HONOLULU--Mazie Hirono, the first Japanese-born individual to be elected to a U.S. Senate seat, still remembers when she first arrived in the country—all but destitute.
She was born Keiko Hirono in the village of Mutsuai, Fukushima Prefecture, which is now part of Koori town. Hirono remembers helping her grandmother on the farm and making bags from newspapers to wrap apples and keep the bugs out.
Shortly before Hirono turned 8, her mother decided to flee from a "terrible marriage" and to take young Keiko to Hawaii. They possessed little more than the clothes on their backs.
"I didn't speak English at all," Hirono, 65, recalls. "I knew nothing about America."
Fifty-seven years later, she became the first Asian-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate. She is a Democrat.
Mazie's mother was born in Hawaii but moved to Japan before the outbreak of World War II. She returned to Hawaii almost penniless and worked for a Japanese-language newspaper, doing tasks such as typesetting, while raising her three children.
"She had low-paying jobs, no job security, no health care," Hirono said. "One of my great fears was my mother would get sick, and if she got sick there would be no money."
That gave Hirono the motivation to study hard. She went to law school and got a chance to pursue a calling in politics.
In 1980, Hirono was elected to the Hawaii state House of Representatives, where she worked on issues such as women's employment.
She went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she lobbied for President Barack Obama's medical-insurance reform during its contentious deliberations. Her motivation: her memory of those early days.
Hirono said being a legislator has taken up so much of her time that she has only once in her life been able to return to Fukushima, and that was a long time ago. But she harbors hopes for another visit.
Like Fukushima Prefecture, Hawaii has been a victim of earthquakes and tsunami.
Hirono reflected on her native region's ongoing ordeal.
"This was so horrible that I know it's going to take a long time, I would say. People in Hawaii have very strong ties to Japan. We always send help, resources, money, to help with the recovery," Hirono said.
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