At age 22, Kazuko (Kay) Sakai Nakao was one of the Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island who was sent to an internment camp during World War II.
In her later years, Kay was in great demand as a speaker and chronicler of the internment, sharing her story with schoolchildren, visitors to Bainbridge and others. She also played a major role in the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.
She passed away Aug. 17 at the age of 100. She was the oldest survivor of the Bainbridge Islanders sent to concentration camps.
“The Memorial was created to honor those Bainbridge Islanders who like Kay were exiled from their homes in 1942,” the memorial’s association said. “From the day the idea of a Memorial was first suggested, Kay played an important role in every step of its development.
“Her memories, her clear ideas and her generous spirit are all reflected in the Memorial as it exists today, and will continue to be reflected as we complete the Memorial that Kay and other elders of the Japanese American community envisioned.”
Kay’s youngest child, Bill Nakao, said it wasn’t until his parents started working with the memorial that he really found out what happened.
“Growing up we never talked about it,” Bill said. “When they were drawn out to tell their stories to other people – that’s when we learned the details. They were terrible stories, traumatic.”
Clarence Moriwaki, president of the memorial association, said photos of Kay are prominent there. One shows her walking down to the ferry to be taken away, and she was “dressed to the nines.” They could only take what they were wearing or could carry, so she had three layers of clothes on, he said.
Moriwaki said because Kay was an adult in the camps, her perspective is important to the accuracy of the memorial. “She was the mother spirit,” he said, as others would ask her, “Are we capturing this feeling right?”
Kay was involved in tours of the memorial into her 90s. “She was living history,” he said. “That’s a source you can’t replace.”
Moriwaki said the theme of the memorial is “Let it not happen again.” But he said with Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus, “Some parts of our society” have not learned. “We’re back to fear.”
Bill agreed. He recalled a few years ago when there was talk of putting Syrian refugees in camps, and he also mentioned the holding camps on the border with Mexico.
“I hate that we’re making the same mistakes,” he said. “We still need to make sure people understand the message. We have to keep the story out there and stand against it.”
Lilly Kodama, a longtime friend of Kay’s, also went to the internment camps, but she was only seven and remembers it as “fun and games.” “As a child it was, but that’s because our parents protected us,” she said.
She added that she must have buried bad thoughts in her subconscious because she didn’t want to criticize the government. “I didn’t want to be unpatriotic,” she said. “I wanted to be a loyal citizen.”
After the camps, she returned to Bainbridge Island. “I don’t remember feeling any discrimination,” she said. After graduating from high school she went to the University of Washington and settled with her own family there. She returned to the island after retirement.
“I wanted to stay low and not get involved in anything. That was my big plan,” she said with a laugh. “That’s not how it turned out.”
Lilly said she was inspired by Kay. They were involved is sharing the stories of internment to make sure people don’t forget.
“She was an inspiration – gracious and forgiving,” Lilly said. “Her secret to life was to love everybody and be happy.”
Kay’s early years
Born in Seattle Dec. 13, 1919, her family moved to Bainbridge Island to take over a strawberry farm. She spoke no English when she started school. After high school graduation, Kay was told by her father that being the oldest she had to help work the farm so college would have to wait.
Bill said he thinks his mom was sad she never did get to go, but she was proud all three of her kids did.
In March 1942 Kay’s family was sent to a California internment camp.
Before they left, Moriwaki shares Kay’s story about how her father told them to destroy everything they had that was Japanese. Heirlooms and artifacts were put in outhouses, burned or buried. “We are Americans. We are not beholding to Japan,” was the message the family was trying to send to FBI agents who raided their property without warrants. Dolls Kay’s grandmother gave her were destroyed.
Kay described the living conditions at the concentration camps with its uninsulated barracks, latrines with no doors, and guard towers with barbed-wire fences. They were later moved to another camp in Idaho, where Kay and Isami (Sam) Nakao were married in 1943. They were married for 63 years and had three children.
Bill shared the story that his mom said his dad let it be known that he needed someone to cook and clean for him, and that’s how he asked for her hand in marriage. “I don’t know how accurate that is,” he said, sharing a bit of Kay’s humor.
He did say they were given a two-day pass to leave the concentration camp to marry. They went to Twin Falls, found a priest, had a chicken dinner, went to a hotel, then got back on a bus to go back to the camp. “That was their wedding and honeymoon,” he said.
Bill also shared how his dad joked that he was a “Japanese cowboy” in Idaho when he got to leave the camp to help a neighboring farmer because of a manpower shortage. They became good friends even after the war.
As the U.S. government began to allow internees to leave the camps, in mid-1945 the family returned to Bainbridge Island. Kay’s father eventually regained control of the Sakai farm. One pleasant surprise was they found a trunk in the attic that they had forgotten to detroy, Moriwaki said.
During the early post-war years, Kay and Sam were never afraid to tackle any kind of work to support their family. Sam moonlighted as a yard maintenance man, and Kay cleaned houses. They both later went to work at Eagle Harbor Market, Sam as a butcher, and Kay as a retail clerk. They both enjoyed long careers with the Town and Country Market in Winslow from its opening in 1957 until each retired.
Because he was an immigrant from Japan – where only the upper class could afford school – Kay’s dad appreciated free schooling so much for his six kids that he sold their farm to the school district for the same price they bought it for decades before.
Later, the Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School was named after him. “It’s a little museum to her, too,” Moriwaki said of Kay, adding a sea shell corsage made at an internment camp and komono found in that trunk in the attic are prominent in the entryway of the school. Kay went to the school every year up to age 99 to talk with students about being an internment survivor. Every student made origami cranes that were strung together last year that Moriwaki said still hangs in her house.
After retiring Kay continued to volunteer with the Sakai School Arts Committee, and the boards of the Exclusion Memorial Association and the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community.
The family asks that any donations in Kay’s memory be made to BIJAEMA’s Kay and Sam Nakao Fund, which will support the next phases of the Exclusion Memorial, which include a pier; or to the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum; or a charity of choice.