Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Janice Mirikitani Interview
Narrator: Janice Mirikitani
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: San Francisco, California
Date: January 19, 2016
Densho ID: denshovh-mjanice-01-0003

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TI: And like you, I've been studying this for the last twenty years. And so like you, when I see things happening in the world today, then United States, I see those patterns also, these similarities in terms of the incarceration of African American males and all that. There are so many things that people say, "Well, they're different." Yeah, they're different, but the forces behind it kind of makes these patterns happen over and over again. And one of the things that I, that sort of I worry about is how quickly we forget about what's happened in the past.

JM: Well, exactly.

TI: We talk about, both of us know what happened to our families, and for you, in terms of you were in camps, but when I go to schools today and talk to kids, especially when you're off the West Coast, they don't know that about this.

JM: They don't know, no.

TI: And so they talk about, actually, well, this is America, and what Trump is saying about American Muslims, that can't happen. We have a Constitution, it will never happen. And so when I tell them what happened to Japanese Americans, they're actually shocked. They don't realize that...

JM: Well, we're not in the history books either.

TI: Yeah, so how do we keep this alive when every year we get further and further away? And my concern is in twenty-five years when we have the 100th anniversary of the camps starting, that most people won't know about this.

JM: I won't even be around then. [Laughs]

TI: And I won't either, probably.

JM: Well, I think that's why it's important what Densho is doing, because I think that what you're doing is archiving a history that is very important. And I think it's really important, like you say, it's January 19th, it's the day after Martin Luther King's birthday, and my husband and I received an award from Martin Luther King's birthday celebration. He was chair of the Northern California at the request of Mrs. King for twenty-five years. And so when we were honored yesterday, what I said was, as a Japanese American, what happened to us, 120,000 of us, mostly American citizens, fifty percent of us were children, we were incarcerated. What we're doing now, look at what we're doing now. If we isolate ourselves from the Muslim community, from the Sikh community, from the Native American communities, African Americans will be complicit with allowing another injustice to occur.

Because Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Cecil Williams, they brought together all kinds of people. We work with all kinds of people. The Sikh community donates blankets to our people at Glide. For people who are standing in our food lines, we give out blankets. We celebrate Ramadan, we celebrate Hanukkah, we celebrate all the different religious holidays, and we have a very, very diverse congregation of eleven thousand people in our church. But in our programs, we sere maybe sixty-five to seventy thousand people a year, and it's quite phenomenal.

TI: But I'm going to say that what you do at Glide is extraordinary in that when I go to different communities around the country, and when I interview the Japanese Americans primarily, and I ask them about the other communities, oftentimes I feel like we're a little siloed, we don't really do that much in terms of working together.

JM: We are siloed.

TI: And not only siloed, but oftentimes we're played against each other. And so when you talk about Glide, I think that's extraordinary, because that's not the norm.

JM: Well, I'm very privileged. I feel very blessed, I would say, and I'm not a religious person. I wouldn't get a mile within a church before I started working at Glide, and I worked at Glide as an accident. I was a temporary worker going to, I had graduated UCLA, went to UC Berkeley for my teaching credential, and decided to back to State for my master's, and I needed a job. And I met Cecil Williams, and he was the most bodacious, braggadocios, egotistical guy. And he said, "Don't you know who I am?" and I said, "No." [Laughs] And he almost fired me. But I said, "Who's the guy with the big head?" and they said, "Oh, you met Cecil."

TI: And so for you it was initially just a job?

JM: Oh, it was just a job. I was transcribing tapes from the LBGTQ community and seeing how they were brutalized. And then I started working with a group of young hookers who were gay, runaways, who had been abused by their parents, and we immediately identified with each other because I experienced childhood abuse. And I said, I hate the way I look, I'm Asian, I feel unworthy, I feel ugly, I don't see images of myself anywhere. And they said, "Well, guess what, honey? We want to look like you." [Laughs] So we bonded instantaneously. They were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-year-olds, and they were, like, turning tricks in our bathroom. And I'm banging on the bathroom door and saying, "Hey, time's up, you guys, you can't turn tricks in here, it's a church." It was funny. And I think it was at Glide where I learned from Cecil -- and I have to give him that credit -- about unconditional love, the power of that.

TI: For everyone.

JM: For everyone. The ability to accept everyone for all of their differences, and to be able to respect the differences and say, "Okay, here's my story." My story is I was abused, I was battered, I was addicted to violent men. And they look at me and, you know, I'm this stereotypically Japanese-looking... they would call me China doll or they'd call me geisha or whatever, and I would say no, let's break that stereotype. We're not that, we're not objects to be placed, we should not be objectified. Black people are not all lazy, they're not all gun-toting hoodlums, you know what I mean? We have to break the stereotypes, we have to reach out to one another and find out our stories because we have so much more in common than we realize. And I think Asian Americans, Japanese Americans specifically -- I won't speak for everybody -- but it was hard for me in a room full of African Americans to speak out, I was intimidated, I felt invisible. So I think whatever the deterrents are for us as Japanese Americans, we need to take bolder steps, we need to make more courageous movements across the line. Not drawing the line, but crossing the line, and reaching out to different communities, particularly those who are facing crises.

<End Segment 3> - Copyright (c) 2016 Densho. All Rights Reserved.