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 internment camp in Poston, Ariz.
Then they became mostly inseparable. After the war, they went to San Diego High School together, then UC Berkeley. They got 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.
“He liked sports and diner food, and she was all about art, culture and refined food,” said Garrett Yamada, a son. “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.
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.
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.
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.
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 internees.
“I couldn’t get there fast enough,” Yamada told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2006.
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.
Yamada died May 20, nine days after her husband.
They are survived by their children Garrett, Kent and Joan Batcheller.