UC Berkeley alumnus recounts time in Japanese-American internment camp

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Allie Satoda/Courtesy
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On the day of his graduation from UC Berkeley, Yonekazu Satoda was not lining up in cap and gown with fellow soon-to-be graduates. Instead, he sat 2,000 miles away in an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas, scribbling brief notes about the “very hot” day and the “bull session” he had with friends.

Satoda wrote about this missed rite of passage on May 13, 1942, marking the second entry in a journal he would keep throughout three years of internment. The diary came to light last December as part of a new exhibit at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, entitled “Out of the Desert: Resilience and Memory in Japanese American Internment.”EPSON MFP image

“(The journal) was something I discarded 50 years ago. I didn’t know it existed. In fact, I had to be reminded I wrote the thing. Although today I recall certain things about it,” Satoda said in an email interview.

Satoda was one of nearly 120,000 people of Japanese descent affected by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which called for the relocation of all persons of Japanese ancestry outside the Pacific military zone. The order pertained to Japanese immigrants as well as U.S. citizens of Japanese descent — roughly two-thirds of the Japanese population — and was a reaction to fears of Japanese espionage after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Satoda was a second-generation immigrant, known as the “Nisei” generation, having been born in 1921 in California to first-generation “Issei” immigrants from Hiroshima, Japan. His father, Otokichi “Fred” Satoda, moved to the United States in 1902, and his mother, Asano Satoda, in 1920. In 1942, Satoda, his parents and two younger siblings were forced to abandon their home in Hanford, CA for an assembly center in Fresno, CA, and later the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas.

The Jerome Relocation Center comprised roughly 10,000 acres of humid, mosquito-infested swamp land. Unlike other camps, Jerome had neither regularly manned guard towers nor high walls to contain its 8,500 internees; government authorities considered the four deadly species of snakes in the surrounding swamps an adequate enough deterrent. Inside the camp, residents worked and farmed while younger children continued to attend school. Satoda says he has no idea why he decided to keep his journal but remembers wanting to keep a record of what the government did for internees.

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“I kept a notation everyday. Actually, nothing happened; it turned out to be a quiet experience,” Satoda said.

In fact, Satoda’s memories of Jerome are mainly positive despite the inhospitable climate and remote location of the camp. He recalls spending his first year teaching high school and the latter portion working in the storage warehouse. Routine helped the days pass quickly.

“Regular hours, do your job, play around, in the evenings you play bridge or games — basketball, baseball after 5 o’clock,” he remembered.

One advantage Satoda saw in the close quarters of the camp was the opportunity to meet Japanese Americans from all over the country. Today he has friends and acquaintances in nearly every major city of the United States, a “tremendous network.” Satoda remained in casual contact with fellow Berkeley students, many of whom who were sent to different camps, though he says he “didn’t have sweethearts or anything.”

For many Japanese internees, one benefit of the camps was that they provided a haven from the prevalent anti-Japanese racism during the war. Satoda, however, feels that his youth may have precluded him from fully recognizing racism at the time. Although he remembers not being allowed in some swimming pools, certain expensive hotels and various other “rules and regulations,” he says he did not feel much discrimination at UC Berkeley before internment.

“When you’re young, kids aren’t aware of that kind of stuff. I just felt that was the way of life. … I didn’t have any particular grievance about rights or anything. In the early ‘30s, it was quite rampant — probably I was naïve, and I didn’t particularly worry about the constitution. I went with the flow,” he said.

In 1945, Satoda was drafted to the U.S. Army, serving as a military intelligence officer in Tokyo and Hokkaido, Japan, from 1946 to 1948. He then served in the U.S. Army Reserves until retiring as a major in 1969. Although he acknowledges many friends had strong feelings about being drafted after internment, Satoda says he had no reservations about the matter, instead viewing military service as a chance to “do something new and different, kind of exciting.” Daisy&Yone2014

“It was the challenge of the period,” Satoda said, reminiscing on the post-war adjustment to civilian life. “We call it the greatest generation because people worked hard to come out of the war. It was very difficult, but it was an upgrade all the way. Great Depression was everything going down; after the war, everything was starting to boom.”

After the war, Satoda became an accountant and, in 1961, married Taka “Daisy” Uyeda. The couple had three children together. Today they live together in San Francisco, where they are visited by their grandson, UC Berkeley senior DJ Satoda.

Nearly 70 years later, Yonekazu Satoda still has fond memories of his formative years at Berkeley, where he says he made great friends and meaningful connections.

“It was the best time of my life.”

Editor’s note: DJ Satoda and Caroline Satoda facilitated the email interview with Yonekazu Satoda.

Contact Madeline Zimring at mzimring@dailycal.org.

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  • ShadrachSmith

    If you are selling white guilt, I will see your internment camp and raise you the rape of Nanking.

    • lspanker

      Don’t forget Pearl Harbor, Manila, “hell ships” for POWs, the Korean “comfort women”, and Unit 731… I have worked and traveled extensively in Japan over the years, have no particular axe to grind with the Japanese people, and certainly don’t hold the last 2 or 3 generations of Japanese responsible for things that happened beyond their control or before they were born, but I certainly don’t think the Daily Cal staff has much intellectual curiosity when it comes to investigating certain details of history that don’t conform to their own particular worldview…

      • ShadrachSmith

        I don’t credit “white guilt” memes from the Japanese. History stands above Japan and shouts so loudly I just can’t hear their words.

  • Mark Talmont

    A good story but it’s kind of depressing that it takes an exhibit at Yale to highlight this. What have the Ethnic Studies and History departments at Cal been doing all these years? This should have been covered exhaustively while the witnesses were available to tell their stories, now almost all of them are no longer with us. (there is an artifact of the times viewable on Youtube, the 1951 Hollywood production “Go For Broke” about the heroic 442nd Combat Team featuring actors who were in the war. Other documentary footage regarding the 442nd is on Youtube as well.

    A friend of mine who had lived in Berkeley since the post-WW2 days was acquainted with a Japanese-American woman who went through the camp experience as a nurse, returned to the Bay Area and ultimately achieved hospital administrator status at a time when few women had done this. My friend contacted the Oral History Project about her being archived and she was told “we’re only interested if they’re famous”!

    • ShadrachSmith

      If somebody is hating on whitey, you want to help :-)

  • Bwin51

    It’s nice to know they were not harmed, but I am familiar with another family who lost all their property including dental equipment that had been owned by a professional dentist father who needed that equipment to earn a living. All properties were confiscated and sold off including land, houses, anything they were forced to leave behind. People had to start again from zero.

    • Mark Talmont

      The question of what happened to the internees post-war is not simple. Some California farmers were able to protect their land holdings and resume life as they had before; the case of the Yamato Colony in what is now Livingston in Merced County is an example. Others in camps back east wound up staying in those regions, there is a PBS video about a camp in the south responsible for the current Japanese-American community in Indiana.