Senator Mazie K. Hirono on Continuing to Fight, Even After You've "Won"
The Hawaiian senator opens up about being a badass in politics, penning her new memoir, and her love of BTS.
Senator Mazie K. Hirono has led a storied career in politics. Emigrating from rural Japan to Hawaii at age 7, she went on to become a key player in the state legislature, championing women's issues, civil rights, and healthcare and immigration reform early on in her career. While enacting lasting change, Hirono made history of her own. In 2013, she won a U.S. Senate seat, becoming the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate, as well as Hawaii's first female senator.
It comes as no surprise that Hirono has plenty of wisdom to share. "I have what I call three life lessons from the forty-something years I've been in politics," she told InStyle for our May issue. "The first is to know that one person can make a difference. For me, my mother changed my life by bringing me to this country. The second is knowing that half the battle is showing up, and not just physically. We really have to stay the course when it comes to battles that we thought we'd won — a woman's right to choose, civil rights, and voting rights, for example — because the battles we thought we had won don't stay won. And the third is to take risks. You have to get out of your comfort zone, which is something I've definitely had to do."
Why She's a Badass
Her own upbringing inspired Hirono to embark on a career in government. Determined to create a better future for immigrants, she served 14 years in Hawaii's House of Representatives and eight years as lieutenant governor before she was elected to the U.S. Senate. "In the culture I come from, most women didn't become politically engaged," says Hirono. Now in her second term, she has written a memoir, Heart of Fire: An Immigrant Daughter's Story (out April 20), honoring the woman who set her up to succeed: her mother, Laura. "Nothing I could do in politics would come close to my mother's courage in bringing us to this country," she says. "She gave her children a chance at a better life."
Who She Fights For
Growing up poor in Honolulu shaped Hirono's views on legislation. "We had no safety net to fall back on; we didn't even have health care," she says. "My own experience has really informed who and what I fight for." Healthcare reform remains a top priority for the Senator, who, in a 2017 speech supporting the Affordable Care Act, reflected on being diagnosed with kidney cancer and losing a younger sister to untreated pneumonia. She's also criticized family separation at the U.S.–Mexico border and condemned anti-Asian sentiments that have surfaced amid the coronavirus pandemic. "Racism is never far below the surface in our country," she says. "I must speak out when there's a rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans as a result of the Trump administration referring to COVID-19 as the 'China virus' and 'kung flu.' I'm a fighter, and I stand up to bullies."
How She Makes a Statement
Hirono has always been bold in both her actions and words. "You don't have to be noisy to be a badass, but you also can't be afraid to show anger or be vocal," she says. "Early on, I developed a reputation that people should not fool with me, and my staff knows that if I give someone 'the look,' they should just back off. I speak plainly, and I've never kissed people's rings." She has, however, sported one symbolic accessory in recent years. "I have a pin version of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream, which I wore often during the Trump presidency," says the art history enthusiast. "It exemplified the fact that I couldn't stay quiet."
What She's Watching
Today Hirono splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Honolulu. Though her mother is in poor health, the Senator carries on their favorite tradition of making paper cards with pressed flowers. On weekends, Hirono reads books and binge-watches comedies on Netflix. "I rewatch Schitt's Creek when I'm on the plane," she says. "I also like Kim's Convenience. It's a hilarious show about a Korean family that runs a convenience store, and it teaches a lot about Korean culture." She's also a fan of another, perhaps more surprising, Korean act. "I love BTS," she says, laughing. "They're the only K-pop group I listen to."
For more stories like this, pick up the May 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Apr. 16th.