Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) is our nation’s first immigrant U.S. Senator. Born in Japan, she immigrated to Hawaii as a child, with her mother and siblings. Hirono, the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate, shares her personal story about how coming to this country with virtually nothing inspired her to give back through politics.
Recorded April 26, 2017. Hosted by Robert Traynham. Read a partial transcript of this interview below.
Traynham: The United States, historically, is a nation of immigrants who came to our shores in search of opportunities to create a better life. U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat from Hawaii, joins us to share her American story. Senator, I have to start with a lot of firsts for you.
Traynham: You were the first elected female senator from Hawaii, the first Asian-American woman senator elected in the United States Senate, and also the first U.S. senator born in Japan. –
Hirono: Yes. –
Traynham: From my perspective, you represent the American story, the melting pot of who we are.
Hirono: Yes. I completely agree with that. And, aside from the original peoples, the American Indians, in Hawaii the native Hawaiians, and in Alaska the Alaska natives, everybody else is an immigrant to this country, and I certainly represent that whole idea of coming to this country to make a better life for ourselves, and I owe it all to my mother, who determined that escaping an abusive marriage in Japan and plotting and planning in secret to bring her children to this country so that we could have a chance at a better life — I owe it all to my mom.
Traynham:Senator, as I understand — I mean, clearly you know your story better than I do. Immigrating to this country, 8 years old, getting on a boat, as you mentioned, your mom plotted this in secret for a couple of months.
Hirono:Well, it took a while.
Traynham: As I understand it, your father was a gambler and pretty much took her personal belongings -and actually gambled that. –
Hirono: Oh, yes. Well, he was also a compulsive — He was an alcoholic, so he did not take care of his family. And my mother did not see a future for us there. But that was very courageous for her because in Japan, women did not do that. Certainly if they wanted to escape from that kind of abusive marriage, they would just take themselves out. –
Traynham: Hmm. –
Hirono: But she wanted to make sure that her children escape with her. So we came in steerage on the President Cleveland with one suitcase.
Traynham: And when you arrived in the shores of Hawaii, I believe you were encouraged to speak English, -to kind of leave your — –
Hirono: Yes. Well, of course, I didn´t speak any English, and I owe it to not just my mother but our public schools who, you know, made sure that I learned English. But we didn´t have special programs for kids like me. You just pretty much get thrown into a classroom, discouraged from speaking Japanese. So, sadly, I forgot much of my Japanese in my effort to learn English, but, you know, this is a great country.
Traynham: And I believe one of your teachers — One of your fond memories — your teacher read you “Mary Poppins.”
Hirono: It was my librarian, and that — She awakened in me a love of reading, which I think is also very foundational for learning and expressing our self.
Traynham:You know, Senator, as expressive as your personal story is, it´s uniquely American in many ways. –
Hirono: Yes. –
Traynham: But in many ways, a lot of immigrants have that story where it´s just about perseverance and pushing though. And your call to service now I think is remarkable, as well, and I want to talk about that — spending many, many years as a lieutenant governor, many years in the state legislature giving back. Why is that important to you in terms of your core, in terms of it being a part of your DNA?
Hirono: Well, I came to this country with nothing, and so it awakened in me a desire to give back, and politics was a way that it happened. That way´s not something I planned, but I´m —
Traynham: You actually wanted to be a teacher?
Hirono: No, I thought I would become a therapist or a social worker, a helping profession, but my political awakening came by protesting the Vietnam War, and I realized that there are things that I´d like to do politically and being an engaged activist. But it´s not enough to protest and march against the Vietnam War. I decided that, a group of us, we should be at the table making decisions, and so one thing led to another.