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APA Spotlight

Tom Ikeda, Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project

Tom Ikeda is the founding Executive Director of Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project. Using web technology, Densho provides access to over 400 video testimonies, 10,000 historical photos and documents, and in-depth teacher resources to explore principles of democracy by examining the World War II experiences of Japanese Americans.

Densho—a Japanese term meaning “to pass on to the next generation,” or to leave a legacy—seeks to educate young people and inspire them to act in defense of liberty and the highest values of our country.

In addition to leading the organization over the last 14 years, Tom has conducted over 130 video-recorded, oral history interviews with Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. Prior to working at Densho, Tom was a General Manager at Microsoft Corporation in the Multimedia Publishing Group. He has received numerous awards for his historical contributions, including the Humanities Washington Award for outstanding achievement in the public humanities, the National JACL Japanese American of the Biennium award for Education, the Online History Award from the American Library Association, and finalist for the Microsoft Alumni Fellows Award. Tom graduated from the University of Washington with a BS in Chemical Engineering, BA in Chemistry and an MBA.

1. What is the mission statement of your life?

How I live my life keeps evolving over the years. In my 20′s, I searched for my purpose as I attended graduate school, worked a few jobs, and traveled. In my 30′s, I was a “follow your passion” type of person and pursued a career in the hi-tech industry and then quit Microsoft just before millions of dollars of stock options vested (I kind of regret now not waiting!) In my 40′s, I started Densho and did oral histories with our Nisei elders and asked them what was important. What I heard and observed made me decide to take better care of my health, spend more time with family, friends and community, and be a person of integrity. Now, as someone in my mid-50′s I follow my passions but am more mindful of my health, family and integrity.

2. How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

I think of myself as a shy nerd who likes to build things. I am excited and comfortable working with technology with other nerds. This served me well in places like Microsoft where it was possible to work as a kind of behind-the-scenes, team player. I had to change when I started Densho. Starting a new organization to build a virtual museum of the Japanese American experience forced me to become more visible by speaking in front of groups and asking for help and money from strangers. My fears seemed small compared with the reality that Nisei with incredible stories were dying and something extraordinary had to happen to preserve their memories for future generations.

3. If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

I feel like a nerd but I love how Patrick Stewart plays the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek, The Next Generation.

4. How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?

You can become a fan on Densho’s Facebook page, check out our website, subscribe to our free monthly newsletter at or email me

5. If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?

What I hope to see is a community connecting and reaching out with generous sharing.

Bonus Question: What advice do you have for young professionals? Would you give different advice for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?

I have the same advice for both groups. Be bold, make mistakes, pick yourself up, and be bold again.

Bonus Question: What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?

As a kid my mother would tell me on my birthday that I could choose any dish for dinner. I would ask for a raw egg, shoyu, and green onions over a hot bowl of rice. My older brothers would get mad at me, wanting me to request pizza or fried chicken!

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?

Reading a novel all night, knowing the next day I am going to be yawning, drinking coffee, and being pretty unproductive.

* This article was originally published on on November 11, 2010.

© 2010 Koji Steven Sakai

densho identity seattle tom Ikeda

About this series

"APA Spotlight" is a regular interview series on by Koji Steven Sakai interviewing Asian American community leaders from around the country.
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