People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Midori Sato and her ‘only in America’ dream

by Irma Nunez

In the summer of 1962, on their way to New York, Midori Sato and her new husband, Kazuo, stopped in San Francisco to visit with a friend. For her first weekend in America, they stayed at a hilltop campground overlooking the bay and its famous Golden Gate Bridge. Sato’s husband, a PhD graduate from Yale, had just left Osaka University for a job at the United Nations. Sato, then 27 and seven months pregnant with the couple’s first child, had no friends or family in their destination city but she had an American dream — to experience the unknown.

Staying at the campsite, opposite their cabin was a family with a small boy of around 4 or 5 years old. “What are you?” the child asked Sato. “I am a human being, what else?” she thought, but guessing his motive, “Japanese,” she replied. The boy ran back to his family across the road. “You are our enemy!” he cried.

That was, she says, “my first welcome to the U.S.”

Born in Kobe in March 1935, Sato had learned young how to manage antithetical views of America. A child in wartime, she vividly recalls the deaths of school friends shot down by U.S. warplanes that flew so low to the ground she could see the pilots’ faces through the cockpit glass. Later, at Kobe Jogakuin, a rigorous all-girls school, she studied English under teachers recruited from the States. The language skills she developed helped her to find work as a young adult at the International Rotary Club, American Consulate in Kobe, and at Osaka University, where she typed papers for scholars including Kazuo, who was fresh back from Yale.

But was it difficult for her to emigrate to a former enemy country?

“If you think about it, it’s not easy to accept. But you become selective of what to think,” she says. “Once you decide to come to the United States,” she explains, “you tend to think more in terms of what’s possible.”

Sato just celebrated her 83rd birthday in her adopted homeland, where she’s found fulfillment following both conventional and less-traveled paths. An established figure in the New York art scene, she holds the title Conservator Emerita at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has four children and seven grandchildren, all of whom, she says, are “very much American — nothing but American.” Her grandkids call her Mimi.

When she landed in America, Sato says, “I didn’t know much about anything.” She had studied English and American history, “but there is something beyond knowledge that one can only learn by witnessing and by experiencing.”

Her late husband — a brilliant economist who “didn’t know the cost of a gallon of milk” — was also married to his work, so she was left to learn on her own. “He didn’t say anything and he let me be free,” she says. “But he had no idea that other people take their wives and kids on vacation.”

In the family’s first six years, in Elmhurst, Queens, Sato became enmeshed in the Japanese chuzai-in (expat) community. Her English skills were rare among the housewives, and everyone looked to her for help with their children’s schoolwork. Before she knew it, her home had become an unofficial (and tuition-free) day care/cram school, which Sato felt immense social pressure to maintain. “I saw the epitome of Japanese society brought into my living room,” she says, “and I was trapped in it.”

Interactions outside the community, too, could be trying. When carrying her baby on her back in a traditional sling, strangers would stop her in the street to scold her, calling it dangerous. Meanwhile, the fish monger “freaked out” when she inquired about fresh tuna. “He told everybody, ‘Look, this lady eats fish raw!’ like it was so barbaric,” she recalls. “Everybody eats sushi now — sometimes I have to laugh.”

Eventually, the Satos moved to Manhattan, nearer the United Nations International School, where her children were enrolled. There, Sato, now in her mid-30s, at last found a community of like minds; among her closest friends was the family of the late Belgium-born artist Jan Yoors.

The Yoors’ unconventional family — one husband, two wives and three children (“to see it work so well was amazing,” she says) — lived near Washington Square Park in a vibrant space that became a second home to Sato and her children.

“On one side of the huge living room, under a high ceiling, they had built a large vertical loom, where three women weaved daily,” she recalls. “In the small garden in the back was a kids’ playhouse, where flowers bloomed. Everywhere was filled with crafts, art, tapestries, and all kinds of materials and tools.”

There, she freely engaged with a revolving door of guests — writers, journalists, professors, cooks, artists, musicians — in nonstop activity: “writing plays, making costumes, making puppets and wooden toys, drawing, baking … .” But Sato didn’t consider a career path of her own until the mid-1980s, after all but her youngest daughter had left home.

“I was already 50 years old. Closer to retirement age,” she says. “My friends thought I was crazy, my husband, too.” But she thought, “This is America, the land of opportunity. It was worth the challenge to become someone besides who I’d always known myself to be,” she says.

Through a friend, Sato learned about an opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (she had a teaching certificate for pattern making from a design school in Japan). As that job was already taken, she was passed on to the Textile Conservation Department, which had just lost an employee and which, she confesses, “I’d never heard of or had any idea about.”

The department head, Nobuko Kajitani, gave Sato a tour of the basement facilities and immediately offered her a position. “My generation of women in Japan had learned both in school and at home to sew, stitch, knit, crochet and all kinds of thread work. As she was about my age, I think Nobuko knew I had that background,” she says.

The win was, at first, bittersweet. The initial pay was low, the job demanding (Sato often worked with bloodied fingers), and the workspace depressing. A windowless cement workroom, it was accessed by a single door leading off of a furniture storeroom at the end of a series of mazelike corridors. The work also “required absolute patience in absolute silence.” Occasionally, the staff listened to the radio.

Over time, Sato’s responsibilities grew to include installation, preservation and courier duties. By 2001, she was full time, with plenty of overtime, juggling several projects and regularly traveling with artwork on loan overseas. That’s when she had her workplace epiphany.

It happened in 2001, the morning after Sept. 11, when the museum unexpectedly opened its doors to the public. Sato wondered, “Who would come at such a time?” But many came — “young couples with babies in their arms, old couples supporting each other, men, women, young and old, quiet, holding hands.” An organ had been set up in the museum’s Medieval Hall, and Bach’s “Requiem” played. Some patrons sat on the floor, others bowed their heads, as in prayer. Deeply moved, Sato shed tears alongside them.

“I realized for the first time that the museum had an important mission: to serve people, not just to exhibit art.” Her choice of workplace, she realized, had been wonderful.

Prompted by budgetary cuts, Sato retired nine years later, after nearly 25 years of service. Her life, she says, would have been unthinkable outside of America — “not possible in Japan, not anywhere else.” Having labored over everything from the wall hangings of Louis XIV’s bedroom to installation gazettes now used in museums worldwide, she’d touched history. “Long live The Met!” she said to herself. “Time to leave.”

Today, with her children living across the country and her husband and many friends either passed on or in retirement homes, Sato is mulling a return to Japan. “I went to the 70-year reunion for my primary school and everybody’s still around,” she says. “They all said, ‘Come back and play with us.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to play gate ball or whatever.'” Her friends persisted. “So I said, ‘OK, maybe.'”

Wherever the future takes her, she knows where her path will end. In her will, she’s asked that her ashes be scattered at Strawberry Fields, “Central Park — forever.”


Profile

Name: Midori Sato

Profession: Textile conservator

Hometown: Kobe

Age: 83

Key life moments:

1962 — Moves to New York

1985 — Begins work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Textile Conservation Department

2000-2005 — Collaborates with colleague Bill Barrette to present “Encounter,” several exhibitions of art and artifacts depicting life at Sugamo Prison for suspected war criminals.

2014 — Publishes the 10-year research process for “Encounter” and her wartime experiences in Impressions: The Journal of the Japanese Art Society of America #35

2016 — Named Conservator Emerita of The Met

Words to live by: “Be open-minded, curious and challenging.”

What I miss about Japan: “The beauty of nature and the people I grew up with.”