James Sakoda

Name James Sakoda
Born April 21 1916
Died June 12 2005
Birth Location Lancaster, California
Generational Identifier


Nisei fieldworker for the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) at Tulare, Tule Lake and Minidoka. A psychologist, origami expert, and computer pioneer, James M. Sakoda (1916–2005) began his academic career as a JERS fieldworker whose research on Minidoka was to have been the basis for the third JERS book, The Residue, which was never published. He did not publish anything on his wartime work for some forty years.

Minoru Sakoda was born in Lancaster, California, in 1916, the third of four children of Kenichi and Tazu Sakoda, Japanese immigrant parents from Hiroshima prefecture. His early childhood was spent near Little Tokyo and in Boyle Heights, an ethnically diverse neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles. After his father lost his money lending business during the Depression, the family moved to southeastern Los Angeles, where they raised hogs. In 1933, when Sakoda was a senior at Excelsior Union High School in Norwalk, his parents decided to return to Japan, and Sakoda spent the next six years in Hiroshima and Tokyo. Paradoxically, he claimed to have become more American while in Japan, largely socializing with other Nisei in Japan, calling his three years in Hiroshima "probably the happiest time of my life."[1] He attended a commercial school in Hiroshima and then Toyo University in Tokyo for three years, returning to the U.S. in 1939 intending to finish college. He first attended Pasadena Junior College for a year, then went on the University of California at Berkeley starting in September 1940, working as a live-in houseboy to support himself. While at Berkeley, he met other Nisei intellectuals such as Kenji Murase (whom he roomed with), Charles Kikuchi, Lillian Ota, and Tamotsu Shibutani, meeting sociologist Dorothy S. Thomas through Shibutani and was hired by Thomas to part of the JERS project.

After the outbreak of war and the impending mass expulsion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast, Sakoda decided to move back to Los Angeles to join his siblings—all of whom had also moved back to the U.S.—so they could stay together, going first to the Tulare Assembly Center, then to Tule Lake. Sharing an "apartment" at Tule Lake with a brother and a sister, he conducted fieldwork for JERS while working at a Form 26 interviewer, a psychology instructor and coop block representative, documenting the growing tensions in the camp while coming under suspicion of being an "inu." Answering "yes-yes" on the loyalty questionnaire, he found himself "ostracized by the block," before leaving Tule Lake with its designation as a "segregation center" for the "no-nos."[2] He opted to transfer to Minidoka be with his fiancé, Hattie Kurose. After his arrival there in September 1943, the couple married. He focused his research at Minidoka on the group that resisted War Relocation Authority pressures and incentives to leave, choosing to remain in the concentration camp. Though he left to return to Berkeley in March 1945, he continued to document conditions there based on correspondence with several close friends he had made there, and he returned several times to document the closing of the camp in October 1945. Though his research at Minidoka did not result in a JERS publication, he was credited on the title page of the second JERS book, The Salvage, for contributing statistical tables.

After the war Sakoda returned to Berkeley. Finding difficulty obtaining a job, Thomas hired him as a graduate assistant. He completed a dissertation based on his Minidoka research in 1949. After a stint teaching at Brooklyn College, became an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut in 1952. He moved to Brown University in 1962, remaining there until his retirement in 1981. In addition to his work in social psychology and statistics, he became a pioneering figure in computer programming while directing the Social Science Computer Laboratory at Brown and serving on the National Institutes of Health Computer Advisory Committee. He also become a well-known figure in the field of origami, taking up the hobby in 1952 and developing numerous figures in the modern style, eventually publishing the book Modern Origami in 1969.

In 1987, he took part in the "Views from Within" conference organized by historian Yuji Ichioka and held at the University of California, Berkeley, whose purpose was in part to reexamine the JERS project. Later he published both a personal essay and a summary of his Minidoka research in the subsequent anthology stemming from the conference published in 1989. He passed away on June 12, 2005.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Briones, Matthew M. Jim and Jap Crow: A Cultural History of 1940s Interracial America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Hansen, Arthur A. "An Interview with James M. Sakoda." August 9–10, 1988. In Japanese American World War II Evacuation Oral History Project, Part III: Analysts. Edited by Arthur H. Hansen. Munich: K.G. Saur, 1994. 343–446.

Ichioka, Yuji, ed. Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1989.

Inouye, Karen M. "Changing History: Competing Notions of Japanese American Experience, 1942–2006." Ph.D dissertation, Brown University, 2007.

"James M. Sakoda." In International Biographical Dictionary of Computer Pioneers. Edited by J.A.N. Lee. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1995. 599

Lister, David. "James Minoru Sakoda 1916–2005." British Origami Society website, July 12, 2005.

Sakoda, James. "Minidoka: An Analysis of Changing Patterns of Social Interaction." Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1949.

———. Modern Origami. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.

———. "The Checkerboard Model of Social Interaction." Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (1971): 119–32.

———. “Reminiscences of a Participant Observer.” In Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study. Edited by Yuji Ichioka. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1989. 219-45.


  1. James M. Sakoda, "Reminiscences of a Participant Observer," in Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study, edited by Yuji Ichioka (Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1989), 221.
  2. Sakoda, "Reminiscences of a Participant Observer," 229.