January 16, 2010

JAPAN: Calm reflections on a turbulent life

. TOKYO, Japan / The Japan Times / Life in Japan / Features / January 16, 2010 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. 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. Buddhist priest Henry Mittwer in front of the Tenryuji Temple in Kyoto's Arashiyama district. Jane Singer Photo 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. [rc] Click here for more (C) The Japan Times Ltd