History October 31, 2017
Henry Mittwer: A History
Henry Mittwer (1918-2012) was an artist, engineer, and designer who became a Buddhist priest.
Henry Mittwer was born in Yokohama, Japan. He later recounted the story that his American-born father R.J.H. Mittwer, first visited Japan in 1898 as a sailor in the U.S. navy en route to the Philippines for combat in the Spanish-American War. While this story is undocumented, it is certain that R.J.H. Mittwer ended up living in Japan and traveling widely in Asia, where he worked as a distributor of American films, and marrying a geisha from Tokyo. The couple had three sons, of whom Henry was the youngest. After the great 1923 Kanto earthquake, during which the Mittwers were forced to abandon their house for several days and camp out in their yard, the family moved to Shanghai. There they lived for nearly three years before returning to Japan. Soon after, R.J.H. Mittwer left for the United States with his middle son, Fred, who was nine years Henry’s senior. Henry and his eldest brother, John, remained with their mother in Yokohama, where Henry attended St. Joseph’s Academy, a cosmopolitan English-speaking Catholic school. Initially, the plan was ultimately to bring the entire family to America. However, amid the Great Depression, Mr. Mittwer lost his business and savings and ceased sending money back to Japan, and the Mittwers there lived in poverty. Henry was forced to quit school at age 16 and seek employment.

While Henry intended to return to Japan, the onset of war made such a return impossible.
In 1940, as war dawned between Japan and the United States, Henry Mittwer managed to buy a steamship ticket to the United States in order to seek out his father. Henry was a US citizen from birth, but it was his first trip to America. Though he did not look Japanese, he spoke Japanese better than English and was not accustomed to American life. He first reconnected with his brother Fred, who took him to the New York Hotel in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo to meet his father. The elder Mittwer, whom Henry would later describe as “frail and defeated,” did not recognize him when they first met after their 12-year separation. While Henry intended to return to Japan, the onset of war made such a return impossible. He settled in Los Angeles and remained close with his brother Fred, who had married the writer Mary Oyama Mittwer. He found work at a Japanese store and also met a local Nisei, Sachiko.

As [Mittwer] put it, "I cannot point the barrel of a gun at the country where my mother awaits me."
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Henry and his brother were both thrown out of work. Although Henry was a skilled electrician, he had trouble finding employment because of his ancestry and the language barrier. In 1942, following Executive Order 9066, Henry Mittwer was rounded up and confined. As he later related, "My father took me to see a district attorney he knew, who advised me to go to a detention camp." (Ironically, his brother John was detained in Japan for being a US citizen, and confined at a farm in Hakone). Henry Mittwer was sent to Manzanar (unlike Fred Mittwer and his family, who were confined at Heart Mountain), where he passed the time at camp by volunteering at Manzanar Hospital. During the so-called “Manzanar riot” in December 1942, Mittwer joined the crowd of protesters and threw stones at military police. Ironically, because of his mixed ancestry, he meanwhile faced accusations by dissidents that he was an administration spy. Unwilling to live amid such pressures, he applied for a transfer to the Gila River camp, so that he could join Sachiko. There the two were married and had two children in camp. However, in response to the loyalty questionnaire, Mittwer refused to serve in the U.S. military. As he put it, "I cannot point the barrel of a gun at the country where my mother awaits me." Mittwer was sent to Tule Lake, where he renounced his US citizenship. (Since Henry had never been a Japanese citizen—birthright citizenship in Japan passed only through the father—this left him stateless) While his wife and children were allowed to leave camp and migrate to Chicago following the end of the war, Mittwer was held in a detention center in San Francisco for three months and threatened with deportation. With the aid of attorney Wayne Collins, he brought a habeas corpus suit in federal court, arguing that he had been illegally detained and had been coerced into renouncing his citizenship by threats of physical violence. He was released in 1947, and lived for a time at Seabrook Farms. His citizenship was finally restored in 1951.

Referring to the attraction of simple lines of architecture, [Mittwer] asserted prophetically that Asian design in furniture and pottery would become popular in Southern California.
In the postwar years, Henry and his family migrated back to the Los Angeles area. There Mittwer pursued his dream of becoming a furniture designer and attended John Muir College, an adult night school where he studied ceramics. In the early 1950s, Henry opened a furniture design business in Pasadena. His Japanese-influenced tables were selected for MOMA's Good Design exhibition in 1952. A coffee-cocktail table he designed was featured in Interior Magazine and in Retailing Daily. Other designs were featured in the magazine, Art & Architecture. His designs were also included in the Italian Esempi books. In support of his business, in 1953 he lectured at a local JACL branch about Asian style. Referring to the attraction of simple lines of architecture, he asserted prophetically that Asian design in furniture and pottery would become popular in Southern California. In 1955 he offered a three-week “Cherry blossom” tour of Japan, where he would guide guests around various spring festivals, but the trip does not seem to have occurred.
A series of catastrophic life events altered Mittwer’s life path. First, in 1955 his mother died before he could see her again. His furniture business proved insufficient to support a wife and two children, and he found a job in the Endevco company, desgning and making precision instruments that would later be used in airplanes and rockets. Meanwhile, he had become attracted to the ideas of Zen Buddhism, and he made regular visits to the meditation hall run by the Zen priest Nyogen Senzaki, and started meditation sessions, as he put it, “to clear the cobwebs from my brain.” Around this time, Mittwer, who had suffered from weak lungs in childhood, was struck by a serious lung disease which nearly killed him, and he had half of one lung removed.

As Mittwer later related, “One day I was asked, ‘Why don’t you become a priest?’ So I was tonsured."
In 1961, Mittwer returned alone to Japan, where the air was fresher, and visited the home temple of his teacher, Kyoto’s Myoshinji Temple, where he found peace and sanctuary. Mittwer became a disciple of the chief abbot, Daiko Furukawa, and was engaged to assist with visiting American priests. As Mittwer later related, “One day I was asked, ‘Why don’t you become a priest?’ So I was tonsured.” His wife and two daughters finally joined him in 1965 and they lived together on the temple grounds. After Furukawa’s early death, Mittwer met Hirata Seiko, the abbot of Tenryuji Temple, a complex of wooden buildings and gardens in Kyoto. Seiko invited him to become his student. Mittwer remained active at Tenryuji into his 90s. In addition to his religious duties, he made pottery, holding exhibitions annually in Tokyo, and threw himself into Ikebana (flower arranging). He served four terms as president of the Kyoto chapter of Ikebana International, and lectured widely. He wrote a book in English, The Art of Chabana: Flowers for the Tea Ceremony, (Charles Tuttle, 1974), and several other books in Japanese, including his 1983 memoirs, Sokoku to bokoku no hazama de (“Between My Fatherland and My Motherland”); Arashiyama no fumoto kara , (“From the Foot of Arashiyama”), a 1992 book of essays about temple life; and Jisei no kotoba (“Poems for Leaving the World”), a 2003 dialogue with the noted author and Buddhist priest Tsutomu Mizukami about life, death and Zen. He also helped translate a Japanese treatise on classical Chinese science.
In his last years, Mittwer wrote an original screenplay, Akai Kutsu (“Red Shoes”), based on Ujo Noguchi’s children’s song of the same name, about a Japanese orphan adopted by an American missionary couple. He worked to interest filmmakers and government officials in the project, but was unable to find a producer before his death in June 2012. A set of screenwriters and filmmakers then decided to "take over Mr. Mittwer's passion," and selected Takayuki Nakamura to direct. The five-minute animated short, entitled "Henry's Red Shoes," premiered in December 2014.

Henry Mittwer, Sokoku to bokoku no hazama de : waga boei bojo, Tokyo : Sankei Shuppan, 1983

Kanako Miyajima, “Filmmakers Realize Japanese-American Monk’s Dream,” Asahi Shimbun, December 17, 2014, p.1

Mark O’Neill, “A Zen Monk with a Foot in Both Worlds,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Marc 22, 1992, p. C13

Jane Singer, “Calm Reflections on a Turbulent Life,” Japan Times , January 16, 2010, p. 5

Featured Image by Edward M. Haugh

What is the Hapa Japan Database Project?

Part educational. Part genealogical. All connected.

Learn More