Kiyo Sato’s attitude toward life is to accept what cannot be changed and take a stand on that which she can.
At the October meeting of the Northern California Publishers & Authors, Sato was honored as author of the month. This recognition coincided with the release by Soho Press of the paperback edition of her book, “Kiyo’s Story: A Japanese-American Family’s Quest for the American Dream” (previously published as “Dandelion through the Crack.”).
For many years, Sato has told school children her story to increase their knowledge of history and promote intergenerational understanding. Since the book’s publication, she has been making presentations to diverse audiences around the country.
“I want to illuminate not only the challenges of prejudice and oppression, but more fundamentally, to demonstrate the triumph of a family despite those challenges,” Sato said. “I want readers to see life as we lived it, from our early years on a Sacramento strawberry farm, through the trauma of the war years and rebuilding life afterwards.
Sato recently held a family gathering and invited all the members. “I told them our story and gave them copies of my book. Now all the children know the story. Hopefully, they will learn from our experience.”
The experience to which she refers is her family’s struggle to cope with being removed from their Sacramento farm and detained at Poston Internment Camp in Arizona at the outbreak of World War II. “Kiyo’s Story” demonstrates her family’s unrelenting loyalty, indomitable optimism and spiritual fortitude.
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed U.S. Executive Order 9066, authorizing the relocation to internment camps of 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Over 70,000 of the Japanese-Americans were American citizens. Sato recalls, “It was a devastating loneliness to realize there was not one person in my own country to whom we could turn for help.”
Hastily constructed by Del Webb, the Poston War Relocation Center had a population of over 17,000 detainees. Poston became the third largest “city” in Arizona.
Situated in the desert, the 71,000 acre site was the hottest of all the camps. In summer, the temperature often reached a high of 130 degrees and there were no cool breezes at night. The air was typically very dry. “I put a wet diaper on my head and learned to breathe in the hot air very slowly,” reports Sato.
“My father was the only one who had entered the camp with a bucket hidden in a bedroll. He hung a canvas from the rafters and had the boys splash buckets of water for our air cooler. Children came from all over the camp to lean against the cool canvas.”
Families were assigned space in wood and tarpaper barracks. Housing was primitive and especially hard on the elderly and the ill. The lack of privacy was particularly difficult for Japanese women, who were required to sleep, eat, bathe and use the toilet in the company of others.
Sato recorded, “Here’s the truth: I am now called a non-alien, stripped of my constitutional rights. I am a prisoner in a concentration camp in my own country. I sleep on a canvas cot under which is a suitcase with my life’s belongings: a change of clothes, underwear, a notebook and a pencil. I shower with a half dozen people, eat with 250 people, and sit in the community latrine with people I don’t even know.”
The first student from her block to be released to attend college, Sato graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan. Subsequently, she earned a Master in Nursing degree from Western Reserve University and served in the U.S.A.F. Nurse Corps where she attained the rank of captain.
In 2008, Sato was awarded the Saroyan International Prize for “Dandelion through the Crack.” She also received the Award of Excellence in Publications from the Sacramento County Historical Society; won the Northern California Publishers & Authors gold award for best first book and was honored by the California Writers Club and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Sato and other members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Nisei Post 8985, developed “Lessons from Our Lifetime,” an educational video and workbook for high school and college students. She appeared in “Passing Poston,” a documentary by New York filmmakers about the camp.
In 2009 she spoke at the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Program in Washington D.C. to mark the 67th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066. A letter she wrote to a high school teacher that was confiscated by a military intelligence officer for evidence in a loyalty investigation is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System online database.
Sato says, “The past two years have been pretty hectic. I almost feel like the book has owned me ... traveling to so many places, going to dinners and making appearances at events with wine and hors d’oeuvres. Finally, things have slowed down.
“There are still students in 23 states in the U.S. who have never heard of this historical event, whose textbooks do not even mention Executive Order 9066 which challenged the Constitution. I’m 87. Now, I want to find new ways to reach the people who don’t know about our experience.”