Jimmy Mirikitani

I grew up in Hiroshima. Beautiful! Forty-seven kids my school. Only seven left. All war die. Everything ashes. Just like moon. 
—Jimmy Mirikitani

A black-and-white image of a young Jimmy Mirikitani, standing in front of a large, detailed painting of a bird on a tree branch

Jimmy Mirikitani with his trademark red hat and gray beard, with a leopard-print scarf wrapped around his neck and mouth

Jimmy Mirikitani standing in an empty, wide desert field, drawing on a sketchpad

Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani was born in Sacramento, California in 1920 and raised in Hiroshima, Japan. At the age of 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 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 U.S. 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. Collins had won their release by August 1947, but fully restoring their citizenship took another decade.

Jimmy finally 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 doing seasonal work in resorts, summer camps and country clubs. While cooking at a restaurant on Long Island, he met Jackson Pollock.

Jimmy’s U.S. citizenship was finally restored in 1959, but by then he had moved so often that the government’s letter never reached him. Eventually, he 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 New York City’s Greenwich Village, selling his artwork to survive. He met filmmaker Linda Hattendorf in 2001. She helped him apply for Social Security and housing benefits, and in 2002 he moved into an assisted-living retirement center run by Village Care of New York. Later that year, Jimmy was reunited with his sister Kazuko for the first time in 60 years.

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