John Sato: 'People put up walls between each other – and it’s largely down to ignorance or negative media portrayals.' Photo: Blair Millar/Amnesty International

John Sato: ‘I am not a bleeding heart or a do-gooder, but I can feel for people’

John Sato, a 95-year-old World War Two veteran, made international headlines when he took four buses to join an anti-racism march in central Auckland after the March 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks. This is his story.

My name is John Edward Henry Sato. I am 95 years old. What brought me here? Well, they tell me it was the stork.

My mother was born in Scotland and my father is from Japan. They both served in the first world war – my mother was a nurse; my father was in the Japanese navy – and eventually settled in New Zealand.

As a child, I remember people of two different races were called half-breeds and I’d hear people referring to people of Italian descent as “daegos” [a derogatory term for Italian immigrants]. But I never heard an unkind word spoken about me.

I was quite a sickly child and I suffered from bad asthma, but I didn’t let it deter me from going to school. I loved school. When I was 14 or 15, I studied comparative religion. I wanted to discover the essence behind it all. People get the wrong impression of religion – if they don’t understand something, they are quite often afraid of it.

That’s what happened during the Christchurch attacks. On Friday 15 March, the Muslim community was attacked in their place of worship. Fifty-one people were killed and dozens more injured. The person who carried out these horrific attacks did so in the name of white supremacy and hate.

The news was everywhere – on the radio and TV. I don’t watch a lot of the TV, but you couldn’t miss it. It was a sad day for New Zealand.

The only good thing was it brought people a greater understanding of one another. It was an opportunity to learn tolerance, compassion, caring and respect, no matter your race or religion.

I was keen to pay my respects, so I took a bus to a mosque in Pakuranga. It was just the start of a long journey. I gave up driving four years ago so if I have to go anywhere now, I use public transport.  The mosque was closed, but there were flowers along the front of the wall.

I had a feeling there’d be a gathering in the city centre, so I took three more buses to reach Aotea Square, where a rally was taking place. Sitting in a bus is much more comfortable than walking. It saves your shoes. A huge crowd of people had gathered out of sympathy. People wanted to show their compassion for those who had been hurt.

Different buildings exist for different religions, because they suit different races and cultures. Yet if you look at the situation without judgement, you learn they’re all saying the same thing.

I didn’t expect any publicity to come from my journey. I am not a bleeding heart or do-gooder, but I can feel for people. If you’ve been through enough yourself, you learn to recognise it in others. Maybe that’s a good way to be educated.

People put up walls between each other – and it’s largely down to ignorance or negative media portrayals. It’s not news unless we hear something nasty. We fail to realise there are so many good things and so many good people in this world.

I’ve learnt a lot from my wife and my daughter. My wife and I were older when we met and married.

I remember my oldest friend teaching me to dance the waltz in a field – it was quite a sight. I loved dancing, but I never felt I had much to give to a girl because of my background.

I was called up to serve in the New Zealand army during the second world war. I was 18, just one of the chaps. We were all rather nervous – some of us were probably a bit scared too. Being 18 then was different to being 18 now. We were all rather naïve. They would take the top off a big bottle of beer and give it to you. You’d have three bottles of beer and be staggering all over the place, then you’d have to march back! We slept in tents from the first world war, where the odd drop of water would seep through when it rained. My bed was a sack of straw, placed atop a ground sheet.

By the time I got married, I was 40 and my wife was 38. I was working for a small company at the time. We went and lived in a flat above the company – it wasn’t ideal, but we saved hard to buy some land to build a house. A few years later my wife fell pregnant.

Our daughter was born totally blind and when she turned 18 months old she developed epilepsy. At age three, she caught a virus, which affected her speech – she was able to understand what we were saying, but she couldn’t speak. Yet, despite all that, she was incredibly talented at yoga.

From the time she was a tiny tot, she always sat upright in the lotus position. She was able to cross her ankles behind her neck and when my wife told a yoga teacher, she said it was a classic yoga pose that had taken her seven years to learn. We learnt a lot from Anne.

My wife died 15 years ago, from cancer, and my daughter died last October, after contracting a virus. I was grateful my wife wasn’t alive to see my daughter suffering.

Three days before my daughter passed away, she said: “Muma, dada, love, love,” and the last time I saw her, she said: “Dada, love”. It was such a special gift.

Everyone is built to handle what they can. There have been times I’ve questioned why certain things are happening to me – things that have been emotionally painful, but now I understand that the experiences I’ve been through have taught me compassion and tolerance. You learn the most when you’ve been through it yourself.

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I can’t teach another person how to think, feel or behave – we’re all different – that’s why we have to take our own journey and just try our best.

We’re all different and some may move in another direction than us, but I’d like to think there’s still hope for the future.

To every activist who wants to make a difference, including those from Amnesty International, learning to respect each other is much more important than trying to hurt one another.

John Sato was speaking to Amnesty International. Photos and video: Blair Millar/Amnesty International 


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