 13, 1944, Denver, Colorado. Courtesy of [WRA no. -150], War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement, BANC PIC 1967.014–PIC, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. ]

Densho’s 1,000th Encyclopedia article focuses on the 1940s progressive magazine, Common Ground. Although it is to some degree happenstance that this should end up the milestone article, it is an appropriate one for a number of reasons.

As it turns out, the first issue of Common Ground appeared 75 years ago this month, in August of 1940. Largely the creation of best-selling author and editor Louis Adamic and published by the Common Council for American Unity, Common Ground was a quarterly magazine that focused on immigrant and ethnic groups in America, noting their contributions to American society and the problems they faced. Funding for the publication came largely from the Carnegie Foundation. Though Adamic resigned as editor six issues in, his successor M. Margaret Anderson continued in a similar vein for the rest of its lifespan.

While there was some coverage of Japanese Americans prior to the war, the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans and its aftermath saw a tremendous uptick of stories by and about Japanese Americans. Stories by Nisei writers such as Larry Tajiri, Mary Oyama Mittwer, and Eddie Shimano provided an insider’s view of life in the concentration camps and various visions of Japanese American communities upon leaving camp. Non-Japanese Americans ranging from WRA director Dillon Myer and other WRA staffers to figures such as Robert O’Brien and Carey McWilliams who assisted in resettlement provide contemporaneous views of the various issues Japanese Americans faced. This coverage—alongside similar coverage of issues facing African Americans and other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.—argued for equal treatment and equal opportunity for all, given the democratic principles that we were ostensibly fighting for in World War II.

To be sure, the vision of Japanese Americans in Common Ground, while sympathetic, is a limited one. Nikkei contributors are nearly all Nisei who promote an assimilationist future in America. You won’t find true Issei voices or from those who lost faith in America. While not aligned with the Japanese American Citizens League, the viewpoint in Common Ground is not dissimilar to that of the JACL, for better or for worse.

As article number 1,000, the Common Ground entry shares some characteristics with many other articles in the Encyclopedia. As with nearly all of the articles or groups of articles, it has been the subject of substantial academic research, which forms the basis for the article. Like many topics in the Encyclopedia, there are substantial online sources we can link to: in the case of Common Ground, 33 of its 37 issues have been digitized and put online as part of the Utz Archive, and the article includes links to articles on Japanese American related topics. Because of the many contributors to Common Ground who were key figures in the incarceration and resettlement story and because it touches on many important issues related to that topic, the article is filled with links to other articles in the Encyclopedia that can help contemporary readers of the Common Ground articles understand the context in which those articles were written. Finally, Common Ground‘s message about the contributions that immigrants make to American life seems more relevant than ever given discussions about immigration that have been in the news lately.

One thousand Encyclopedia articles notwithstanding, there is still much to do. There are still a handful of key articles in development and those will be appearing in the weeks to come. We also received a new grant from JACS that will have us focus on optimizing the Encyclopedia for educational use, along with a smaller one from the Kono Family Foundation that will allow for the development of new articles on the Hawai’ian experience during the war. We’ll tell you more about these new directions as we go along.

The Encyclopedia has become the most used part of the Densho website and increasingly serves as the gateway to other Densho resources. We are glad you are finding it useful, and as always, we appreciate hearing any of your thoughts and suggestions about current and potential future articles.

Visit the Densho Encyclopedia to learn more about Common Ground and to explore our other topics.

Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director