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Keiko’s Journey to Seattle

By Maiya Gessling
The North American Post

Kay Hirai and her dog at a park in SeattlePhoto and images courtesy of Kay Hirai

When I walked into Studio 904 Hair Design and Spa, my first impression wasn’t of barber chairs and hair products, but of bento boxes, holiday cards, crafts and Japanese tea cups. They were raffle prizes, auction items and gifts, all for the benefit of Kay Hirai’s Angels for the Animals fundraiser.
Hirai is a Kyushu-born local business owner who describes herself as a “socially responsible entrepreneur, author, and artist.” She came to the United States as a young girl just entering middle school–entangled in family secrets and already a survivor of the hardships of wartime and postwar Japan. There, Hirai had faced prejudice for having a mother who was an American citizen. Her best, and oftentimes only, friend was a small, white terrier called Shiro. In America, she walked into a brand new school unable to speak or read English.
Today, Hirai has 38 years of business ownership, two books and dozens of successful projects behind her. She maintains a blog, makes dolls and Christmas ornaments, runs multiple fundraisers a year and is a proud mentor to her employees and other young people.

Illustration of Hirai and Shiro in Keikos Journey

Hirai’s latest book, “Keiko’s Journey: A World War II Memoir,” tells the first part of her story–an incredible tale of family intrigue, her mother’s strength and her own struggle to grow up. In anticipation of its release and a regular column soon to be published in this newspaper, The North American Post asked Hirai a few questions about her life and motivations.

Why did you decide to write “Keiko’s Journey”?

“It was difficult to write this story and to dig up everything out of my past. I didn’t want to remember it! But for years, I had been thinking about my mother, and I wanted to clear her name. In Japan, she got called all kind of names. Her own husband thought she was messing around, and he would beat her up. My real father’s family didn’t like her because she snuck me out of the country, but she didn’t have a choice. I always thought that everyone should die with a happy ending, but she never did, even though she was a remarkable woman. So I wanted to write this book for her, to tell her story.”

What about your story do you think other people will connect to?

“I feel like there are probably a lot of people who feel like me, living here. I never really felt like I belonged to here or belonged to there. I remember going to Hawaii, where Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor; and then I went to Japan and my uncle would say ‘Oh, this was a beautiful castle before the Americans bombed the heck out of it.’ No matter where you go, you feel like the enemy.
“Or you want to talk about your past but nobody understands what you’re talking about. I remember these festivals, but no one knows what they are. All my friends here, they remember the internment camps, but I have no one to really talk to.”

How have your experiences shaped your life and business today?

“I think it’s all come together to form the philosophy I work with—the way I treat people and how industrious I am. I believe in kaizen, the Japanese idea of lifelong learning and improvement, and I run my salon that way. I believe in always trying to give a helping hand to those in need, because in a way I feel like I was spared a life during the war, so now I have to make a difference.
“We do these fundraisers every year part of our business marketing. That’s why I call myself a
social entrepreneur. I do everything to help the good of society. I try to be a real good employer and help people with their career progression. I love mentoring people.”

A book event and signing featuring “Keiko’s Journey,” will be held at the Nagomi Tea House at on Dec. 13 at 2:30 pm, accompanied by refreshments, music and a discussion on wartime Japan. Hirai is also hosting a Holiday Angel Event and book signing at her salon, Studio 904, on Dec. 5. Further details can be found on the calendar page.

Illustration of Hirai and Shiro in Keikos Journey