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Journey to Kenya turns writer’s life on its head, spurs Africa fascination

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

It was a single visit to Kenya in 1972 that completely changed Michio Hiraiwa’s philosophy on life. He fell in love with the country, and visited there 150 times over the past 40 years. Once a workaholic, Hiraiwa says he now leads a stress-free and relaxed life, visiting Kenya and Tanzania four times a year with his daughter, Masayo.

At the age of 78, he wears several hats — travel writer, photographer, collector and expert on stamps, and goodwill ambassador for Kenyan tourism.

With royalties from the books he has published and profits from the African tours he and his daughter organizes, Hiraiwa set up a school for the people of Kenya’s Masai tribe, paying the teachers’ salaries and sending them school supplies. He has also donated 400 pairs of binoculars to be used in the Kenyan government’s efforts to stop the poaching of wild animals.

“I have come all the way by following my own beliefs and ideas,” Hiraiwa said with a big smile.

He has visited 126 countries and published over 100 books — 40 of them of photos he took in Africa and essays he wrote about the continent. His daughter has also accompanied him on 138 of his 150 trips to Kenya.

“Kenya is like our second home. We ‘go back’ there four times a year. We feel very relaxed there,” he said. While Hiraiwa and his daughter often spend two to three months of the year in Africa, the rest of their time is spent writing essays and giving lectures at schools, embassies and volunteer groups throughout Japan.

“Most Japanese people don’t even know that there are 54 countries in Africa,” Hiraiwa said, stressing the importance of knowledge about the continent.

“People say things like, ‘It must be very hot there?’ or ‘Don’t people have their meals with their hands?’ or ‘What about infectious diseases?’ ” Hiraiwa said. “This is because they don’t know about African countries. I want to tell them, ‘Check with your own eyes first and find out yourself.’ Then, they’ll know that some of their beliefs are just misconceptions.”

A native of Nagoya, Hiraiwa initially took interest in life abroad when he was a junior high school student and had already started collecting stamps from various nations by then.

One day, he saw a newspaper advertisement asking 15 junior high school students from the local community to correspond with students from abroad. He immediately applied, and later initiated with other students the Pen Friend Clubs of Japan. In 1949, he became the group’s first chairman, and helped to expand the organization, which now has over 200,000 members.

While he traveled abroad widely as an adult, it was in 1972 that Hiraiwa first visited Kenya on a press tour by British Airways, which had launched its first direct flight from Tokyo’s Haneda airport to Kenya.

At that time, he was a writer for Gekkan Heibon, a men’s magazine that sold over a million copies in the 1960s. He was writing four regular columns in newspapers and 18 columns in magazines. He was leading a very busy life, working incessantly and sometimes sleeping just three or four hours a day.

But his view of life changed during that tour. The shift occurred when an aging Kenyan man, seeing how visiting journalists were so concerned with time and sticking to their schedules, told them “Pole pole,” or “take it easy,” in Swahili. That prompted Hiraiwa to slash his workload by about half and instead focus on what he most wanted to do with his life.

“Until then, I had been earning four or five times more than normal salaried workers.” he said. “Keeping myself busy and earning much money felt like winning a medal.”

However, thanks to the prompting by the elder Kenyan man, he said he came to the realization that a man lives only once.

“So why hurry so much?” Hiraiwa said.

“I thought that I should enjoy my life more. I’m so grateful that Africa taught me that,” he said. “After I came back from the first Kenya trip, I told my family, ‘We’re going to lead a “Pole Pole” life,’ ” he recalled.

Since then, Hiraiwa and Masayo have taken photos of wildlife on Africa every visit. Since 1977, they have arranged African tours for a total of 3,700 Japanese, and in 2005 opened a gallery in Tokyo exhibiting photos and crafts they brought back from Africa. Books, CDs, and videotapes of their African tours can also be seen at the gallery.

At the beginning of this year, the duo visited Cameroon for 20 days at the invitation of the government, and in April they will hold an exhibition of the photos they took there culminating in a picture book on the country and its culture.

“There are many things that people don’t know about Cameroon — like the existence of 200 different tribes, including Pygmy, and that the local office opening hours are from 7:30 in the morning to 3:30 in the afternoon. People go home early,” he said.

“I really enjoy going to Africa, because I can see and experience things that I’ve never imagined. When you go abroad, what you think is normal in Japan is not normal in other countries,” he said. For Hiraiwa, it’s these differences that he relishes.

“When I die, I don’t want a funeral or a grave,” said Hiraiwa, adding that it’s only in Japan that people give koden offerings to the deceased.

“I don’t like any of that. I want to spend all my money while I’m alive. I just want to enjoy my life and not worry the people around me.”

To visit Hiraiwa Pole Pole Gallery, make reservations by calling (03) 3316-6234.

  • MargaretVirany

    This is a fantastic story. Imagine what having a penpal can lead to!

  • http://www.facebook.com/rmochoa1 Rosa Maria Ochoa

    Mr. Hiraiwa´s story is very inspirational. Leading a “Pole Pole life” is indeed a wise idea.