“Dad! Can you tell me about Grandpa?”

DOUGLAS SATO | Arts, Activism and Social Justice Summer School | USA | Bristol, Connecticut, USA

“Dad! Can you tell me about Grandpa?”

“Dad! Can you tell me about Grandpa?”

Since childhood, I have always been curious about the ancestry and history of my family. Never having the chance to meet my paternal grandfather, I would regularly ask my father for stories about him and the origins of our family. I desired to know all I could about my family. While it is tempting for me to share all of my findings, I will just highlight the origin of my surname.

Only traceable to about 130 years ago, my surname, Sato, was given to my paternal great-grandfather upon adoption. My great-grandfather, Kenshige, was gifted to another family in the fishing village where he was born in southern Japan. As described to me by my father and maternal grandmother, he was given up as a communal offering.

Kenshige’s biological family did this so the Sato family in their village would have a male heir to carry on their family name. As a young adult, Kenshige would travel the world as a deckhand on a passenger ship. His voyages would be interrupted twice due to ship damage from torpedoes launched following naval suspicions during World War I. It was not until the third departure when the ship would complete a voyage.

By the 1920s, Kenshige made his way to the United States. Docked in Baltimore, Maryland, he abandoned his duties and fled to New York City in hopes of his own American dream. As an undocumented immigrant, he worked to assimilate fast. He found a job as a servant for a wealthy family and, with their guidance, was able to obtain a work visa. Kenshige began to learn English using day-old newspapers and with help from his co-workers. Once Kenshige gained sufficient language skills, his employer sponsored him to attend culinary school as an investment to train him to be the family’s future private chef. While at school, he met his wife, Catherine, a Scottish immigrant. Upon finishing his training, he and Catherine would settle in Connecticut and have two children, Frances, and Douglas. Kenshige would pass down his value of assimilation to his children by deciding not to teach them Japanese.

Following the start of World War II and the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, tensions and prejudice towards Asian Americans grew in communities across the United States. In January 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order for Japanese internment. While my great-grandfather was not directly affected, his biological family, who immigrated to California, were relocated to a prison camp. Hostility was still present in Connecticut, and as a response to community tensions, Kenshige moved in with his employer, forced into a pseudo-internment. My grandfather and his sister, children at the time, went to live with their aunt and uncle as their mother, Catherine, passed away from cancer a few years prior.

During the past five years, my interest surrounding my genealogy has peaked. I have used my research skills, which I have learned on my path to becoming a history teacher, to investigate more. My research has involved conducting oral history interviews, reviewing census data, and referencing birth, death, and marriage records. I hope my journey to uncover the origins behind the names I carry inspires you to begin this journey too.

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