The Japan Times - Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010
Calm reflections on a turbulent life
Buddhist priest Henry Mittwer recalls the Great Kanto Earthquake, internment in U.S. camps
By JANE SINGER
Special to The Japan Times
In a diminutive wooden house tucked behind the
tile-topped white walls surrounding Tenryuji Temple, a World Heritage
site in Kyoto's Arashiyama district, lives Henry "Seisen" Mittwer, 91,
a Japanese-American Buddhist priest, author, ikebana and ceramic artist.
|Buddhist priest Henry Mittwer in front of the Tenryuji Temple in Kyoto's Arashiyama district.
JANE SINGER PHOTO
On a recent midwinter afternoon, as unseen tourists
streamed by meters away, Mittwer, with his wife, Sachiko, 89, sat and
reflected on a life that, Zelig-like, entangled him in many of the most
wrenching events of the 20th century.
Henry Mittwer was born in Yokohama in 1918. His father
was an American film distributor who first came to Japan in 1898 as a
seaman en route to the Spanish-American War being waged in the
Philippines. His mother was a former geisha from the geisha quarters in
Tokyo's Shinbashi. He was the youngest of three boys.
An early but formative experience was the Great Kanto
Earthquake in 1923, which killed more than 30,000 in Yokohama alone.
Mittwer, then 5, remembers grasping his mother in terror as they ran
from a house that was convulsing around them. The family had to camp
out in their yard for several days before their house was again fit for
A photograph from that time shows Mittwer beside his
mother, flanked by his two brothers and two neighbors, who are all
armed with spears and rifles. "We had heard rumors at that time that
Korean residents had dumped poison in the water supply and feared that
they would revolt," he explained.
In fact, many Korean residents of Yokohama were
reportedly lynched amid the suspicions enflamed after the temblor. This
was perhaps an early harbinger that intercultural relations would not
always go smoothly.
After the quake, Henry and his family spent 2 1/2
years living in Shanghai, but in 1926 the family returned to Yokohama.
Henry entered St. Joseph's College, a Jesuit-run international school.
"At school I spoke English, at home I spoke Japanese, but I never had a
sense of being different. Yokohama was a very cosmopolitan place at the
time, with all kinds of people ? Indians, Chinese, people of mixed
nationalities. I wasn't stared at or treated differently," he said.
When Mittwer was only 9, his father returned to the
United States for good, along with an older brother. "Father sent us
checks for awhile to cover school fees and expenses, but he lost all
his savings in the stock market crash of 1929. After that we moved
around, from one house to an ever smaller one, as the checks stopped
coming," he said. Finally, when Henry was 16, he was forced to leave
school and look for work.
After many years he decided to travel to the U.S. in
search of his father. "I wondered what he was thinking about us, so I
took all my savings and bought a second-class ticket on the Hikawa Maru
ocean liner to Seattle." That ship is now a floating museum berthed in
Mittwer was eventually reunited with his brother and his now frail and defeated father in Los Angeles. The year was 1940.
A year later, in December 1941, Mittwer found himself
trapped by the amplifying effects of the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor. The Japanese-run store where Mittwer had worked was soon forced
to close, so he looked for other work. "But because I wrote 'Born in
Japan' on job applications, no one would hire me. Without a job or a
place to live I finally had no choice but to enter an internment camp,"
From 1942 Mittwer lived in five of the 10 internment
camps the U.S. War Relocation Authority had thrown up in scarcely
inhabited areas of the western U.S. for nearly 120,000 Japanese and
Japanese-American detainees. Some of them had as little as one-eighth
He was first sent to Manzanar in the California
desert, where he remembered blazing heat, barbed wire fences, guard
towers and rows of tar-paper-walled pine barracks, one room per family,
for the 10,000 residents.
|Henry Mittwer (third from left), stands beside
his mother, flanked by his two brothers and two neighbors, who are
armed with spears and rifles right after Yokohama was devastated in the
Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. (Below) Mittwer with his mother in a
photo taken when he was 5.
COURTESY OF HENRY MITTWER
The internees did what they could to make camp life
bearable, Mittwer said, with crafts, weekly movies and baseball games
with local teams (all home games, by necessity). Mittwer volunteered at
the Manzanar hospital to keep busy.
In December 1942, however, conflict arose between the
Japanese and Japanese-American residents. "Some residents, with the
collusion of a few administrators, were stealing some of our food
provisions and reselling them outside," he said.
"There was a revolt, which I joined. We threw stones
at the military police, but they shot back with guns, and two men died.
At that time some people called me an administration spy because of my
American appearance, so it became difficult to live there. I soon
transferred to another camp, Gila River, where a girl I had met before
the war, Sachiko, lived with her family."
Sachiko and Mittwer married and two of their three
children were born in the camps. Before long, male internees were asked
to "volunteer" to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Said Mittwer, "If we
agreed we'd be sent to war to be killed. I refused, so I was regarded
as being antiwar, and my U.S. citizenship and privileges were revoked."
Since Mittwer had been solely a U.S. citizen, he was now effectively
After the war ended in 1945, his wife and children
were allowed to move to Chicago, but he continued to be incarcerated,
even spending three months in a detention cell in San Francisco during
legal proceedings to regain citizenship.
When asked about this, he choked up a bit as he read
aloud from a succession of yellowing typewritten letters from the U.S.
Justice Department threatening deportation and denying appeals. He was
finally released in 1947, but his legal rights were not completely
restored until 1951.
After the war, the Mittwers eventually returned to Los
Angeles. However, beset by lung disease, job dissatisfaction and the
news that his mother had died in 1955, before he was able to visit her
in Japan, Mittwer became increasingly depressed.
About that time, he met Zen priest Nyogen Senzaki, one
of the early proponents of Zen practice in the U.S. He became drawn to
Zen teachings and started regular meditation sessions "to clear the
cobwebs from my brain."
In 1961, Mittwer finally returned to Japan alone,
becoming a disciple of the chief abbot of Kyoto's Myoshinji Temple,
Daiko Furukawa. At Myoshinji, Mittwer assisted with visiting American
priests and with the young acolytes who were in the temple's care. He
said matter-of-factly, "One day I was asked, 'Why don't you become a
priest?' So I was tonsured."
After the abbot's death, he met Hirata Seiko, the
abbot of Tenryuji, who invited him to become his student. His family
finally joined him in 1965 and they lived together on the temple
Tall, still straight-backed, with piercing brown eyes,
a direct manner and a quick wit, Mittwer shows no signs of the lung
disease that weakened him a half-century ago.
Although his temple service is limited these days, he
still drives a car and roams the Internet daily, seeking a producer to
film his original screenplay about a Japanese wartime orphan adopted by
an American G.I. and based on Ujo Noguchi's children's song "Akai
Kutsu" ("Red Shoes").
He no longer fires his own pots, which he exhibited in
galleries in Tokyo for over a decade. But with four recent stints as
president of the Kyoto chapter of Ikebana International and a book
published on arranging flowers for tea practice ("Zen Flowers," Charles
Tuttle, 1974), ikebana remains an abiding interest.
He has published several other books in Japanese,
including his memoirs, a 1992 book of essays about temple life, and a
2003 dialogue with the noted author and Buddhist priest Tsutomu
Mizukami about life, death and Zen titled "Jisei no Kotoba" ("Poems for
Leaving the World").
Mittwer professes no bitterness about his wartime
experiences, saying merely, "You have to take it as an experience, one
of many in one's life."
He said he tries to lead his life according to the
deceptively simple words of the worldly (and often ribald) Buddhist
priest and poet Ikkyu, who wrote, "Don't do bad things; do good things."
Mittwer adds, "If you're troubled, try visiting a Zen
temple." And do what? "Oh, sit for a few years," he laughed. "Look for
your own answers, not those of other people. A teacher may direct you
to the road to take, but follow that road and you'll find what you want