Tribute to Jan Mirikitani


Janice Mirikitani passed away on July 29. photo by Alain McLaughlin

Janice Mirikitani passed away on July 29. photo by Alain McLaughlin

Jan died on my birthday.

She called me while I was still in the hospital. “How ya doing?”

I poured my heart out. (I’d been there nearly a month!)

For over an hour she listened, comforted. You know how she is.

Then she said, “Bren, I have some bad news … I know how much you care about me, but I may not be around for you much longer. I have cancer and its metastasized.”

She had called to say goodbye! And I wasted that precious moment with my petty woes.

We hung up the way we always do. “I love you, Jan.”

“I love you more.” And those were the last words she ever said to me.

I will miss her — Every birthday.

I will miss her — Every Oshogatsu, when she’d make pots of the best ozoni in San Francisco, with fresh mochi she’d only buy from Bobby and his wife at Benkyodo.

And I promise to blast Chaka Kahn’s “I’m Every Woman” whenever I get wimpy without you!

Do you hear me, Jan?

Jan died during Obon, the Festival of the Dead. When the Ancestors come to visit and boy, do we need their encouragement now. Obon is also the time the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on

Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in one hot flash, made us 200,000 new ancestors.

That says it all. Hitler was in Germany, but they weren’t nuked. How did Asians somehow become the forever enemy of the West? … Japan, Korea, Vietnam, China … now Asian Hate.

I wonder what Jan is telling us, dying during Obon?

I’ve done many performances for Jan and Cecil. My husband Mark and our boy KK, too. Once, about 24 years ago, when our son, KK, was 3, Mark and I were doing a Glide event to honor Dianne Feinstein. We were on stage at a fancy hotel downtown performing for hundreds of people. I’d left KK with my girlfriend. I looked out from the stage to see how my baby was doing and my girlfriend pantomimes that she doesn’t know where he is.

Do not ever do that to a mom, when you’ve lost their child in a room full of strangers!

Just then, the double doors burst open and striding down the red carpet, each holding one of KK’s chubby little hands, is Jan and Senator Feinstein.

After we perform, I go to Jan and Cecil’s table to fetch KK. He’s sitting there greasin’ down with chicken all over his face.

“Mama, I wanted to be with Aunti Jan cuz she lets me eat as much fried chicken as I want!”

(He loves Glide’s fried chicken).

“Dis is Aunti Jan’s friend.”

(Solemnly, using his best manners, he introduces us).

“Mama, dis is Aunti Fine!”

I’ve known Jan for 50 years. In college, I choreographed to her poems. But I met her in person in the early ‘70s, here, where it all began — in the city of Saint Francis, San Francisco! Where Black, Brown, Yellow and Red folks began teaching OUR OWN STORY and felt the strength that comes from KNOWING IT. We called each other “Brother” and “Sister.” I loved that. We were a “we;” an “us.” All of US.

I first heard Jan at a poetry reading at the International Hotel.

She was late. We were waiting. Four gangsta-looking bodyguards rushed in; did a quick security check. (Back then, Jan and Cecil needed bodyguards cuz they were giving sanctuary to the Panthers and to the gay guys getting beat up for coming out. They’ve always given sanctuary to the hunted. Plus, coming to the I-Hotel was dangerous. The authorities wanted us artists, activists and the Filipino elders we were protecting — GONE!)

Suddenly, a magnificent brother in a long trench with a big ‘fro struts into the room, followed by this gorgeous sister wearing shades. Swag! Swag! Swag! Jan and Cecil!

Jan gets up on stage, takes off her shades and blows! I mean she kicked it out of the ballpark! I have never heard words like that come out of the mouth of a Japanese woman!

Fierce. Brave. Sexy.

We wannabe radicals, in our gender neutral army fatigues, or if you were from J-Town, navy blue hooded sweatshirts, were thunderstruck! But before we could respond, Jan and Cecil’s bodyguards whisked them away and the Light went outta the room.

Hotel Nikko

Sometimes, Jan would take me to lunch at the Hotel Nikko. So fun! Getting all dressed up, goin’ to a swanky restaurant! Jan knew the maître d. After sitting us in her special spot by the window, he’d ask, “The Usual?” (She liked steak so bloody, I could barely look at it). We had so much to talk about, we’d talk as fast as we could cuz she’d always have meetings she needed to go to. We’d laugh so hard — we could barely eat. Jan’s laugh is so raucous, so perfectly connected to the belly of the Universe — it was like satori! I loved every moment.

What I didn’t like was walking from Jan’s office at Glide to the Nikko.

Cuz Jan would stop for all the drug addicts, the sick, people lying in their own filth on the sidewalk. They’d hold her hand! Hug her! With mouths full of rotten teeth, they whispered in her ear. She knew their names — their story. Jan never flinched, never looked away. She was completely there for them — in her silks and stiletto heels.

Whether it was the Queen of England or a junkie on Ellis Street, Jan wanted to look her best. It was her way of showing respect.

Suddenly, a wave of shame rolled over me. I forgot, but Jan remembered. She remembered when we were the homeless.

She remembered those awful years after the war when we Japanese were scattered to the winds. She remembered feeling abandoned when the prison camps closed and she, her mom and little brother were left alone. She remembered what it felt like to be hungry, destitute, scorned and scared. She remembered when it was illegal for us Japanese, to congregate. She remembered when no one would give us work, or a place to live. Jan remembered when we were them!

Buddha and Kuan-yin
One of my favorite performances for Glide was a work me, Mark and KK (who had become a dancer), created for Jan’s birthday in 2015, Buddha and Kuan-yin in the Tenderloin. Cuz I truly believe Jan and Cecil are miracle beings. They chose to stay with us here on earth to teach us one simple thing:

“Love heals — hate kills, so focus on the love.”

Jan hasn’t left us … She’s right here inside our hearts.

We Love you, Jan!

Brenda Wong Aoki is America’s first nationally recognized Asian American storyteller. She is married to Mark Izu, a seminal leader in the Asian American Jazz movement. They live and work in San Francisco where her grandfather, Rev. Chojiro Aoki, was a founder of Japantown in the 1800s and her grandmother, Alice Wong, a leader of the first Chinatown Garment Union. For more information visit: The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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