Janice Mirikitani, Poet and Crusader for People in Need, Dies at 80
Interned with her family during World War II, she became San Francisco’s poet laureate and an activist on behalf of the city’s marginalized people.
Janice Mirikitani, a vibrant former poet laureate of San Francisco who spent time as a child in an internment camp for people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, then worked most of her life aiding people in need, died on July 29 in a hospital in San Francisco. She was 80.
The cause was cancer, said Karen Hanrahan, the president of Glide, the nonprofit organization that Ms. Mirikitani and her husband, the Rev. Cecil Williams, ran and helped build.
Ms. Mirikitani spent nearly 60 years with Glide and was its founding president, leading its evolution from a church to a citadel of social services and justice that aids the indigent and hungry, abused women and people with substance abuse, legal, family and medical problems.
“Jan Mirikitani was one of our city’s true lights,” Mayor London Breed of San Francisco said in a statement. “She was a visionary, a revolutionary artist and the very embodiment of San Francisco’s compassionate spirit.”
Ms. Mirikitani also helped mold the organization’s values — particularly those of radical inclusivity and unconditional love — in its welcoming of anyone who walks through its doors, in the city’s gritty high-crime Tenderloin neighborhood.
One Sunday, she recalled, four people wearing swastikas on their headbands entered Glide’s church, which is still part of its operation, for its weekly service.
“They came to, I think, three services, and then the fourth time they came, they had removed their headbands and started volunteering for the meals program,” Ms. Mirikitani said in 2019, when she received an award from the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
She encouraged clients at Glide to express themselves creatively through art, telling stories and writing poetry.
Poetry, she once said, was “the language of my definition and my liberation.”
Among the subjects her poems explored was her family’s forced relocation from their chicken farm in Petaluma, Calif., to an internment camp in Arkansas during World War II. For long afterward her mother refused to speak about the three years they were imprisoned behind barbed wire, without having committed a crime, because of their Japanese heritage. She and her parents were born in the United States.
In 1981, Ms. Mirikitani’s mother decided to speak out about her internment. Her testimony to the federal government’s Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians “was a vat of boiling water surging through the coldest blue vein,” Ms. Mirikitani wrote in her poem “Breaking Silence,” which also includes these lines:
We were made to believe our faces
Our bodies were loud
with yellow screaming flesh
needing to be silenced
behind barbed wire.
Janice Hatsuko Mirikitani was born on Feb. 5, 1941, in Stockton, Calif., to Ted and Bell Ann Shigemi (Yonehiro) Mirikitani. Her parents worked on their family-owned farm. She was a year old when her family was sent first to a relocation center in Stockton and then to another in McGehee, Ark.
After three years in Arkansas, the family was released in September 1945, and in Chicago, her parents got divorced. She and her mother then returned to the family farm in Petaluma.
Between the ages of 5 and 16, she later recalled, she was sexually abused by her stepfather. The abuse stopped, she said, only after she and her mother moved to a suburb of Los Angeles. The experience later informed her work at Glide.
“I came to poetry at 8,” she said in 2000. “I wrote to save my own life, to control on the page the chaos that I felt in my own life.”
She added, “It was a long time before I could talk about the childhood abuse.”
She graduated from U.C.L.A. in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree and received teaching credentials at the University of California, Berkeley. She taught physical education at a high school in Contra Costa County, Calif., for a year, then studied for a master’s degree in creative writing at San Francisco State College (now University).