|June 15 1920
|October 21 2012
"Jimmy" Tsutomu Mirikitani (1920-2012) was an mixed-media painter, illustrator, and collagist and the subject of an acclaimed documentary film, " The Cats of Mirikitani " (2006), that brought his artwork and personal story of incarceration during World War II to national attention.
Mirikitani was born in Sacramento, California, on June 15, 1920, but raised in Hiroshima Japan. When he was eighteen, 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 when World War II broke out. Executive Order 9066 forced Mirikitani and his sister to leave their home and move to separate concentration camps hundreds of miles apart: Kazuko was sent to Minidoka , Idaho, while he was sent to Tule Lake , in northern California. Mirikitani, who drew and painted scenes of Tule Lake as a desolate prison, depicting himself as a lonely, tiny figure with a red beret wandering the grounds.
When the government required inmates to complete the Loyalty questionnaire , Tule Lake became a segregation center where those deemed "disloyal" were secluded. Thousands of people, including Mirikitani, there renounced their US citizenship in protest, in frustration, or out of desperation—where many believed that they had no future left in America. After the war ended, Mirikitani 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. Lawyer Wayne Collins worked for decades to help Mirikitani and 5,000 other renunciants reclaim the citizenship they had given up under duress.
In 1946, Mirikitani was transferred to Seabrook Farms , a frozen food manufacturing plant near Bridgeton, New Jersey. At Seabrook, he and other Japanese Americans (including other renunciants) on "relaxed internment" worked a twelve 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.
Mirikitani arrived in New York City in the early 1950s 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.
Mirikitani'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 1980s, Jimmy was suddenly without a home or a job. Within a year, he was living in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, selling his artwork to survive. After the war, he went off the grid and refused government assistance of any kind. He didn't even know that his citizenship had been restored.
By 2001, he was homeless, and making art on the streets of lower Manhattan when he met filmmaker Linda Hattendorf, who lived in SoHo and saw Mirikitani every day, furiously drawing and painting on a street corner. She began filming him, which he allowed on the condition that she buy some of his art, and eventually created an award-winning documentary of Mirikitani's saga and her complex relationship with the Kibei artist. After temporarily moving him into her apartment, she also helped him apply for Social Security, SSI, and housing benefits. In 2002, he moved into an assisted-living retirement center run by Village Care of New York. Later that year, he was reunited with his sister Kazuko for the first time in sixty years.
As a result of the exposure from Hattendorf's film, Mirikitani's first solo exhibition was organized by Seattle's Wing Luke Asian Museum in 2006, which then traveled to Bainbridge Island , New York University's A/PA/ Institute, University of Northern Texas, Portland's Nikkei Legacy Center, and the East Meadow Public Library. His work was also included in the 2010 exhibition, " The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts" from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942 - 1946 held at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. In July 2012, another exhibit of Mirikitani's work was mounted in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at Eight Modern Gallery.
Mirikitani passed away at age 92 on October 21, 2012, in New York City.
For More Information
Official website for "The Cats of Mirikitani." http://www.thecatsofmirikitani.com/ .
Asakawa, Gil. "Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, 1920-2012." Nikkei View: The Asian American Blog, October 26, 2012. http://www.nikkeiview.com/blog/2012/10/jimmy-tsutomu-mirikitani-190-2012/ .
Eight Modern Gallery, Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani gallery. http://www.eightmodern.net/artists/biography/10114 .
Last updated March 4, 2015, 6:31 p.m..