Kay Nakao passed away peacefully on August 17, 2020 at 100 years of age. With her on her last day were several members of her family, for which we are grateful.
Kay was born in Seattle on December 13, 1919 and was the eldest child of Sonoji and Yoshiko Sakai. She had five siblings, Toshio Sakai (deceased), Nobuko Omoto, Taeko Takahashi, Chiyoko Okamoto (deceased) and Yaeko Yoshihara (deceased).
Early in Kay’s childhood, her family moved from Seattle to Bainbridge Island to take over a leased strawberry farm, despite having almost no knowledge of farming. Eventually the family purchased their own farm where today Commodore School and Ordway School are located. The farm proved to be a mixed blessing for Kay. After high school graduation, despite having the desire for further education, Kay was told by her father that being the oldest, she had to remain at home to help work on the farm. Kay’s dreams of college or business school had to be deferred.
In March 1942 the Sakai family, along with all the other Japanese Americans living on Bainbridge, became the first persons in the country to be forcibly evacuated under Executive Order 9066. They were removed from the Island and sent to the Manzanar, California internment camp in the desolate Owens Valley.
The Bainbridge Island contingent of Japanese Americans were the first to occupy the Manzanar camp which was still under construction. Kay would describe the arduous living conditions in the camp with its very rough uninsulated barracks, latrines with no doors, and guard towers with barbed wire fences enclosing the entire compound.
Eventually, the Bainbridge Island Japanese petitioned to be moved to Minidoka, Idaho where the other Japanese Americans from the Northwest were sent and in early 1943 most of the Island Japanese were moved to Idaho. There Kay and Isami (Sam) Nakao were married in March, 1943 and In December, Kay and Sam’s first child (Masami Bruce) was born.
As the U.S. government began to allow internees to leave the camps, in mid-1945 Kay, Sam, Bruce, and Sam’s parents left Minidoka and returned to Bainbridge Island to a very uncertain future. Kay’s father eventually regained control of the Sakai farm but not without some drama, a story which Kay enjoyed sharing with many people.
During the early post-war years, Kay and Sam were never afraid to tackle any kind of work to support the family. Sam moonlighted as a yard maintenance man and Kay cleaned houses to supplement the family income. The family had grown to include a second child, Naomi Anne, and a third child, William Hisashi (Bill).
Sam went to work at Eagle Harbor Market as a butcher, and Kay also worked at the Market 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 from the store. Kay was a fixture at check stand number 1 and steady customers became her friends providing much joy in Kay’s work. On the day she retired, she spent most of the day crying, not wanting to leave her friends and customers.
During her work years, Kay was a dedicated volunteer and did much for the Helpline House, and the Nisei Guild. After retiring Kay continued her volunteer work with the Sakai School Arts Committee, and the boards of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association (BIJAEMA), and the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC) both organizations dedicated to the Japanese American community on Bainbridge and to all the Japanese Americans who were in the internment camps 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 school children, visitors to Bainbridge, and many other groups. Kay was 22 when interned so she had a truly sharp recall of the events and was able to explain it to people even after so many years. This put her in great demand as a historian and someone with first-hand knowledge of those events. The people she met and especially the children of the Sakai School who heard the stories will be part of the legacy that she leaves with us. Being a part of the Sakai School community and activities was a highlight of her later years.
An objective recitation of Kay’s life, does not capture the extraordinary life she led in her 100 plus years. Kay overcame so many hurdles in her life; speaking no English when she started school, losing her dream of a college education, being interned during the war and finally, returning to Bainbridge Island to a very uncertain future. Kay practiced the Japanese art of “gaman”, meaning to endure and persevere. She gathered an incredible circle of friends of all ages because of her welcoming way, her sense of humor, and her always positive attitude.
Kay is survived by her sons Bruce (Marilynn), and Bill (Pam); grandsons Zachary Nakao (Lindsey) and Eric Nick (Katrina), and great grandsons, Raiden and Ryder Nakao and Emmett and Sawyer Nick, and “adopted son”, Butch Lundin. Kay was predeceased by her husband of 63 years, Sam, and daughter, Naomi Anne.
The family plans a private ceremony at a future date.
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; or to the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, or a charity of choice.