Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani is an 91 year old artist who was born in Sacramento, California, in 1920 and raised in Hiroshima, Japan. As a young man, he refused to serve the army (he says "he was not afraid but he was born to be a great artist"). At age 18, he returned to the United States to pursue a career in art and escape the growing militarism in Japan. He was living with his sister Kazuko and her family in Seattle, Washington, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Executive Order 9066 forced Jimmy and his sister to leave their home and move to separate internment camps hundreds of miles apart. Kazuko was sent to the Minidoka camp in Idaho while Jimmy was sent to Tule Lake, in northern California.
When the government required internees to take a loyalty test, Tule Lake became a segregation center where those deemed "disloyal" were congregated. Thousands there renounced their US citizenship in protest. Jimmy was one of these renunciants. After the war ended, Jimmy and hundreds of others continued to be held without charge, first in Tule Lake, then in a Department of Justice INS camp in Crystal City, Texas. A single lawyer, Wayne Collins, worked for decades to help Jimmy and 5,000 other renunciants reclaim the citizenship they had given up under duress.
In 1946, Jimmy was transferred to Seabrook Farms, a frozen food manufacturing plant near Bridgeton, New Jersey. Here, he and other renunciants on "relaxed internment" worked the 12 hour night shift, six days a week, sorting vegetables on an assembly line. By August 1947, Collins won their release, but fully restoring their citizenship took another decade.
Jimmy finally arrived in New York City in the early 1950's to attempt to resume his art career. When an art professor found him sleeping in Columbia University's library, Jimmy was referred to the New York Buddhist Church where he was provided with room, board, and training as a cook. For years he traveled the East Coast to do seasonal work in resorts, summer camps, and country clubs. While cooking at a restaurant on Long Island, he met Jackson Pollock.
Jimmy's US citizenship was finally restored in 1959, but by then he had moved so often that the government's letter never reached him. Eventually Jimmy became a live-in cook on Park Avenue. But when his employer died in the late 1980's, Jimmy was suddenly again without a home or a job. Within a year, he was living in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, selling his artwork to survive. He met Linda Hattendorf in Soho in 2001. She helped him apply for Social Security, SSI, and housing benefits, and in 2002 he moved into an assisted-living retirement center run by Village Care of New York, where he continues to live today.
Documentary, The Cats of Mirikitani
The Cats of Mirikitani is a documentary about a homeless artist of Japanese origin, Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, living and working on the streets of New York near the twin towers. After 9/11, Linda Hattendorf, who was making a documentary on him at the same time and has become his friend, took him to her flat in the hope that she can help him get some benefits like Social Security, SSI, and housing. Slowly Hattendorf learns about the his past and his art, and why he draws same things over and over again - Childhood in Hiroshima, concentration camps, a mountain and a lake with prison cells in front of them, red flames, peeking whimsical cats. The Cats of Mirikitani is a documentary about past, the expressive power of art as a voice and the healing power of human connection and mutual sharing of experiences.
All this trauma and pain from camp to homelessness has, by now settled in the old man to bitterness for this world. His contempt for US can be trivial when heard (after hearing the Bush's speech after 9/11 and what is being done Arab Americans he says "thatís what they do"), but given his past, looks justifiable. But all these years, Mirikitani continued to make art, and we can say that it became a therapy for him to deal with his past. His childhood in Hiroshima, memories of the camp (especially of the kid who died in the camp. He used to like cats and used to follow Mirikitani), Hiroshima bombing that wiped his mother's family, separation from his sister, became subjects of his art. With Hattendorf's help, Mirikitani was able to find some of his lost things - his US citizenship, his sister but most importantly a visit to the Tule Lake Camp where he met other people who came there to commemorate the past, and where Mirikitani shared some of his memories of the camp with others. The last shot of the documentary shows stoically satisfied Mirikitani sitting on the return bus from the Tule Lake Camp pilgrimage. Itís a truly satisfying moment for us, as was for Mirikitani.