Remembering Joji Sato, Class of 1974

Remembering Joji Sato, Class of 1974
Remembering Joji Sato, Class of 1974

We recently received the sad news that Joji Sato (class of '74) passed away on May 4th, 61 years old. Leslie Helm (class of '73) has written the following remembrance of Joji to share with the YIS alumni community. Our condolences to Joji's family and many YIS friends.

Joji Sato, who graduated from Yokohama International School in the class of 1974, died on May 4th. He is survived by his mother, Fumiko, and his younger brother, Yasu. Joji was 61 years old. Joji's ashes will be scattered in the Virginia countryside where he once hoped to retire. Following Joji's wishes, there will be no formal funeral, although friends will be meeting in Washington D.C. and elsewhere to celebrate his life.

Joji, who worked as an interpreter for such customers as the U.S. State Department and the Japan Self Defense Force, was a charming man with a broad, seductive smile and a laugh that could light up a room. A third-degree black belt who trained in the Renshinkan-style, his roundhouse kick could knock over the toughest opponent.

In high school, pacifist music teacher, Frank Becker, used to give Joji a hard time for spending so much time on what he considered a violent sport. Until, that is, Joji happened to be in the room when a heavy light shade fell from the ceiling towards the crib where Frank's newborn baby was sleeping. Joji, with his fast, karate-sharpened reflexes, used his fist to knocked the fixture out of the way.

Joji was regarded as among the best interpreters in Washington DC, and interpreted for the lengthy security negotiations between Japan and the U.S., as well as for such national leaders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

He was once simultaneously translating by speaking into President Obama's ear, sitting slightly behind the president when he paused for Obama's Japanese counterpart to finish his thought. Obama turned and looked right into Joji's eyes. "You okay?" he asked. Joji was a great admirer of Obama and was thrilled to be working with the president.

Joji's personal philosophy drew from such diverse sources as British philosophers, Zen priests and ancient samurai. One of his favorite quotes was: "When you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha. Another favorite was: "All is vanity." Rather than fight that reality, Joji ran with it. And why not? His humor, good looks, smarts, karate wizardry and generosity were a hit among women, and Joji dated more than his share. Marco, a close friend of Joji's from his time in Japan, once noted that there is a little bit of Joji in each of us. It's the part of us that wants to live life in the moment, to the fullest, damn the consequences.

When Joji went to a Washington DC hospital in mid-April, he must have been in extreme pain for months, the nurse said. Friends had been urging him to go to the hospital, but he kept putting it off. I imagine him gritting his teeth, having a drink, and persuading himself that this too would pass. The day after his visit to the hospital, he stopped breathing and was put on a respirator. His kidney began to fail, he had had pneumonia. His liver was barely functioning and leaked toxins into his body. Marco Liem and I (class of '73) were fortunate to be there when the doctor took off Joji's respirator to see if his body could breathe on its own. Joji seemed better for a while. He gave us a smile when we talked about Paris days. But soon he became agitated and was clearly in pain. The next day Joji told Marco and his wife Lynn, "This is hell....I want to go." When Joji's lung collapsed a week later, Joji's brother, mother and friends all agreed that the time had come. Richard Koike (class of '75), Yasu and several of Joji's Washington DC friends were there with him at the end.

When precious friends die too young, we can't help but speculate. Was Joji's decision not to have a family related to the fact that his young Irish-American father, Ted Fagan, had left the family when Joji was a young boy? Did Joji suffer from the widespread racism that existed in Japan toward mixed-race children during those post-war years? We will never know.

In an email to a friend, Joji quotes at length a passage from British philosopher Bertrand Russell in which he discusses the three things that guided his life: the quest for love to stamp out loneliness, the search for knowledge and pity for the suffering of mankind.

Joji's death leaves a big hole in our lives. We will miss his smile and his joy for life. We should be comforted that he found great love in this world and that is life was filled with friends. We should be comforted that Joji lived a full life. Joji would be pleased if he knew that is death had served to remind us to treasure the friends we have, because it was friends that Joji always treasured above all. As he wrote in an email to a friend: "Friendship, you can't beat it with a stick."