Calm reflections on a turbulent life

Buddhist priest Henry Mittwer recalls the Great Kanto Earthquake, internment in U.S. camps

by Jane Singer

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.

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 habitation.

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 Yokohama harbor.

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,” he said.

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 Japanese ancestry.

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.

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 stateless.

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 grounds.

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 to find.”