No Longer Overlooked: James Sakoda, whose wartime internment inspired a social science tool

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries on extraordinary people whose deaths, starting in 1851, were not reported by the Times.

Unlike most of the 120,000 Japanese Americans held in internment camps across the United States during World War II, James Sakoda had one mission: to document the experience of incarceration. He took about 1,800 pages of notes, mostly privately, so as not to be accused of being a traitor or a spy.

Those notes would form the basis of his 1949 dissertation on the dynamics of individuals and groups at one such camp, the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. Tucked away in Appendix B of the paper was perhaps the first example of what is known as an agent-based model, a simulation of how individual actions can add up to large-scale patterns.

The tool is essential in a wide variety of fields and has helped social scientists, epidemiologists, financial regulators, urban planners and wildlife experts get their jobs done. During the coronavirus pandemic, for example, agent-based models were essential for predicting the spread of the virus and prioritizing vaccines for certain groups of people.

To develop the model, Sakoda used the home computing technology of the time – a chessboard. Each piece has been assigned a simple rule for movement, based on the surrounding environment. By changing the rules even slightly, Sakoda demonstrated that the pieces can mix freely or can quickly separate by color.

Ecologists and conservationists have used agent-based models to study the interactions between carrier ships and beluga whales in Canada’s St. Lawrence River estuary; between humans and elephants in Tanzania; and between diving tourism and coral reefs in Thailand. Transit agencies use models to predict how even minor changes, such as expanding a bus stop, could affect traffic flow.

James Sakoda was perhaps the first social scientist ever to apply computational modeling to unravel the complexity of social processes, Andreas Flache, a sociologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, said in an email.

Despite the widespread use of his model, Sakoda didn’t get much credit for his innovation.

James Minoru Sakoda, known as Jimmy, was born on April 21, 1916 on an alfalfa ranch in Lancaster, California in northern Los Angeles County. His conservative Buddhist parents, Kenichi and Tazu (Kihara) Sakoda, were both Japanese.

After moving to the Los Angeles area, his parents took their four children to Japan, where James attended high school for three years and the University of Tokyo for another three.

With $100 in his pocket, Sakoda returned to California and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied psychology. It was during his second year there that the secretary of war set up detention camps on the West Coast for Americans of Japanese descent.

Sakoda was still in Berkeley when he began documenting Japanese-American reactions to the crisis. Through a classmate, he met Dorothy Swaine Thomas, a sociologist who was recruiting soon-to-be-incarcerated field workers for a project called the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study.

All four of the Sakoda brothers had returned to the United States when they were sent to one of these camps; their parents stayed in Japan during the war. Sakoda, his brother, George, and his sisters, Ruby and May, were initially incarcerated in 1942, at the Tulare Assembly Center in the San Joaquin Valley in central California.

Soldiers stood by with rifles and Tommy pistols, Sakoda wrote in her journal, noting that tall grass poked through the asphalt floors of her barracks and that the condition of the latrines was subject to criticism.

He continued to recount daily camp life for Thomas’ project, always in a detached and analytical way. I never talked about this happening to us, he told historian Art Hansen in 1988. Instead, he said, he saw it as, it happened to them.

The studio gave him purpose, Hansen said in a telephone interview. He’s played a sort of life-saving role not just for his community, but for American history in general.

The Sakoda brothers were later transferred to the Tule Lake Relocation Center near the northern California border, where James taught psychology to inmates and met his future wife, Hatsuye Kurose, who was known as Hattie the smartest girl in my class, as was the he called at school. a letter to Thomas.

James and Hattie then spent two years at the Minidoka camp in Idaho, where they were married before returning to Berkeley shortly before the camp closed in 1945.

Sakoda was working on a PhD. in psychology at Berkeley when a fellowship took him to Harvard. It was there that he developed his checkerboard model, examining the interactions between various groups in internment camps: the Nisei clan; children of Japanese immigrants; more solitary inmates; and camp administrators.

After receiving his doctorate from Berkeley in 1949, he taught briefly at Brooklyn College, then joined the psychology faculty at the University of Connecticut. There he developed an interest in the potential of computer science to study human behavior.

In the summer of 1956, Sakoda learned to program on the first IBM punched card computers at MIT Then, with his wife and son Bill, he moved to Providence, RI, where he was hired by Brown University, where he became the director of a social club scientific computer laboratory.

At a time when the study of human behavior was largely isolated from computer science, Sakoda pushed for better tools with which to blend the two; the checkerboard pattern, which he taught students over the next three decades, was just one of them.

In 1963, he was invited to a summer institute at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California to exchange ideas on modeling cognitive processes using computers. While there, he began developing his own computer science toolbox for social scientists, calling it DYSTAL. A 1971 paper, The Checkerboard Model of Social Interaction, modernized his 1949 model through computer simulations.

After retiring from Brown in 1981, Sakoda told Hansen, “I think the best thing I’ve done is the social interaction model, which solved the problem in social psychology of going from the individual level to the group level.”

But in the 1990s and 2000s, as agent-based modeling became critical for studying infectious diseases and the movements of humans at scale, a different origin story emerged.

Thomas Schelling, a well-connected Harvard economist and White House adviser, was on a plane bound for Boston when he began tinkering with X and O moving along a line. Eventually he would become a strikingly similar checkerboard pattern to Sakodas. Schelling mentioned it in a 1969 RAND research report and expanded on it in a 1971 article, shortly after Sakoda published his own, in the same journal.

Decades later, it was Schelling’s paper that is widely credited as the first in which the checkerboard model appeared.

It’s possible that Schelling encountered the seed of the idea at RAND, he completed a residency there a year after Sakoda’s visit. But when asked in a 2001 interview whether Sakoda’s checkerboard pattern had influenced him, Schelling replied, I’ve never heard of it.

In 2005, Schelling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, together with Robert J. Aumann, for improving our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game theory analysis. In a biographical statement accompanying the award, Schelling wrote of the checkerboard model: Without knowing it I was pioneering a field of study that later became known as agent-based computational modeling.

In his later years, in Barrington, RI, Sakoda focused on gardening, his family, and a longtime mathematical side interest: origami. His book Modern Origami, published in 1969 and still in print, showcases his designs and made him famous among enthusiasts. (She decorated her computer lab at Brown with his origami of him.)

His nephew Jim Kurose said in an interview that at family gatherings Sakoda would usually go and sit quietly alone in the living room and take out his newspaper, and start folding, and keep the kids absolutely enthralled.

He died on June 12, 2005. He was 89 years old.

The innovations of Sakodas agent-based modeling are rediscovered thanks to the research of Rainer Hegselmann, a philosopher and social scientist at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management in Germany. In a 2017 article in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, Hegselmann speculated that the timing of Sakoda’s retirement, in 1981, before the personal computer became ubiquitous, may have led to the cancellation of his success.

Perhaps life punishes those who are late, he wrote. But sometimes it also punishes those who are early.

Sakoda, however, wasn’t too concerned about getting explicit recognition for what he did, his son Bill, a computer scientist, said in an interview.

Instead, he added in an email, he worked magic for many people very quietly.

#Longer #Overlooked #James #Sakoda #wartime #internment #inspired #social #science #tool

Leave a Comment