On July 30th, the audience at the NVC Hall experienced WWII Japan through the eyes of a young girl named Keiko, in a dramatic reading of Kay Hirai’s memoir, Keiko’s Journey. After introductions from Ken Mochizuki, Ats Kiuchi, and Danielle Hirano, Kay, accompanied by members of her writing group Omoide, took her place at the front of the stage and began the reading. Behind them, a projection screen showed photos from Kay’s childhood in Japan, and other images that drew us further into the story.
“Scene 1: Siren” opens to an idyllic hillside in Kokura, where two girls watch clouds, chase butterflies, and race to fill their baskets with yomogi leaves. Kay gives voice to herself, young Keiko, as she complains to the older girl, “you’re older than me, and your hands are bigger than mine!” The older girl, named Mari and played by Geri Lynn Egeler, teasingly agrees, saying her basket is full and she is done. But the scene is interrupted by air raid sirens, and the peace of the afternoon is torn to shreds as the girls run home and leave their hard-picked leaves behind. Kay takes a hard fall running down the hill, but the two girls eventually make it back to their panicked parents.
Keiko’s Journey continues in moments of fear and memories of happiness, juxtaposed in such a way as to bring to life the emotional story of a young girl experiencing the reality of war. “Scene 2: Egg” tells the story of the sacrifice Keiko’s mother, Fujiye, made to keep her daughter and her adoptive father (referred to as Oji-chan) healthy during American air raids that sent them daily into the cave that was their bomb shelter.
Jean Nishi (as Fujiye) and Kenji Onishi (as Oji-chan) do a wonderful job of bringing these characters to life, their voices weaving the tale of a mother willing to go without food for the sake of those she loves, with tension from hunger and injury coloring her argument with Keiko over a bag of rice crackers that ultimately leaves Keiko in tears, and a man who feels guilty for what his adoptive daughter sacrificed and still sacrifices to take care of him. Fujiye and Keiko return home with two eggs – one for Keiko and one for Oji-chan – and some mountain potatoes, and Keiko confesses to her Oji-chan that she was naughty for crying.
The tale pauses here, as Keiko remembers happier times with her Oji-chan watching sparrows in the park. They sing a song together – Suzume no Gakkou, “School for Sparrows” – and the love between the two can be felt by all.
The malice of hunger and fear return, however, in “Scene 3: Rice,” as Keiko and Fujiye journey to Kurume by train to Keiko’s Uncle Koji and Aunt Kame’s home, in hopes that they would share some rice from their rice fields. Keiko exclaims that she had “never seen so much open space and green fields,” but a manju is all Koji and Kame have to offer the starving mother and child. “We don’t have enough rice,” Kame says firmly, despite Koji’s pleas on his sister’s behalf. Keiko and Fujiye return home empty handed, and more of Keiko’s innocence is lost to the war, experiencing how family would not help family.
The scene continues with the dropping of the atomic bombs, and the voice of the Emperor of Japan in his declaration of surrender. Four days after the war ends, Oji-chan passes away. Fujiye reassures Keiko that Oji-chan is no longer hungry, and will of course still sing Suzume no Gakkou with her.
The reading ends there, with a glimpse of a city and childhood in flux. Kay led the audience in singing Suzume no Gakkou together, a touching moment that drove home the emotions of the reading. In the question-and-answer session following the reading, Kay discussed her writing process – reflecting on the stories she told in Keiko’s Journey, and on her experience putting pen to paper on a park bench outside the hair salon she runs. She also spoke about her mother Fujiye in more detail, touching on her work as a translator during the American occupation, about her stepfather, who had returned home to them when the war ended, and about her dog Shiro, who became her best friend.
Kay’s openness and honesty are a moving testament to her strength and the importance of her story. As the granddaughter of a Nisei veteran myself, I cannot emphasize enough how much I agree with what she says about putting pen to paper and telling your story. No matter how hard the memories are, we need to hear them – for our own good as citizens of the world, and so that our children may someday hear them, and their children, and their children. And we want to hear them. We want to know you better, where you came from, what you experienced. We want to understand.
Keiko’s Journey continues on to tell the story of Keiko’s childhood in the postwar period and her journey to America, and can be purchased from Amazon.com. Kay and her fellow performers from Omoide are happy to perform her book reading at no cost for groups of 30 or more — contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.