THE NEW YORK TIMES
ART & DESIGN
Life in a Japanese-American Internment Camp, via the Diary of a Young Man
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWNDEC. 1, 2015
The first page of a diary kept by Yonekazu Satoda at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas in the 1940s. The second entry was written the day he was supposed to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley. Credit Beinecke Library, Yale University
NEW HAVEN — Until recently, Yonekazu Satoda says, he did not recall the diary he had written in neat cursive in the laundry building of an internment camp in Arkansas. He would eke out his entries at night amid the washboards and concrete sinks, the only private space in the camp with light.
Mr. Satoda, who gives his age as “94½,” was 22 when he and his family were uprooted from their home in San Francisco and sent to an assembly center in Fresno, Calif., and then to the Jerome Relocation Center in the mosquito-ridden Arkansas Delta. They were among an estimated 120,000 people of Japanese descent, about two-thirds of them United States citizens, who were regarded as enemy aliens and incarcerated after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Today was supposed to be my graduation day at Cal,” Mr. Satoda noted on May 13, 1942, the second day of a confinement that lasted almost three years.
“Got hell from Mom for fooling around with women,” he wrote six days later.
“Hot as hell today,” he reported the following evening. “Ptomaine poisoning in mess hall,” he added. “3 or 4 hundred sick.”
Mr. Satoda’s fastidious and somewhat irreverent diary is part of “Out of the Desert: Resilience and Memory in Japanese American Internment,” a new exhibition at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University here that runs through Feb. 26. The exhibition includes materials from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and features a substantial digital archive, including Mr. Satoda’s diary.
“I was shocked beyond belief,” Mr. Satoda said of learning that the diary — which he had not seen or thought about since 1945, the year he was released from internment and went into the Army — was now at Yale.
The exhibition, curated by Courtney Sato, a 28-year-old doctoral student in American studies, draws on a wealth of archival material: a high school yearbook with photographs of barracks, correspondence between internees and anti-internment activists, government broadsides — including the War Relocation Authority’s original “evacuation” notice — and photographs by Ansel Adams of the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California. There are also plenty of euphemisms by journalists — like “evacuees” — that disguised the true nature of the internments, now widely considered a historic injustice.
The exhibition focuses on the resilience and creativity that helped many detainees survive the forced removal from their homes and jobs and the harsh conditions in remote camps that were ringed by sentry towers with armed guards. There is poignancy in images like a schoolteacher’s snapshots of internees’ gardens and an unknown watercolorist’s painting of a sunset over the Topaz internment camp in Utah.
Yonekazu Satoda, 94, in his apartment in San Francisco. Credit Ramin Talaie for The New York Times
The display at Yale follows a controversy this year involving an auction of significant internment material, including family photographs, that was canceled after an outcry from Japanese-Americans. The collection is now at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
The topic of internment has arisen again recently, with David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Va., suggesting that resettled Syrian refugees be placed in detention camps. He later apologized for his remarks. His statement drew fierce criticism, including an open letter by the actor George Takei, who is currently starring in “Allegiance,” a Broadway musical about the camps. Mr. Takei and his family were imprisoned at Rohwer, about 27 miles from the Jerome center.
The Yale exhibition, particularly Mr. Satoda’s diary, presented its own set of ethical quandaries, especially because archivists felt strongly about making the material fully available online. (A Day of Remembrance program with speakers will be held in February.)
“It caused us to rethink what is due diligence around contacting individuals, getting permissions and privacy issues,” Susan Gibbons, Yale’s university librarian, said. “The collection was put together as events were happening, so there is a depth you rarely find. We felt it was time to bring voice to this collection while we could still find individuals who were part of it and still alive.”
Much of the material, including student scrapbooks and site plans for the Poston internment camp in Arizona, were donated by Nathan Van Patten, a former director of university libraries at Stanford. In a letter to James T. Babb, who was Yale’s librarian from 1943 to 1965, Mr. Van Patten noted that while some of the items “may seem trivial,” they would be significant sources for future historians.
Yale acquired Mr. Satoda’s diary in 2012 from an antiquarian book dealer. The diary had moved through the antiquarian trade, said George A. Miles, the curator of Western Americana at the Beinecke. “There is a gap that I don’t think we are ever going to be able to completely document,” he said.
But because of the personal nature of the diary, Mr. Miles tried to track down the writer. He even sent a letter that reached Mr. Satoda’s home but went unread.
“At Christmastime you get all kinds of mail,” Mr. Satoda recalled last week in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, Daisy. “The letter said ‘Yale.’ I said ‘What the hell’ and ignored it.”
Ms. Sato persisted, contacting museums, placing ads with Asian and Japanese-American organizations and eventually reaching Mr. Satoda by phone. Soon afterward she received an unexpected package from Mr. Satoda: his Berkeley diploma, which had been redirected to the Fresno Assembly Center in the 1940s with 4 cents due in postage after it was sent to him by the university.
Mr. Satoda and his family were guests of honor at the Yale exhibition, which opened last month. “I’m going to try not to pull a John Boehner on you,” a visibly moved Mr. Satoda said as he stepped to the podium, armed with a tissue.
Mr. Satoda, who was born and reared in California, said that he wrote the diary, which he kept under his pillow, mostly to calm his mother, who spoke only Japanese and worried about her extroverted son’s getting into trouble. In roughly 1,000 entries, he chronicles late-night “bull sessions” with friends, making furniture, working as a teacher, the simple pleasures of a cold root beer and the monotony of confinement, in which he noted the passage of time by counting full moons.
He said that the last time he saw the diary was while living in Cleveland, where he briefly worked at a steel plant making parts for military vehicles. Before he was drafted, he sent it off to his parents. “I was a single guy, so I threw all my stuff in a box,” he said. He surmises that when the house was sold after his parents died, “instead of junking stuff, they took my box and gave it to some secondhand dealer.”
Mr. Satoda spent nearly two years as an intelligence officer in Japan, retiring as a major after 20 years of service in the United States Army Reserve. He was the comptroller for a restaurant company before retiring in 1986.
He met his wife at the Japanese American Citizens League in San Francisco, where she was an administrative assistant. (She had been detained at Topaz during the war.) Today they live in an apartment in San Francisco’s Japantown. It is sparingly decorated, with Japanese fans in the living room and imari bowls designed with the couple’s family crests.
Mrs. Satoda, who is 88 and was one of 10 siblings, spoke of her family’s incarceration. “I look back at the injustice, but when you’re young, you’re not saddled with those responsibilities,” she said. “It was my parents’ burden.”
When Mr. Satoda reflects on his experience at the Jerome center, he said, he thinks about the strong bonds and shenanigans with other boys.
“You know how you go on vacation and have a flat tire?” he said. “Fifty years later, you don’t remember the flat tire.”
“Out of the Desert: Resilience and Memory in Japanese American Internment” continues through Feb. 26, on weekdays, at Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library, 120 High Street, New Haven; 203-432-1775; library.yale.edu.