An Artist in the Floating World

By Maggie Lee

jimmy-mirikitani.jpgJimmy Mirikitani, photo by Hiroko Masuike.

A chance encounter with a homeless artist uncovers the dark history of Japanese internment in WW2

It may sound corny to say that Cats Of Mirikitani is for anyone who loves cats and world peace, but herein lies its universal appeal and understated power. As director Linda Hattendorf says in her introduction to the film, it is “the story of losing ‘home’ on many levels.” Tracing the life of an 85-year-old Japanese-American homeless artist, neglected but significant chapters of racial discrimination and social injustice in American history are brought to light. More importantly, integrated footage of, and commentary on, 9/11 and its aftermath offers timely parallels with the ascending paranoia and demonising of ‘foreigners’, not only in the US, but also all over the world.

Ultimately, it is the subject, Jimmy Mirikitani, that makes the most convincing arguments against nationalism with his own life – the sad waste of his amazing talent, his pride and dignity in adversity, his childlike innocence and persistence with his artistic aspirations, and finally, the pure beauty of his artwork.

Initially self-financed, Linda Hattendorf asked New York-based producer/writer Masa Yoshikawa to help her as an interpreter and cultural consultant. Soon, he got more and more involved and eventually became producer and cinematographer. She spent one year shooting the film and the next four editing it, while applying for grants to continue.

linda-hattendorf.jpgFilmmaker Linda Hattendorf, photo by Peter Wing

The documentary was selected for the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival 2006 and like a David among Goliaths of studio-backed, mostly mainstream productions, it won Best Picture in the ‘Japanese Eyes’ section. It has been shown all over the world (including Raindance in London in 2006), and has picked up prizes at the Tribeca and Vancouver International film festivals, amongst others. In May 2007, a 53 minute version (condensed from the current 74 minute one) is scheduled for broadcast on the PBS series, ‘Independent Lens’.

Maggie Lee: When did you realise that Jimmy was going to be the subject for a film, and when you began to shoot, did that change your relationship with him?

Linda Hattendorf: The first moment I saw Jimmy Mirikitani, I felt there was something special about him. It was January 1 2001 in New York City, freezing cold, and here was this tiny ancient man sitting calmly outside wrapped in blankets, ignoring the weather, completely focused on his artwork. He was drawing a picture of a cat. I was curious and concerned – and I like cats – so I stopped and asked about his art. He gave me the drawing – asking only that I take a picture of it for him. I returned the next day with my video camera. That's how it began.

When I found that he was 80 years old and homeless, I was shocked. Somehow I hadn't imagined that things were so bad in this country that a man old enough to be my grandfather had nowhere to turn. When I began to do some research, I found that homelessness among senior citizens was on the rise not only in this country, but also around the world, and that the facilities and services for their care was woefully inadequate.

jimmy-cat-drawing.jpgMother and Baby Cat, Jimmy Mirikitani.

Since the street corner where Jimmy lived was only a block from my apartment in Soho, I was soon visiting him every day on my way to and from work, always bringing the camera. I asked him to tell me the stories behind his pictures. He was eager to talk about his life and the stories spilled out in a jumble. Slowly I began to piece them together.

When I realised that Jimmy had been interned during WWII because of his Japanese-American ancestry, and that half his family members had perished in the bombing of his ancestral home of Hiroshima, I was deeply moved. I resolved to explore how losing his homes in such a profound way in the past had brought him to this point of living on the streets 60 years later. And it turned out that understanding the past was the key to a better future for him. I wanted to make a film that would raise awareness about his situation and that of others like him. Initially I thought I'd make a small document of four seasons in Jimmy’s life on the streets – but the more I learned about his past, the more involved I became.

ML: The story of Jimmy’s life unfolds with interspersions of footage, news reports and commentary related to September 11. How did they intersect?

LH: 9/11 occurred nine months after I’d met Jimmy. After the World Trade Center came crashing down just a mile from his corner, our busy neighborhood was suddenly deserted and engulfed in smoke. I couldn't bring myself to just stand there passively documenting Jimmy coughing in that toxic cloud. None of the old rules seemed to apply. I made an impulsive decision on the spot and asked him to come home with me.

I knew I had crossed the line from witness to advocate. But I kept shooting. I felt the only honest way to deal with the situation was to now include myself in the film. I was conflicted about this; I wanted to keep the focus on Jimmy and let him tell his own story. But after 9/11, the story suddenly included us all.

Jimmy lived with me for 5 months. As I researched his past through websites on WWII internment, we were simultaneously watching history repeat itself on television as the post- 9/11 world plunged again into wartime hysteria and bigotry. The parallels between past and present were eerily resonant. And so that background became another layer of the story.

ML: What exactly is Jimmy’s legal national status? How did he survive these decades without official nationality and citizen status?

LH: Jimmy is a US citizen. He was born in California. He renounced his citizenship by signing a document provided by the US government while he was being held in the Tule Lake camp during WWII. More than 5000 others in his camp signed as well. The reasons for renunciation were complex. Some signed as a form of protest against their treatment as enemies by their own country; others merely wanted to keep their families together, still others were confused and simply followed the crowd. Few fully understood what they were signing, and almost all petitioned the government to restore their citizenship. One ACLU lawyer, Wayne Collins, spent two decades restoring the rights of these renunciants by proving that it was made under duress.

jimmy-mirikitani-2.jpgJimmy Mirikitani

Jimmy’s US citizenship was finally restored in 1959 with a brief letter informing him that “In view of the determination that your renunciation was null, void and without legal effect, you are entitled to the return of your birth certificate.” By this time, more than a decade after his release from camp, Jimmy had lived for years as an alien, working as a cook, driver, and factory worker. He had moved so many times that the letter wound up in a ‘return to sender’ file and never reached him.

ML: How much does the average American know about this history?

LH: For the average American, the schoolbooks probably now carry a paragraph or two citing basic facts about what happened: after Pearl Harbor, 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to 10 ‘relocation camps’ in desolate locations across the US. Two thirds of those ‘relocated’ were US citizens. But what can’t be communicated by these simple statistics is the emotional toll people suffered – families were forever fragmented, property was lost, careers were destroyed, and a trust in our own government was betrayed. I shudder to think that these same tragedies are now befalling a whole new group of people today who are again being unjustly detained and demonised.

ML: For foreigners, the film is also like an educational course on how to navigate the US social welfare system. Do you have any views on this system?

LH: The system is extremely complex. For someone like Jimmy, who is quite aged, has language issues, as well as issues of trust, it was essential to have an advocate like me to help him access the benefits he was entitled to. Even for me, the bureaucracy involved was difficult to comprehend; I relied on the aid of social workers who knew how to navigate the system.

According to the Social Security website, two thirds of the elderly in America rely on Social Security for their primary income. I fear that unless we address these issues now, there could be many more souls like Jimmy living on the streets of the not so distant future.

For more information about the film, go to Cats of Mirikitani" href="" target="_blank"> To find out more about Japanese-American renunciants, a largely unknown group in American history, see Barbara Takei’s excellent essay ( and

Maggie Lee is a writer based in Japan, and co-editor with Ben Slater of the Japan pages of this issue of Vertigo.