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California

Couple who met in Japanese incarceration camp die within days of each other at 90

Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada
Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada.
(Yamada family)

Joseph Yamada and Elizabeth Kikuchi were born two days apart, but they didn’t meet until they were 11, when both were sent with their families to a World War II incarceration camp in Poston, Ariz.

Then they became mostly inseparable. After the war, they went to San Diego High School together, then to UC Berkeley. They married, raised a family, and left their marks on San Diego in landscape architecture and community service.

It almost seemed fitting when both died this month just days apart. He had a long battle with dementia, and she succumbed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

They had each recently turned 90.

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“He liked sports and diner food, and she was all about art, culture and refined food,” said son Garrett Yamada. “They raised us with a little bit of everything.”

Poston was an unlikely place for fruitful beginnings: It was row after row of tar-papered barracks in the middle of the desert, where sand drifted in through the walls and scorpions crawled up through the floors. Summer temperatures scorched past 110.

More than 1,100 San Diegans of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens, were sent to incarceration camps in the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor that ushered the U.S. into the war. Each camp prisoner was allowed to bring one suitcase. Everything else they sold, left with sympathetic friends or abandoned.

At Poston, they spent three years trying to make the best of it. They built their own school, swimming pool and auditorium, the site of dances where romance sometimes blossomed.

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Garrett Yamada said his parents came home from the camp determined not to let being imprisoned in their own country sour them.

“They were open to anyone and everything,” he said.

At Berkeley, Joe studied landscape architecture; Liz studied English literature. When they returned to San Diego, she became the first Asian teacher at San Diego High and he worked for Harriett Wimmer, a pioneering landscape architect.

“Harriett was good with plants, and Joe could draw, and that made them a great combination,” said Pat Caughey, who considered Yamada a mentor and eventually became a partner in — and is now principal owner of — the firm known as Wimmer Yamada and Caughey.

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Yamada’s projects included designs for SeaWorld, UC San Diego, the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista and the parks along the Embarcadero in downtown San Diego. He favored curving walkways, water features and “the Yamada roll,” gently rounded knolls of lawn or plants.

“It wasn’t a stamped-out deal with Joe,” said Hal Sadler, a prominent San Diego architect who worked with Yamada on numerous projects, large and small, over the years. “There was a sensitivity that entered into everything he did. His creativity meant that each project had its own personality.”

The Yamadas were married in the early 1950s and eventually settled in La Jolla. Liz Yamada quit teaching to raise the couple’s three children, and when they were grown she worked as an administrator in her husband’s firm and eventually became a partner.

She also wrote poetry and was active as a director on a variety of boards for local government agencies, colleges, museums and foundations. One project, in the early 1990s, was particularly meaningful to her.

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While she was at Poston, she corresponded regularly with Clara Breed, a San Diego city librarian who befriended many of the youngsters and sent them books, clothing, pencils and other supplies. Nearing the end of her life, Breed contacted Liz Yamada and said she didn’t know what to do with all the letters she’d saved from the camp prisoners.

“I couldn’t get there fast enough,” Yamada told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a 2006 interview.

The letters told of life in the camp, what the food was like, the weather and the makeshift school. They spoke of resilience and hope amid the injustice and deprivations of being imprisoned.

Liz Yamada donated the letters to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, hoping to preserve an episode in American history she believed should never be forgotten, “so what happened to us doesn’t happen to anybody else ever again,” she told the Union-Tribune. The letters are accessible online and have been the basis for a museum exhibit and a book, both called “Dear Miss Breed.”

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Yamada died on May 20, nine days after the death of her husband.

They are survived by their children, Garrett Yamada of Newark, Calif.; Kent Yamada of San Diego; and Joan Batcheller of Lafayette, Calif., and their families.

Because of restrictions caused by the novel coronavirus, no services are planned.

Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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