Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community
Kay Sakai Nakao greeting students on the first day of the 2019 school year at Sonoji Sakai Intermediate
What would you like to say? Please share your memories with Kay’s family and the community.
I first got to know Kay 6 years ago while licking stamps and addressing BIJAC newsletters assembly line-style in the basement of Frank Kitamoto’s former dental office. I use the term “know” very loosely. Here was this tiny little lady, who was spicy and funny and quick-on-the-draw…kind of like a shorter, more Japanese Robin Williams. “Are you a comedienne?” I asked innocently. Little did I know, but would soon discover, that Kay was actually an island legend and a pillar of BIJAC who worked tirelessly recounting the story of the Japanese Americans of Bainbridge Island. Where would we be without the efforts of Kay and the others of her generation? She was an inspiration and a warm and genuine human being. Thank goodness so many children and adults learned the BIJAC story through her voice. I thank her for making me and my family feel welcome in the community. My deepest condolences to Bill, Bruce, and the rest of her family. We will sorely miss her.
I met Kay in 2014 when I came to Bainbridge Island to do some research for a Young Adult historical fiction novel I am writing centered around Japanese internment during WWII. I was looking to conduct interviews with survivors and after interviewing Lily and Frances they suggested I contact Kay and gave me her number. Kay was ever gracious and invited me to her home where she made me tea and we talked for almost two hours as she shared her experiences with me. I was in awe of her vitality, kindness and generosity. I wish I had reached out to her again in the years since that day. She further inspired me to tell the story of what happened to the Japanese Americans on BI and I have used many details she shared with me in my novel. I look at her life and think wow, what an incredible human being who left such a positive and meaningful impact on her community which has rippled out into the world and will continue to do so. I am humbled and honored to have met her. My heart goes out to her family and loved ones who will miss her physical presence but without a doubt she will remain an ever present shining light in all the lives she has touched.
I met Kay at the BI Historical Museum shortly after I moved here four years ago. She was engaging as she told me her story and I felt honored to meet an island treasure, a woman whose sense of humor and sense of social justice combined to make her an excellent conveyor of the Japanese American story. I subsequently treasured every moment I spent with her and grew to respect her even more deeply. I have a hole in my heart with her passing.
“Work hard, be happy, love everyone.”
Kay Sakai Nakao lived these words everyday of her 100+ years on earth.
Kay’s radiant smile and positive outlook on life was infectious. Compassionate for all living things – with a special love for infants and children – she loved every soul that she met, and everyone that was touched by her gracious and generous spirit loved her back.
Kay was always willing to help and serve our community whenever asked, especially being living history, sharing her personal experiences and story as one of the first Japanese Americans removed and excluded from the West Coast during World War II.
Kay attended nearly every single Sakai Intermendiate Schools’ “Leaving Our Island” program as a panelist, and she graciously pariticpated in numerous tours and programs at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, where on March 30, 2017 she was the heartfelt and entertaining keynote speaker at the 75th Anniversary Commemoration Ceremony.
At 100 years young, at ths year’s 2020 Mochi Tsuki, Kay once again proved that she could pound mochi with the best of them.
One of the biggest blessings and honors of my life was Kay calling me her “Number Three Son.”
We love and miss you Kay.
I got to know Kay in 2009, when I had the honor of visiting the Manzanar National Historic site with the Kitamotos and a group of educators. I was immediately struck by her immense warmth and boundless energy. I soon came to realize what a generous soul she was, a person who somehow managed to look at past injustice and hardship with determination, optimisim and (yes), humor. She was a storyteller, and understood the importance of such. Because while our storytellers can’t be with us forever, their stories can.
One of my favorites from her: While living at Manzanar, she was excited to order a new dress from the Montgomery Ward catalog and the day that it arrived, she ran back to her barracks to put on the red and white-checkered dress. As she was walking proudly down the roadway she looked up and, as she described it, “I suddenly saw myself walking toward me.” Another woman had ordered the exact same dress, that had arrived on the same day.
RIP Kay, and thank you for your generosity of a life well lived!
Kay was someone I thought would last forever because she was so spunky, but now she endures in our hearts. I met her over 30 years ago when BIJAC’s secretary, Lucille Galbraith and president, Frank Kitamoto, brought Kay and Sam as well as others who have all since passed away to tell their stories to students at Kitsap schools. Kay was the last survivor of that pioneering group, but with new people, she continued to tell Japanese-American stories at Sakai Intermediate School for “The Sake of the Children.” I’m so glad I could celebrate her 100th birthday with all her friends and family at her favorite school and bask in her radiant smile one last time.
Our loss of Kay’s vibrant presence places huge demands on the rest of us. She was a one-off, combining history and heritage with time and place in her inimitable personality. No one of us can come close to filling her shoes, or in the case of Sakai Intermediate School, her kimono. I know our opening day ceremonies, our Sakai art tours, our celebrations of Kay’s birthdays, our cherry blossom festivals and our Leaving Our Island events will not be the same without her.
Luckily Kay’s enormous energy has inspired many people, some of whom have already commented here, to take seriously the responsibility to keep her example alive. While we won’t be able to do it with the same twinkle in the eye that Kay always had, we will do it in the spirit of nidoto nai yoni.
Her memories, our memories of her; her energy inspiring our energy; her life rippling on through the generations: that is Kay’s legacy.
I was honored by Kay coming to my 90th birthday party a few months ago. She was a marvelous woman .She will always be in my memory
On March 30, 2017, at age 97, Kay Sakai Nakao spoke at the 75th Anniversary Commemoration at the Bainbridge Island (WA) Japanese American Exclusion Memorial. Kay was 22 when the US Army forcibly marched her and 226 others off the island and onto a ferry, and then to a train and later buses that would take them to Manzanar. In February 1943, Kay and most of the Islanders transferred to Minidoka, Idaho to be near friends and relatives from the Seattle area.
Here is her “KAYnote” speech at the 75th Anniversary on March 30, 2017.
The last time I saw Kay was just before the Covid 19 pandemic struck, at the celebration of her 100th birthday. Kay was incredibly supportive of the programs at Sakai, including the Art Program, and I was extremely fortunate to serve with her on the Art for Sakai committee (one of the most effective and efficient committees I have ever served on). Kay was an incredible woman, with a backbone of steel, a great sense of humor and a caring heart for everyone she met. I want to say she was a sweet woman, but there was a bit of saltiness there too…like the best salty caramel chocolate. While she was interned during WWII, she wasn’t bitter about the experience. One of my favorite memories of her was when Peg Chapman and I were creating the installation of ‘Executive Order 9066″ in the long hallway downstairs at Sakai. I gave her the small book I had made that was the inspiration for the installation, containing the words she had spoken years ago about her experience. She came to me later with a ‘rewrite’ in her hand, saying that she might have been too harsh in her statement (which wasn’t really true). We had gone too far to change the words, but her caring endeared her to me even more.
An uncommon combination of courage, grace and fortitude
Was lost this week.
Lost, but not really.
Of course, her generous acts of kindness will be remembered.
Of course her dedication to her community will be remembered.
Of course her experiences during the Japanese-American Internment will be remembered.
These are well documented stories that have been handed down through her families, her friends, through library archives.
I too have those memories of her.
But what brings her back to me in an instant
Is the way her voice sounded when she said “Oh, my goodness”
…imparting a bit of news or dare I say it gossip.
It carried with it the twinkle in her eyes when she had something funny to say,
her indignation when she related something she didn’t agree with,
her feisty laughter when relating a story.
She was not a woman of false pride or ego, but truly a gentlewoman in the best sense of the word.
I was deeply honored to repeat her words year after year at Sakai School during the ‘Leaving Our Island’ curriculum. I tried my best in her honor to help so many students FEEL what it must have been like, not just know. I had the privilege of hearing the inside stories of those words directly from her over those years.
I saw first hand her generosity to the school named after her father,
the donation of a doll her aunt sent her from Japan, so it didn’t get destroyed by the bombs…
the Kimono proudly on display in the front hall…
the family crest in the office…
the image of Sonoji and his wife in the entryway.
She touched my life and made an indelible mark on my soul.
As she has done for so many.
I am honored to have known her and keep her story alive.
For Kay Nakao ~
We morn the loss and celebrate the life of our amazing ally and friend. In telling the unjust hardships that were inflicted on you, you drove us to be better. Your wit focused our minds. Your spirit lifted our hearts. You’ve provided us a lifetime of laughs and more than a lifetime of wisdom. Though you are no longer physically with us, the life you lived encourages us to “work hard, be happy, and love everyone.
Thank you for being you,
Your friends and allies of the National Park Service
Forgive the typo – “morn” should have been “mourn”. In Alisa Lynch’s words, “Kay was so sunny and bright that it’s more appropriate to ‘morn’ her anyway.” Seeing the photo of Kay’ and her bright smile brings a smile to my own face every time I see it.
I first met Kay in 1971 at Town and Country Market where she worked as Checker #1. She was so kind and welcoming to a brand new teacher and soon invited me to dinner to meet her daughter, also a teacher. Since then, almost 50 years ago, we were bonded even as our lives went separate ways. In the last 20 years, as I got involved in BIJAC and the History Museum, she still embraced me like a daughter, and I got to learn more of her stories, her love of the island, and her incredible optimism and sense of humor. She is indeed a Bainbridge Island treasure and will be sorely missed.
We love you, Kay, and you will always be in our hearts.
I got to know Kay through the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum where I had the pleasure of helping coordinate tours where students could hear Kay speak about her experiences during World War II. It was such a blessing to have been able to hear her story and talk with her, if only for a little while.
Every time that Kay saw me, she gave me a huge smile and asked me how my boys were. She gave me a that special sense of being valuable and a true member to our Bainbridge community. I am so thankful to have had her in my life here on Bainbridge Island.
To Bill and all of Kay’s family and friends: I am so sorry for the loss of Kay. For some reason, I always felt she would go on forever. And I know she would if there had been an option. I first met Kay as a checker at T&C way back in the 70s. She has always been a friend to everyone, and we appreciate that. And we often ran into each other at the Bainbridge Island History Museum, where she was a stalwart of the Island’s history, whether it be good or bad history. To Kay, history and the truth were of the utmost importance. May her name be remembered by Islanders for her truth, tenacity and compassion. Rest in peace, Kay.
When my son was studying Japanese Internment, we went to the Manzanar Historic Site the State Park system runs. My father and his cousins grew up on Bainbridge Island and knew Kay and her history. I asked them to see if Kay would be willing to speak with us about her experience and she was very generous. She met with us and talked about what it was like for her at the time and upon her return to Bainbridge. I think seeing how positive she was even in light of her past trauma was a very valuable lesson to my son. In spite of the darkness, there can still be light in the world through people like Kay. I’m so grateful we got to meet her.
The highlight of my time teaching at Olympic College over the past four years was taking my students to the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum and Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial. At the Museum Kay would Lilly would tell about their experiences to my students, who were enthralled with their tales of courage and determination in the face of illegal and immoral discrimination and imprisonment by the government of the country they loved. One narrative from a survivor like Kay was worth a quarter’s worth of lectures from me, and I used to tell her that she made me look good (by doing my job for me).
I just received tenure at Olympic College this past February after a four year process and there is no doubt that Kay and others at the Museum were greatly responsible for my success. In my mind, Kay was like a second professor who taught my students about what it was like to be a loyal and effective U.S. citizen, and how we should never let our guard down when it comes to protecting our Constitutional rights. After listening to Kay, I know my students became much more aware of the need to be vigilant in protecting the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike.
Kay was a true American hero but she was also and sweet and lovely woman. Last year we brought a birthday cake for her 100th birthday and Kay insisted that all of my 20 or so students get a piece of that cake right then and there, even though I told her I brought it only for her. But she persisted, and we all got a piece of her birthday cake, and had a great time. I will never forget that day and will never forget Kay. I will miss her dearly and will cherish the time spent with her at the museum.
Rest well Kay and thanks for all that you have taught me and my students.
“Smi-ling Kay Na-kao
A Laugh-ing Sto-ry-tel-ler
Mem-or-ies Live On…”
I am not from Bainbridge. I’m not from the state of Washington and I’ve never lived in either place. Now you can really lean in— I really, really dislike the Seahawks (Go Niners!)
When I was a college freshman at U.C. Berkeley in 2003, I was enrolled in a (required) writing class where the course’s theme was World War II History. Against the backdrop of essentially “learning how to write really long and annoying papers”, the required reading was historical novels about WWII.
As we navigated the course, our final paper was assigned and of the three topics, I selected the Japanese Internment in the United States at the outset of WWII. I won’t pretend to be an expert of WWII history OR Japanese internment, although on the latter I can say that I probably know more than most. Especially against the back drop of our country’s perpetual current event–social inequality–and certainly in honor of Kay’s century upon this earth, I feel compelled to share my short story.
While I’ve never lived on Bainbridge, my parents are close friends with Eric Cederwall and Jo Vander Stoep of Bainbridge Island. Jo and Eric are like an aunt and uncle to me. In fact my very first taking an airplane on my own was to visit Jo and Eric in Seattle— I was 8. I can’t remember how it all came to pass, but Jo caught wind of my paper and suggested I could interview a friend of hers named Kay Sakai Nakao— the daughter of Sonoji Sakai (for whom Sakai Intermediate School is named) and where Jo was the inaugural principal for a number of years.
A few shorts weeks later, I found myself at Jo & Eric’s house on Bainbridge, sitting face to face with Kay Nakao the 85 year old survivor of perhaps the most egregious, and sadly, under the radar violations, of American civil rights in the 20 century- the internment Japanese-Americans during WWII. Kay told me the story from start to finish, and how she lived a number of her early years- an innocent American child- a prisoner and enemy of the state. She told me details about the camp, her living situation and finally her “excused field trip” away from the camp so that she could get married. I could never do the full story justice— in fact my 15 page paper probably didn’t even come close.
What I remember most about that interview was her laugh. I can still hear it— a high pitched giggle that rang with wisdom and light-heartedness at the same time. Someone who has lived through the good and bad of life and came out the other end with a smile on her face and a ton of love in her heart.
Kay wins the award in my book for “most memorable school assignment ever”. If anyone cares- I got an A- on the paper.
My casual meeting with Kay for a couple of short hours was an experience that I will never forget. If she could touch my life and imprint herself in my memory in a single, brief meeting, I can only imagine the how many lives she touched in her 100 years. She will be missed!
Rest in peace, Kay!
Phil Campos, Walnut Creek, CA
When our community decided to build a fifth & sixth grade school, Frank Kitamoto, Junkoh Harui, and Don Nakata led the effort to name the school in honoring Issei of our Bainbridge Island Japanese Community, nominating the name Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School. From the naming of the school, then the building and planning, through today, Sakai School community has embraced the opportunity and responsibility of honoring Bainbridge Island’s Japanese American Community and history through our curriculum, art, and traditions.
Kay Sakai Nakao has been our guiding light – active at Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School from the ground breaking in 1998 through her participation in Sakai Arts & Traditions Committee, Opening Day Ceremony, Arts Tour, Leaving Our Island Day. We will always remember with joy & gratitude our opportunity to host the celebration of Sakai School’s 20th and Kay’s 100th birthdays in January this year. Kay was fondly remembered at this year’s Sakai Virtual Opening Day Ceremony. Here is a link to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GScsmi2Io-Y&feature=youtu.be
My friendship with the extended Sakai family, and especially with Kay, was forged as I was the principal of Sonoji Sakai Intermediate School from its opening until 2008. Since 2008, Kay & I have continued to serve together on the Sakai Arts & Traditions Committee. I have had the honor of accompanying her to many events & meetings.
Some personal memories I especially treasure:
– Watching Kay pound mochi at Bainbridge’s Mochi Tsuki Festival, as recently as January, 2020.
– Accompanying Kay as she grocery shopped at T & C where she is a ROCK STAR. She is greeted as warmly by staff there as she greeted customers through her years of working there.
– We enjoyed many lunches together (Kay’s treat!) especially at Bainbridge Thai, (where the Rinonos family often sent her home with wonton soup) and BI Sushi.
– Kay’s farewells as she smilingly sings out, “Love you!”
I am so grateful for Kay’s friendship and long life.
Jo Vander Stoep, Bainbridge Island
How many fortunate humans there are in the world that can say their lives were touched by Kay! Her humor, her storytelling, her tireless sharing of herself to so many groups – we shall carry her legacy forward as we do our best to honor everything she stood for. I have been fortunate to be connected to Sakai Intermediate since it opened, to get to know Kay through Leaving Our Island and her many other public contributions. Many thanks to her family for supporting her passions and ensuring the stories will not be forgotten.
I just wanted to offer my sincere appreciation for the opportunity to have known Kay. As a teacher of 4th graders at Wilkes, I feel lucky that Kay was able to be a part of my classes’ learning at Wilkes, the museum and Suyematsu Farm. I also travelled with her to Manzanar in 2009 on what I think was her first return there since the war. I was always so amazed at her ability to share her experiences in such a way that we all felt like we had been in her shoes, feeling the emotions that she felt. While she might question the way things were she never expressed anger at those responsible. Leaving it as a question compelled us to look for answers or a response. That was powerful. She taught all of us so much.
Her ability to connect with people on such a personal level endeared her to many of my students, and certainly me.