Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani’s adult life was, in a sense, bookended by tragedy. And yet out of that tragedy grew extraordinary art.
Born in Sacramento in 1920, Mirikitani grew up in Hiroshima, Japan, he returned to the United States until at age 18 to pursue a career in art and escape the militarism growing in Japan.
He would be spared the devastation Hiroshima would experience at the end of World War II, but he also would spend much of the war imprisoned in the Tule Lake internment camp in Northern California. Later, after finally being released, he spent the rest of his life on the East Coast, working as a cook, often homeless, but always working on his art.
“Make art, not war,” was his motto, and his art told his story: bleak drawings of internment camps, angry depictions of exploding atomic bombs, and, always, cats.
When the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001, a documentary filmmaker, Linda Hattendorf, who was photographing the aftermath, took Mirikitani — by then an 80-year-old man living on the streets of New York City — into her home. She had befriended him earlier and ultimately ended up making a film about him: about the wounds of war, the losses in his life and about the healing power of art.
“The Cats of Mirikitani” went on to win multiple awards at film festivals all over the world.
Davis psychologist Loriene Honda saw the documentary a few years ago and found it extraordinary.
“I was inspired that out of two horrendous parts of our history, out of such tragedy and horror, came such beauty,” she said. “It was such an inspiration.”
It also spoke to her in a unique way.
For one thing, her father, Lawrence Honda, spent four years in the Manzanar internment camp, “and he is still one of the most kind and gentle people I know.”
And she herself has been a child psychologist for the past 15 years, including working with children who have been neglected or abused or suffered other trauma.
“I knew I wanted to find some way of bridging all of these areas,” she said. “Child trauma and transcending it, but also the internment camp history, learning the lessons from the people who survived it.”
In the documentary about Mirikitani, she found inspiration for a book for children about resilience and surviving, and about healing.
However, creating that book required a somewhat unusual process. Because unlike most children’s books, which start with a story that is then illustrated, Honda would go backward: She asked Mirikitani if she could use his artwork — he agreed — and then she had to figure out how to write the story around the drawings, which featured life in an internment camp and, because Mirikitani loved them, cats.
Fortunately, she had many other sources of inspiration, chief among them, Ralph Lazo.
Lazo was a teenager of Mexican and Irish descent, who when he learned his Japanese-American classmates in Los Angeles were to be uprooted and sent to internment camps at the start of World War II, insisted on going with them. He spent 2 1/2 years at Manzanar with Honda’s father, serving, Honda said, as a sort of witness to history. Lazo later became the subject of a 2004 film, “Stand Up for Justice.”
Honda decided the cat that populated much of Mirikitani’s artwork would be a Lazo: the bystander; the witness to what went on in the camps.
“Having a witness is a big part of therapy,” Honda explained. “A person to validate, ‘What happened to you is and was wrong.’ ”
But how to tell that story?
It ended up coming to her in a dream. Literally: She would tell the story of the internment camp through the cat’s dreams.
“One of the main messages,” she said of the book that resulted, “is that in surviving the camps, or surviving child trauma … there is so much you can’t control, but you can control your imagination.
“The idea of a dream is very powerful … even if you’re shackled, you can still soar in your dreams. And with the cat, his dream was a way of processing what happened.”
The resulting children’s book, “The Cat Who Chose to Dream,” is finally nearing completion and will be released later this year.
Honda’s family — husband Kevin Scully and children Kai Honda-Scully, 12; Teo Honda-Scully, 9; and Shae Honda-Scully 4 — have served as her support network and “mini-editors,” she said, while Dixon-based Martin Pearl Publishing will publish the book. Honda, meanwhile, is fundraising to ensure that enough copies of the book can be printed and donated to area schools and child abuse treatment centers.
Unfortunately, Mirikitani won’t see the final product: He died last year. But Honda looks forward to being able to thank her other sources of inspiration.
“For so long I’ve envisioned wrapping up this book and giving it to my parents,” she said with a smile.
She also envisions the book making a difference in the lives of children.
“I hope it generates interesting discussion,” she said, “but also serves a therapeutic purpose.”
To learn more or make a donation, contact Honda at 530-400-7298 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her website at www.lorienehonda.com. Learn more about Mirikitani and his art at www.thecatsofmirikitani.com.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at email@example.com or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy