The picture, captured by a Getty photographer, received little attention at the time.
Sato had made a long trip to attend a rally against racism held in the center of Auckland on Sunday, a trek involving multiple transfers between bus lines.
His journey and presence at the rally have become a small symbol of the emotion that has poured forth in New Zealand after a gunman killed 50 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch. Sato has appeared in a slide show by the Guardian of the best photographs from around the world. And he was quoted in the New Zealand Herald — one of the country’s largest newspapers by circulation — after being spotted by a reporter.
For Sato, the trip was personal. He told Radio New Zealand, a public broadcaster, on Tuesday that he was deeply affected by the shooting — the worst act of terrorism in the country’s history — and one that appears to have been motivated by a deep fear and hatred of Muslims. The horror was broadcast live on Facebook, leaving parts of the video dispersed across the Internet. Social media companies struggled to scrub the images from their services.
“I stayed awake quite a lot of the night,” Sato said about the day of the massacre. “And I didn’t sleep too well ever since. I thought it was so sad. But you can feel the suffering of other people.”
Sato is a World War II veteran, the outlet reported — one of two soldiers with Japanese heritage to serve in the army during the war. Sato, of Auckland, had been born to a Japanese father and a Scottish mother, RNZ reported, and he had been recruited to fight against the Japanese. He identifies himself as Eurasian, the outlet reported.
And he felt motivated to speak out against racism and stand in solidarity with his fellow New Zealanders. The attack, he said, had showed “the other side.”
“It has brought people together,” Sato said. “It doesn’t matter what their race or anything. People are suddenly realize we’re all one. We care for each other.”
Sato apparently is without immediate family. His wife died 15 years ago and their only child, a daughter, died last year, RNZ reported.
His trip to the rally, in Aotea Square, began at 10 a.m. when he left his home in Howick, a suburb southeast of Auckland, for Pakuranga, another sector to the west. He saw a memorial there but decided to continue to the rally in the city’s center, RNZ reported.
A couple more transfers took him to the area.
“Sitting in a bus is much more comfortable than walking,” Sato said. “You just sit back and you sit all comfortable and you feel lazy. You don’t have to walk. It saves your shoes.”
And he experienced a sense of warmth. He was photographed there with a police officer and actor Bruce Hopkins, who played Gamling in the Lord of the Rings movies, which were filmed in New Zealand. Sato told the New Zealand Herald that he had seen a lot of racism and hate over the course of his life.
“It’s undercover, usually,” he said. He said he was a member of a humanitarian organization that stood for compassion and love.
For his return trip, a police officer gave him a bottle of water and took him home, RNZ reported. It was not immediately clear whether it was the same officer in the Getty photo.
“Police man took me all the way home and waited down there until he saw me get up the stairs. Very kind, you know,” Sato said. “That tragedy in Christchurch — look what it brought out in the people. It shows the best of humanity.”