How a Fukushima-born bookworm became a U.S. senator

Viking, 397pp, Maruzen price: ¥5,135

As a boy, this reviewer used to climb a green, leafy tree in Alabama to spend blissful hours sitting on a branch, reading books and eating snacks.

As a girl, Mazie Hirono used to climb a purple-flowered jacaranda tree in Hawaii to spend blissful hours sitting on a branch, reading books and eating snacks.

It’s a truism that the personal is political. As a U.S. senator representing Hawaii, Hirono is a political figure. But her autobiography, “Heart of Fire,” is mostly a personal story. In fact, much of the book is about her mother, Laura. It’s her mother’s heart that the title refers to, a tribute to her toughness and determination.

Laura, living in rural Fukushima Prefecture, had four children — including daughter Keiko, born on Nov. 3, 1947. She loved her children, but her marriage was hellish, with an alcoholic gambler for a husband and a physically abusive mother-in-law. After her second daughter, Yuriko, died because there was no money to take her to a doctor, Laura planned her escape.

Laura moved to Hawaii with Keiko and son Yoshikazu in 1955, giving her children the “American” names of Mazie and Roy. (Hirono writes that “Mazie” may have been chosen for sounding like “Meiji,” the Japanese emperor with whom she shares a birth date.) But poverty forced Laura to leave youngest child Shigeki (later Wayne) in the care of her parents in Japan. The family reunited in Hawaii 2½ years later, but Hirono says the emotional trauma of the separation left Wayne psychologically scarred for the rest of his life.

Not all of the story is grim. There were also kind teachers and librarians who introduced Mazie to books to read in her tree. Hirono threw herself into her studies, which culminated at Georgetown Law in Washington, D.C.

One eye-opening aspect of the book is her description of cultural differences between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland, such as her comments on Georgetown’s use of the Socratic method: “Designed to encourage critical thinking and debate, this approach insisted that students vigorously challenge one another as well as the teacher to root out underlying assumptions and biases when making legal arguments. In a Hawaii classroom, this sort of engagement likely would have been viewed as showing off or calling attention to oneself.”

Although she kept quiet in the classroom, she became more expressive in politics. Her account of her time in the Senate, to which she was elected in 2012, includes many names that even casual observers of U.S. politics may recognize, such as Kamala Harris, Al Franken and Brett Kavanaugh.

The personal met the political as memories of Yuriko’s death reinforced Hirono’s belief that everyone deserves access to affordable health care, and memories of Wayne’s trauma magnified her horror at a U.S. immigration policy that deliberately separated refugee parents from their children.

As a Democrat, she often disagreed with her Republican colleagues, but she mentions episodes involving GOP Sens. Jeff Sessions, Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham in which she was able to strike friendly deals with each of them on a few matters of shared interest.

But she also writes that the collegial atmosphere changed after the 2016 election, which transformed the personality of the Republican Party and brought into the White House a man who described Hirono as “that nasty senator.” She doesn’t care for him much, either — which she made clear as she became “increasingly unguarded with reporters.”

For details, grab her book and climb the nearest tree. Bring a snack.

— Tom Baker, Japan News Staff Writer