By KIYO SATO
The speech was given at Sacramento City College’s 100th-anniversary commencement on May 17.
Seventy-five years ago I was a freshman at Sacramento Junior College, filled with dreams. Will it be art? Will it be journalism? It was an exciting time driving my 1932 Studebaker 15 miles from our farm.
The world was opening up with so many possibilities! For my parents the American Dream was finally within reach with the first of their nine children finally in college.
My father would remind us, “I don’t want anyone rich or famous. I want nine good citizens.”
I was born one year before the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, delivered by Yamaura-san, a Japanese midwife who came daily to the strawberry field in South Sacramento to care for mother and child and take over household duties, freeing the mother to devote her time totally to her newborn.
When I started first grade, my mother said: “American stories are not good for children.” No one helps Little Red Hen to grind the wheat. At the end, she refuses to share with anyone.” Thus began my father’s wonderful nightly stories, each teaching kindness and caring — Japanese legends, Bible stories, Victor Hugo, Longfellow and even haiku.
I did not understand it then but I know now that if every child had such nurturing, we would not have children killing our children. We would not have overflowing prisons. If James Holmes, the Newtown killer, and I had switched places at birth, think of the consequences.
Then one Sunday morning on Dec. 7, 1941, all my dreams evaporated, vanished. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and I became Prisoner #25217C.
It began with travel restrictions. We were not allowed to travel more than five miles from our homes.
Then, we must turn in all contrabands. What are they? Radios, cameras, long knives, swords, guns and even knitting needles in some cases. Our good neighbors are picked up by the FBI for a dead car battery behind the barn, another for having a flashlight.
On campus, no one wants to be seen talking to me, a “Jap.” I walk the hallways from class to class feeling so alone as the Nisei students leave to help at home. I am so grateful when Alberta Walker would quietly be by my side.
“Once a Jap, always a Jap,” Gen. John L. DeWitt declares.
“Put them out in the desert and let them become like the skulls of cattle,” writes columnist Henry McClemore.
President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066. Earl Warren follows suit along with the Native Sons of the Golden West, the Farm Bureau, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and so many others.
The world around us erupts with hate and in its midst, there is our Dr. Henry Tyler, who keeps me hoping, who lets his voice be heard.
“Stay in school as long as you can,” my parents tell me as they work from sunrise to sunset and half of the night. Thankfully, my brothers and sisters are in a safe and happy place with Miss Cox at the one-room Edward Kelley School, the oldest still-functioning school in California.
Then the dreaded happens. On my way home from school driving my Studebaker, I see a huge poster nailed onto a fence post: “To All Those of Japanese Ancestry…” it states. I don’t want to step on my brakes, climb up to the fence and read what it says. I drive.
There is another sign and another and another on our one-mile country road with only four Japanese farms. We must be out in 10 days with only what each of us could carry and a bedroll. This also includes 60 children in orphanages with one-16th or more “Japanese blood.” No pets.
“Kodomo no tame ni” (for the sake our children), I would hear our parents say. They would do everything in their power to not make things any worse. We would lose everything we had worked so hard for but the children will be safe.
“Children must grow up and be secure,” my mother reminds us, so we do not discuss the impending disaster until they are asleep. The children would have their suitcases to go on a “train trip.” They would have peanut butter sandwiches and even inari-zushi, the kind we take on picnics.
Once imprisoned, we start baseball games in the firebreaks for the children. Someone finds a scrawny tree trunk, attaches a wire hoop for basketball.
From tools smuggled inside our bedrolls, my father makes a small table and chairs from scrap wood we would find and bring back to our barracks.
My father came to America at 14 in search of the American Dream. Just before the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1024, my mother came and I was born. Five children attended Sacramento Junior College; six served in the military. They became nine good citizens serving in education, nursing, engineering and others. One-half of us attended SJC.
Can you imagine the power of all of you, almost 1,000 good citizens, spilling out into our broken society and fixing it?
I can put up with broken roads for a while; we need to first fix our broken people. There are homeless students, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. We have 63,000 children in our state who need parents.
Did you know that suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers and the second leading cause of death among college-aged youth?
In our country, the gun-related death rate among children under age 15 is nearly 12 times higher than among children in all other 25 industrialized countries combined. (Dr. Charlotte Patterson)
We can learn from history, even from Gen. DeWitt, who provided shelter for 120,000 in just three months! Del Webb constructed barracks at my Poston concentration camp for 10,000 of us on the Arizona desert in three weeks! What political will! And it was 127 degrees!
We veterans lived in barracks and Quonset huts all over the world. Why aren’t we able to house our homeless? By the way, our Congresswoman Doris Matsui was born in my camp.
I am 94. The ball is now in your court.
We are depending on you. You are well-prepared.
You will not incarcerate all those with one-16th or more Muslim blood. You will make our southern border as friendly as our northern border. You will shelter and feed our homeless. You will care for our most vulnerable, our children. You will create a National Children’s Day, perhaps. You will help us to move forward.
You will make America the beacon of hope for the world again, as it was for my father.
Kiyo Sato, who enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 and achieved the rank of captain, is involved with VFW Nisei Post 8985 in Sacramento. She is the author of “Kiyo’s Story,” an account of her family’s quest for the American Dream, which was originally published as “Dandelion Through the Crack.” For more information, visit www.dandelionthroughthecrack.com.