The oldest of Shinji and Tomomi Sato’s nine children, Kiyo works alongside her parents to build a successful farm in California. Without complaint, this determined and devoted family turns twenty acres of barren land into a lush garden, growing strawberries, raspberries, and other produce for sale. Father Shinji puts his careful hands to the task of building and maintaining a cozy home; mother Tomomi’s creativity turns leftover food, clothing, and rice sacks into new items. Parents and children participate fully in the experience of living, not just surviving. The Satos are the American dream, except for one thing – they are Japanese.
In Depression-era America, no Japanese man or woman can own land, nor can they apply for U.S. citizenship. While Kiyo and her siblings were born in America and are therefore citizens, their heritage marks them as outsiders. Despite this arbitrary discrimination, the Satos are fiercely loyal to the country in which they’ve chosen to build a life and raise their family. When word comes that all people with as little as 1/16th Japanese blood are to be removed from their homes and detained in internment camps, Kiyo’s brother (like many young Japanese-American men) chooses to enlist in the military as a show of patriotism.
Even as he serves his country, the rest of the Sato family is taken into custody and detained in accordance with President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, for the crime of having Japanese ancestors. Kiyo recalls, “It is a devastating loneliness to realize that there is no one in my own country to whom we can turn for help,” and she notes the irony: “Last year, my winning essay, ‘What America Means to Me,’ placed in our school’s finals. This year I am branded a ‘non-alien’… and banished.”
After following the Sato family through their struggle to build a life with little more than optimism and faith, the details of their forced relocation is both heartbreaking and frustrating. Told with Kiyo’s indomitable optimism, the indignities and injustices she chronicles seem all the worse when juxtaposed with the unrelenting loyalty of the victims. “Here’s the truth,” she writes, “ I am now called a non-alien, stripped of my constitutional rights. I am a prisoner in a concentration camp in my own country…Why?”
Anger and resentment are inevitable and understandable, but Kiyo and her family, along with the majority of Issei and Nisei victims, remain optimistic about the future, loyal to the country that betrays them, and grateful for every small kindness offered by their captors.
Kiyo Sato has written this very personal and honest account of one of the most shameful periods in U.S. history with the simple style and profound impact most often found in haiku - and in fact, Shinji Sato’s elegant poetry begins each chapter. Like all the Sato children, Kiyo continued her family’s tradition of hard work and success. With a hard-won Master’s Degree in Nursing from Western Reserve University, she is the developer of the Blackbird Vision System and a member of VFW, Nisei Post 8985.
In Kiyo's Story, Sato’s powerful life story is told with a deceptively gentle and unadorned voice, making the tragedies and injustices she endured even more gut-wrenching. This book should be required reading in junior high schools everywhere, to ensure that young people learn early that we must live forever with the consequences of our ignorance, and to provide them an example of the strength of gentle spirits such as the Sato family possesses.