By Keiko Kay Hirai
For The North American Post
As a business owner and volunteer in my community for many years, I have met a lot of interesting and remarkable people. A few months ago, I was invited to a birthday party for a 91-year-old woman whom I had heard about but didn’t know very well. When I had the opportunity to sit down with her during this joyous occasion, I was anxious to learn more about her life story. As we talked, I was especially inspired when she told me about her determination to stay the course over many years so she could eventually attend college and become an educator – all while she raised seven kids and her husband, Augie, worked two jobs to support their family of nine.
When you meet Yasuko Aratani, she displays a kind and gentle presence. But when you hear all that she has accomplished in her life, you wish that you could bottle up her strength, power and audacity and pass it on to inspire other women. She was definitely a woman ahead of her time and someone we can all learn from when it comes to pursuing lifelong dreams. For a little motivation to move in a more positive direction in 2023, I’d love to have you read her uplifting story, in her own words.
I was born in 1931 in Seattle, Washington, and lived with my mother, Kuniyo, and father, Unokichi Kinoshita in a modest home on Weller Street. My father was a paraplegic and worked at a gentleman’s club near our house. My sister, Kiyoka, was nine years older than me and was sent to Japan as a youngster to live with relatives. At the age of twenty-one, she returned home without knowing a single word of English. As a result, it was initially difficult for me to bond with her.
On December 7, 1941, I heard the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. I found out that Japan and the United States were at war and Pearl Harbor was destroyed in a surprise air attack by Japanese kamikaze pilots. It was very emotional for everyone; I had never been so scared in my entire life. Everything went haywire after that date.
I remember the day the FBI came knocking on our door, arrested my father, and took him to jail. At the time, I didn’t understand why. Was it because he worked at the gentleman’s club? I didn’t know. No one else in our household spoke or understood English, so even though I was just ten years old, it was up to me to interpret what was going on. The two men from the FBI turned our house upside down and ended up taking Dad away. We didn’t know why or where he was being taken.
I ran to the door and cried out to them, “Where are you taking my dad?”
They ignored me and quickly hoisted Dad into the waiting car and drove off.
My mother and sister cried while asking me over and over again in Japanese, “Where are they taking Dad?”
I wanted to help but honestly didn’t know where he was being taken.
The next three months are a blur in my memory, but I remember being bussed to Camp Harmony in Puyallup.
From there, our family boarded a bus and went to Camp Minidoka in Idaho.
After returning to Seattle after camp, I attended Bailey Gatzert Elementary School and Garfield High School. I studied hard because my dream was to attend the University of Washington.
When I graduated from Garfield, I told my mother, “I want to enroll in college.”
Her immediate reply was, “No, Yasuko! Get that nonsense out of your head! You are a woman and you need to get a job and earn an income to help our poor family.”
It felt like a big bubble had burst and was taking away all my future aspirations and life goals along with it.
Although attending college was out of the question, I eventually got a job working in the Health Sciences Building at the UW and also worked as an administrative assistant in the psychology department at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital. Although I was not enrolled in school as a student, it made me feel good that I was moving about in academic environments. I was motivated to work hard and excel in my job so that I could eventually realize my dream.
One day after getting off from work, I was waiting to catch my usual bus home. I noticed a young, handsome, Japanese man, who was also standing at the bus stop. Slight in stature, he had a cute, baby face and was neatly dressed in a pin-striped, cotton shirt with casual, tan pants. He started talking to me and told me his name was Augie. I became intrigued with his friendly personality because he had a soft smile on his face when he spoke. After we met a few more times at the bus stop, he asked me out.
I’ll never forget our first date. We took the bus to downtown Seattle and went to the Woolworth dime store. Augie asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. Of course I did! That was the best cup of coffee I ever had! I remember we sat on barstools, sipped coffee, and talked for a long, long time. Meeting in this casual way and getting to know Augie little by little felt very special. At that moment, I decided he was a good man. Although he was thirty and I was only twenty, my mother approved of our relationship. So, we were married in a small church on Beacon Hill in 1951.
The next thirty years flew by. It seemed like I was always pregnant and raising kids. Taking care of seven children alone was a chore but Augie also did his part by working two jobs to feed our growing family. He had a full-time job as a meter reader with Seattle City Light and worked in the evenings at the Boeing print shop. Because he worked two jobs, he did not have much time to help me with the day-to-day responsibilities of raising the children.
I loved being a mother and did my best to make sure that my kids developed strong characters and were kind to other people. Each one had a slightly different personality, so it was a challenge to build positive relationships with all of them. Looking back, I think I succeeded. Most importantly, I taught them to work as a team and to be there for one another when needed.
Before I knew it, my kids had grown up. I was thirty-eight years old and my oldest was sixteen. That was when I started to get that yearning in my stomach again… I want to go to college. During a family meeting, I finally spilled out my feelings to Augie and the kids. I knew he had sacrificed a lot in our marriage so I felt selfish for asking him to do something for me. To my surprise, Augie enthusiastically urged me to go to college and said that he would cover my tuition. With big smiles on their faces, all of my kids nodded their approval.
As soon as I was able to enroll, I applied at the UW and chose to major in education with a minor in Japanese. It didn’t matter to me that I was many years older than the other students. I studied hard and those years in college became some of the best years of my life! The learning process was exciting because I knew I was doing something to improve myself.
In 1972, I graduated from the UW at the age of forty-one with an education degree and magna cum laude honors.
I was on cloud nine and asked myself, “Is this really true? Do I really have a degree from the UW?”
After graduation, I became a business education teacher and taught at four different high schools in Seattle: Cleveland, Rainier Beach, Roosevelt and Franklin. I can honestly say that I enjoyed every day of my teaching career. My goal was to touch each student so that I could instill the confidence, knowledge and skills they needed to succeed and also encourage them to go after their life dreams and goals.
Giving a helping hand to low-income students was one of the things I liked best. I remember many evenings when I enlisted Augie’s help. We gave many rides to students who didn’t have a way to attend school events. Although we racked up quite a few miles on our car, we never regretted it because it was something that we both enjoyed doing.
My career as a teacher lasted twenty years. I retired when I turned sixty-eight. Although Augie passed away in 2012 after a long illness, I feel fortunate that we had the opportunity to enjoy so much of our lives together after we both retired.
What am I doing now? At the ripe age of ninety-one, I am thankful that I have six kids, eight grandchildren and four great grandchildren that surround and lovingly care for me. I am glad they took my advice to heart about supporting family members and working as a team. As I look back on my life, I feel grateful that I was able to accomplish so much considering I came from humble beginnings. I see every day as a gift and truly enjoy socializing with my family and all the good friends I have met throughout my life.
Kay Hirai is the founder of Studio 904 Hair Designs, an award-winning hair salon that utilizes innovative concepts to create a win for its employees and customers as well as the community it serves.