A portrait of Naomi Ostwald Kawamura smiling slightly at the camera, with a brick wall in the background

Japanese American Nonprofit Densho Welcomes New Executive Director

by Jadenne Radoc Cabahug; reporting by Debby Cheng

Naomi Ostwald Kawamura’s biggest motivation for serving the Japanese American community is a trait passed down from her Japanese immigrant parents, who gave their time and energy to others. 

“I feel like if we continue to all kind of work quietly towards good work, we can transform our schools, neighborhoods, communities, and societies into becoming more equitable, welcoming spaces,” Ostwald Kawamura said. 

Ostwald Kawamura is the new executive director of Japanese American history archival organization Densho. Densho (伝承) in Japanese means “to pass on to the next generation” or to leave a legacy, reflecting the nonprofit’s main objectives, which are to document, learn, and educate about the history of Japanese Americans, with focus on Executive Order 9066, which saw the removal of at least 120,000 Japanese Americans to prison camps

During WWII, Seattle had the third-largest Japanese American community on the West Coast, and Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island were the first to be forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated. 

Densho was founded in 1996 with the goal of preserving firsthand accounts of the Japanese American experience during incarceration. Densho preserves primary sources, like photographs, documents, newspapers, letters, and digitized oral histories.

The nonprofit’s collections include a digital repository, oral history that includes interviews with survivors, historical materials, a family history and genealogy program, an encyclopedia, a names registry, and Sites of Shame, which is an interactive map, timeline, and site locator showing national WWII detention facilities. 

Ostwald Kawamura was born in San Diego and is a second-generation Japanese American, or “Shin-Nisei.” Her father and grandfather survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. 

“I have felt this tremendous sense of responsibility to live my life in a way that [adds] meaning to my dad and grandfather surviving, and I feel like I can contribute towards a more just world that adds more meaning to the fact that my dad and grandfather survived,” she said. 

While her father never opened up to her about his trauma when she was a child, he did tell her more when she became an adult, and her identity was shaped by his survivor narrative. 

“I think as you kind of get older, you realize how much this lore transformed the lives of so many people and impacted so many people around the globe,” she said. “And so you kind of develop more of a deeper connection to that historic event, and in a richer manner.” 

Ostwald Kawamura lived along the West Coast, moving from San Diego to the San Francisco area, then to the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, and she graduated from the University of Washington. She earned a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is pursuing a doctorate in curriculum and pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, where she lives now. 

She served as the executive director of the Nikkei Place Foundation, a Japanese Canadian community-based organization. She says it’s been a good opportunity for her to contribute to history education in the United States, since she’s been in Canada for the past eight years. She has been working remotely since starting her position in July under the guidance of former Densho Executive Director Tom Ikeda.

Naomi Ostwald Kawamura and Tom Ikeda stand side by side smiling at the camera, with water and boats and trees visible in the landscape behind them
Naomi Ostwald Kawamura, current executive director, and Tom Ikeda, recent executive director of Densho. (Photo courtesy of Densho)

“We interviewed a lot of people, and something that stood out right away was this connection,” Ikeda said. Densho’s board and staff search committee unanimously selected Ostwald Kawamura after a national and international search. 

Ostwald Kawamura says her priority as the new executive director is to ensure a smooth leadership transition, while supporting Ikeda’s legacy and maintaining relationships that Ikeda formed over the years with Japanese American organizations in Seattle and other major cities nationwide. 

“Finding Naomi, it’s all part of this culture of thinking about the next generation, and how this can be sustained,” Ikeda said. “Not just for the next year or five years, but really having a strong culture, regardless of who’s the executive director, who’s on staff, that this continues for generations. We have this vision that we talked about at Densho that all Americans will know the history and understand the lessons of the World War II Japanese American incarceration.” 

Ostwald Kawamura says Densho’s work continues to be important in light of the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, and she hopes learning about history will allow communities to feel more empowered and move toward respect through education. 

“I appreciate the opportunity to be able to work so closely with Tom, who I’ve known and respected for many years from a distance,” Ostwald Kawamura said. “A part of me that feels the sense of gratitude and sense of loss and know that it’ll be a mixture of bittersweet transition point for myself as well.”

Jadenne Radoc Cabahug is a senior at the University of Washington majoring in Communications: Journalism and Public Interest and double minoring in international studies and French.  She began her journalism career at 15 in Seattle through NPR KUOW 94.9 FM’s RadioActive Youth Media Program producing radio feature stories and podcasts. Since then, she has moved to print and online journalism, writing for local Seattle outlets like Crosscut, the International Examiner, the Daily and breaking international news Factal.

📸 Featured Image: Naomi Ostwald Kawamura is the new Executive Director of Densho. (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

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