We are two months away from the launch of the Densho Encyclopedia and want your feedback. We made a beta version available for viewing and testing: encyclopedia.densho.org.
Brian Niiya, Content Director, Densho
The intent of this first phase of the encyclopedia is to provide a free, easy-to-use, and reliable reference work on the World War II exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans and related topics. While not a scholarly work—and not directly intended for an academic audience—we wanted it to reflect the state of scholarship in the field and to draw on the latest research.
I selected the headwords by reviewing some of the major overview works on the Japanese American World War II experience and extracting concepts that seemed to recur in them. These included some topics related to the Japanese American experience prior to the war, since it is generally accepted now that one cannot understand the World War II period without understanding what came before. Recent overview works also cover what happened to Japanese Americans in the early postwar years as individuals and communities struggled to rebuild their lives and also cover the movement for redress and reparations that culminated with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. So topics related to those general time periods are also a part of this encyclopedia
But beyond these basic topics—topics that one cannot really tell the story of the Japanese American World War II experience without—I also wanted to include a range of other topics that scholars have explored in recent years. Thus, I looked at the wide range of books and academic journal articles old and new—and also drew from the topics covered in print reference books including the Japanese American encyclopedia I edited for the Japanese American National Museum some twenty years ago—to select other headwords. The advisors to the project also contributed their ideas and comments as did the various authors. But whether these were the core topics or more secondary ones, the idea is that any of the topics included in this first phase of the encyclopedia could be written purely based on secondary sources.
There are a couple of specific categories of topics I wanted to discuss a bit further. One are the sites of incarceration themselves—the ten War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps (the “Big 10” as they are informally referred to in the Densho office), the so-called “assembly centers,” and the confusing array of other camps run by the army, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and other entities for holding interned enemy aliens, dissidents from the WRA camps, and others. Since Densho had previously done a project titled “Sites of Shame” (SoS) a few years back that included information on a large number of these camps, we decided to import that information into the encyclopedia and create entries for each of the sites covered in SoS. I directed the authors of these entries—who are often people involved with the preservation of the sites today—to write not only about the World War II period, but also about the sites before the war and about any contemporary efforts to preserve, memorialize, or interpret the sites. Some of these articles are very brief—and need authors—since there has been little research on some of the individual camps. But over time, we hope to expand these “camp” articles with your help. And, yes, we do know that the list of camps covered in SoS is incomplete. For instance, a recently commissioned Special Resource Study by the National Park Service involves the exploration of thirteen sites just in Hawai’i; of those thirteen, just two are included in SoS and thus in this encyclopedia. Over time, we hope to add as many of these other sites as we can.
The other category of topics I wanted to expand upon a bit are the biographies. The main criterion for the biographical entries are individuals who have been the subject of scholarly inquiry, whether non-Japanese Americans who played some role in the story of exclusion and incarceration or Japanese Americans themselves. In addition to scholarly works, I also mined mainstream biographical books aimed at a general audience, such as Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. Beyond there being some reliable body of literature on these individuals, I also made the decision to limit the biographical entries in this first phase of the encyclopedia to those who were old enough to have played some direct role in the incarceration story, as opposed to the many who were incarcerated as children and whose subsequent lives may have been shaped by that experience. Thus, there is an article on Yuri Kochiyama, but not one on Richard Aoki, to name two Japanese Americans who have been the subjects of recent academic biographies. The exception to this are younger individuals who played some role in the redress movement, such as Robert Matsui.
I should also mention the support of a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Fund (CCLPEF). After the first set of headwords were selected, we received funding from CCLPEF for some additional articles about the California experience that we would not otherwise have done. Many kinds of topics may have relevance to California, which did after all have the largest Japanese American population of the 48 states in 1942; however topics that were specific to California were harder to generate. A large number of the added entries ended up being biographical, whether of individuals from California or whose life’s work took place there. There are also some more fully developed articles on army or INS camps in California (which I know somewhat violates my earlier assertion that all entries could be written from secondary sources), a few legal cases based in California, and organizations based there. But this additional funding is a good part of the reason why there may be an overrepresentation of biographical figures having to do with California.
I should also mention the advisory committee for the encyclopedia and explain their role. In addition to providing input into the selection of headwords, I’ve also asked them review some of the articles in their areas of expertise and to make suggestions for revisions. While I have mostly taken their advice, I have in the end made the final decisions on what to include and what not to include and in the particular way the entries are edited. So you should not blame them for any deficiencies or disagreements you have with the entries and their selection. I do owe them many thanks for their frank advice and encouragement and for their direct contributions to the encyclopedia as well.
Also owed many thanks are the Densho staff: Dana Hoshide and Caitlin Oiye for selection of primary sources and copyediting, Virginia Yamada for grant management, Geoff Jost for doing the technical stuff that I don’t understand, Geoff Froh for the overall project management, and Tom Ikeda for the ultimate oversight and conception of the project. The group has been genuinely a pleasure to work with—though perhaps this is because I am working from Honolulu they are mostly in Seattle! At any rate, what you see is truly a team effort.
I’d also like to acknowledge the many authors who have written one or many articles for the encyclopedia. Of course this work wouldn’t have been possible without their specific expertise, adherence to deadlines (at least some of them), and openness to revision and editing.
Having worked mostly in print in the past, I find the online format both a blessing and a curse. A print encyclopedia is out of date the day it is published. In the interim between submitting a final manuscript and holding the finished book in your hands, inevitably, someone has passed away, some new article has changed the way we understand some topic, some new book has brought to light some event no one knew about before. The great advantage of the online format is that it is easy to update and to keep current. Theoretically, this encyclopedia will never be out of date. This is the blessing. On the other hand, knowing that your job was done once a book goes to print brings a sense of finality, and you can safely move on to the next project. With an online project, your work is in a sense never finished; you can never put your feet up and say, “this is it.” That is the curse. I have resigned myself to having this encyclopedia be a part of my job for as long as it—or I—live(s).
But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I thank Densho and its funders and supporters for the opportunity to work on this project and look forward to refining and expanding it over the next few years with your help and participation.