Naomi Ostwald Kawamura, Densho’s incoming executive director, and founding executive director Tom Ikeda during a meet-and-greet session at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute on Tuesday.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

GARDENA ‑Tom Ikeda, founding executive director of Densho, introduced his successor, Naomi Ostwald Kawamura, at a reception at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute on Tuesday.

Kawamura is originally from San Diego and worked for the past five years as the executive director of the Nikkei Place Foundation, a campus of three Japanese Canadian nonprofit organizations based in British Columbia. She has also held leadership positions at the San Diego History Center, the California Center for the Arts, and BAVC Media, among others.

She graduated from the University of Washington with a BFA in metal design and holds a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is currently completing doctoral work in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, where her husband is a tenured professor. Her thesis focuses on the intergenerational transfer of memory in the Japanese American and Japanese Canadian communities.

Ikeda, who announced his retirement in March, explained the process of envisioning a successor actually started six years ago when he turned 60. He co-founded the Seattle-based digital archive of the Japanese American incarceration experience in 1996 and it has since grown to contain more than 1,000 oral histories and nearly 111,000 photos and other historic objects. The executive search firm Koya Partners led the hiring process, which Ikeda described as analytical, exhaustive and thorough.

Kawamura, who started on Sept. 1, emerged as the unanimous choice of the selection committee composed of board and staff. The visit to Los Angeles was an opportunity to meet with local key stakeholders. In addition to Tuesday’s meeting, Kawamura and Ikeda also met with representatives at the Japanese American National Museum and the Smithsonian.

Tom Ikeda (left) speaks with community leader Alan Nishio during a reception held at GVJCI’s Nisei Veterans Memorial Hall on Tuesday.

“She has surpassed expectations. I’ve found a kindred spirit. The conversations have been delightful,” Ikeda said.

Kawamura explained that her background is in education and she always approaches issues from the mindset of an educator. In the short term, her focus will be on ensuring a smooth succession and maintaining the organization’s stability. She will debut as executive director at the 2022 Densho virtual gala on Nov. 2.

Kawamura is fluent in Japanese and her father and grandfather were both Hiroshima atomic bomb survivors. Their experiences led her to think about how those experiences continue to resonate in subsequent generations.

“As somebody that grew up in the shadow of World War II, I really thought about what it meant to be the second generation of an experience I never lived but it meant so much to my family. So I knew that I needed to be responsible and needed to do something with the role that I was born into,” said Kawamura.

“That led to more of an exploration of memory in the JA and JC context. In a similar vein that the Second World War and the wartime incarceration is this memory that the lived experiences of the survivors are passing on. What does that mean for second, third generations to take that memory on? What to we do with it? How do we animate that history so that it matters and doesn’t happen again?”

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Photos by GWEN MURANAKA/Rafu Shimpo

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