Kay Keiko Hirai is an independent Japanese-American author who has published two books, Yumi's Life Lessons, and Keiko's Journey, a brief personal memoir of her childhood experiences in post-WWII Japan. We had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Hirai during our visit to the Hawaii Book and Music Festival, where we briefly discussed her book and she agreed to conduct an interview. Here's what Ms. Hirai had to share with us:
Your most recent book, Keiko's Journey, is a personal memoir about your experiences in post-WWII Japan as a child. What gave you the inspiration to create this memoir in the first place?
I kept all this [my past in Japan] a secret because it was too painful for me to talk about it. The thought of my mother going through such an experience was painful to me. I realized what a brave person she was and what a strong mother she was to raise me in the midst of such a chaotic period [World War II]. I finally made up my mind to tell this story in her honor, thinking that it would benefit other women who are looking for an inspirational role model to give them courage.
Your relationship with Shiro, the dog, is an important part of the story, and your bio says you are an animal activist. Can you tell us about the work you do to help animals and how you hope this book may serve that purpose?
My relationship with Shiro will last a lifetime, even though it has been many years since she's been gone. I am a believer that animals [pets] have the power to heal our pain, help us cope with unbearable situations, and improve our well-being. Shiro did exactly that for me during those difficult years when Mother was being abused by my stepfather. Animals are such sweet souls, and it causes me pain to know that they are being abused by human hands.
What do I do to help animals? I have a marketing structure built into my business (Studio 904 Salon) to support and sustain ongoing fundraising programs to benefit low-income children/adults and animal welfare organizations. I've sponsored a month-long fundraiser in my salon for the past eight years. It's really a big deal to the salon and to our customers. We raise and donate funds to Pasado's Safe Haven, Old Dog Haven, Precious Life Animal Sanctuary, and Ginger's Pet Rescue. I've raised over $50,000 in the eight years I've been doing fundraising for the animals. My other book, Yumi's Life Lessons, also raises money for the animal organizations by giving 15% of every book sale.
Who are your non-writer influences?
I've been in business for forty years and have many clients who support me in being a sociably responsible entrepreneur, as well as encouraging me in my writing and art career. My husband is extremely supportive of my endeavors as well.
What kinds of future projects do you have planned? Will they be related to your current publications?
I am already fourteen chapters into writing my next book, A Hair Salon like No Other [working title]. It is an evolutionary story of my life-changing experiences growing a business. My unwavering commitment to create a better world for employees, customers, and the community has taken me through an incredible journey of forty years. Another exciting project I'm involved with is a book reading drama from the first two chapters of Keiko's Journey. My team of readers has been rehearsing and they're now ready to take it on the road. We have four performances booked already for the summer months. The cast members of this play are volunteers. We want to share our talents with the community to help increase awareness of how World War II affected the lives of those in Japan.
What do you personally hope readers will take away from Keiko's Journey?
I want to inspire the readers and offer them a new way to think—in spite of adversity and challenging childhood experiences, we can ascend to become healthy individuals who can lead a life of purpose.
In this age of publishing, self-promotion is really necessary for the author. What do you enjoy most about advertising yourself and your works? What do you find most challenging?
I enjoy talking to people and hearing about their stories. I also enjoy sharing my experiences growing up in Japan and teaching people about the "old style" Japanese culture. I cherish those moments when the people who read my book get in touch with me because they were touched in one way or another because of similar experiences. For example, I've heard things like, "My mother had to put up with domestic violence for years after my dad returned from the war. She kept her pain hidden for many years and lived most of her life coping with deep depression. I'm going to read your book to her so she will not feel so alone". Once, a man came to see me because he was a young soldier who was stationed in Fukuoka. He said, "You talked about the park in Fukuoka in your book and I remember going on boat rides in that lake! I was only 18, and reading your book brought floods of memories. I've never talked about it with anyone because no one would understand what I went through…I'm so excited that you wrote about all that I've tried to forget."
However, I do not enjoy selling my books, only because I feel pressured to get them out.
Keiko's Journey has a number of photographs included in the book. Where did you find them? Are there any interesting stories behind compiling these photos?
I remember when my mother told me, "Keiko, we are not going back to Japan", and she unfolded all the secrets that had been kept from me, I was very angry. I was so frustrated that I tore up many of the photos from my childhood family album. This is the reason why many of the photos featured in my book are tattered and torn.
What is the first book you remember reading on your own?
I loved reading Japanese books. Mother would only let me read couple of chapters and took the book away from me. I remember begging her to let me read more. She said, "Wait until tomorrow, and you can read the next two chapters". I don't remember the titles of any of the books I read in Japan. I was not able to develop a passion for reading English books due to my language difficulties.
Can you share a little bit about how having lived in two different cultures, Japanese and American, has influenced you as a writer?
Knowing the Japanese culture has influenced my whole life as I acclimated to the American culture.
I see things from many perspectives, thus expanding my thought patterns and creativity. My rigorous training I received in the Japanese school system resurfaced in my life as I grew older. For example, my artistic skills and public speaking skills come from my early childhood upbringing in the Japanese school system.
Do you have any advice or suggestions for people who are also interested in writing a memoir?
Yes, don't overthink your story. I started simply by writing things that left a strong impression on my mind. I jotted down little stories on large index cards. Each index card then became a chapter of my book and I expanded the story.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I take my dog Max to do agility training every week. We run and he goes through obstacles. We become a team and when he is focused, we can do amazing things! I love to talk to customers who visit my salon, and I enjoy working with my employees and managing my business. I cherish my time with my husband and two grown kids, Sheri and Ross. I enjoy cooking for them and friends. I especially like baking deserts. I save at least one hour per day for my art. My latest art medium is water color paints. It brings me to a point of complete relaxation [mind and body] to get lost in my art work. I keep creating beautiful things every day and sell them at my fundraisers to raise money for my many causes, including the "Angels for the Animals" fundraiser every year.
We would like to thank Ms. Hirai for her time and for sharing so much interesting information about her work. For those who are interested, you can find her website here, with links to her books on this page.
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