THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Poet, writer Mary Oyama Mittwer championed literary and intellectual exchanges


One astounding aspect of Japanese American life is the number of accomplished families — clans that gave birth to multiple members who made names for themselves in different fields of endeavor. I recently had the occasion to work on the Tajiri family, which produced in one generation the journalists Larry and Yoshiko Tajiri, the photographer Vince Tajiri, and the sculptor Shinkichi Tajiri, plus career soldier James Tajiri. There is also the wondrous Yasui family of Hood River, Ore. Min Yasui, the most famous of the lot due to his wartime challenge to Executive Order 9066, became a lawyer and community activist. His siblings included two physicians (Robert and Homer), a public health nurse (Yuka), a teacher (Michi) two farmer/businessmen (Masao and Ray) and a peace activist (Roku).

The siblings of the Oyama family of Sacramento were almost as striking. Apart from Robert, a chick sexor who died young in a car accident, there were Wesley Oyama, a successful pharmaceuticals tycoon in postwar Japan; George “Clem” Oyama, his brother’s partner and a renowned inventor and horticulturist; Joe Oyama, a prolific journalist and longtime store owner and community leader in New York; and Lillie Oyama, the artist and wife of physician/poet Yasuo Sasaki. The doyenne of this group of siblings was Mary Oyama Mittwer, known to her friends as Molly. Although her name had all but faded from view by the time of her death in 1994, she was in some ways the most intriguing of the bunch.

Mary Teiko Oyama was born in Fairfield, Calif. on June 19, 1907, and grew up in Sacramento. Her father Katsuji was a calligrapher. Her mother Miyo, a remarkably independent Issei woman, started a cosmetics manufacturing business and later traveled around selling her products in different regions of California. The young Molly was intensely literary. Her sister recounted how Katsuji Oyama would try to take books away from his daughter, to no avail, because he worried that she was too thin and would contract tuberculosis if she did not stop reading and exercise more.

After graduating from Sacramento High School in 1925, Molly attended the San Francisco National Training School (a Methodist school for training missionaries), and then enrolled briefly at University of Southern California. In 1933, she spent a stint in Seattle working for the Young Progressives, before settling in Los Angeles.

In 1937 she married Fred Mittwer, the Tokyo-born son of a German father and Japanese mother who worked as a linotypist at the Rafu Shimpo, and the couple soon had two children. They bought a house in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

During the 1930s, Oyama Mittwer distinguished herself as a poet and contributor to the fledgling Nisei press. Most notably, in 1935 she took up writing an advice column in the San Francisco journal New World Sun, under the pen name “Deirdre.” She provided her readers with advice on matters such as interracial dating, resisting parental pressure for an arranged marriage, and struggles between family and career.

As Valerie Matsumoto has shown, Oyama Mittwer worked to help Nisei (especially women) navigate safely the customs of the white world while keeping up parental and community standards. Oyama Mittwer meanwhile scratched out a living by producing a stream of poems, stories and newspaper articles for other Nisei journals. In 1935 she founded a Nisei literary group called The Writers, and helped put together their magazine, Leaves. (In addition to Japanese American writers, it featured the Korean American Ellen Thun, who joined because she could not find any other literary Koreans around!) After the editors had produced three issues, in 1936 she made an agreement with Eddie Shimano, then a student at Cornell College in Iowa, to have The Writers contribute material to Gyo-Sho, the Nisei literary magazine he was putting together. Her own contribution, “Coming of Age,” a short story about a young woman casting her first vote, was a highlight of the collection. She later collaborated with Carl Kondo and Yasuo Sasaki in forming a successor circle, the Nisei Writers Group. In the fall of 1941, she began a new column in Rafu Shimpo, entitled the “Daily Letter.”

In addition to her own writing, Oyama Mittwer became an encourager of literature and social reform, a distinctive role that she would become her specialty. During the late 1930s she made her house into a salon for discussion of art and ideas, and organized private readings. In 1939 she hosted a lecture on “Modern Art” by the Japan-born poet and critic Sadakichi Hartmann, who was by then largely forgotten. She put together soirées to bring intellectual Nisei into contact with Italian American novelist John Fante; muckraking journalist Carey McWilliams, and immigrant advocate Louis Adamic.

As Matthew Manuel Briones has written, Oyama Mittwer played a “critical role in this whirlwind of intellectual exchange, strategically introducing Nisei to sympathetic, high-profile (and mostly white male) activists.” In the same way, Molly grew interested in promoting intergroup harmony. She urged her fellow Nisei to make friends with people from other groups, and published articles deploring anti-Semitism inside the Japanese community. Ironically, her first mainstream publication was a letter in the Los Angeles Times in 1938 scoring the selling of “boycott Japan” buttons at Korean dancer Sai Shoki’s recital — Molly extolled in somewhat naive terms the friendship between Koreans and Japanese.

Historian Alfred McCoy has charged that Oyama Mittwer worked as an agent for the Army intelligence wing G-2 during 1940-41, reporting on Japanese espionage as “Agent B-31.” (He rather unfairly blames her for fomenting popular misunderstanding of Japanese Americans and official action against them through her reports on Japanese subversion).

Oyama Mittwer’s life was changed by the outbreak of war. Fred Mittwer, who had been working as a radio operator with Japanese newspapers, lost his job following Pearl Harbor, and the businesses of relatives who traded with Japan were stricken. In the face of widespread suspicion and race-based hostility, Fred was unable to find another job.

Ripped from their home in early 1942 by Executive Order 9066, the Mittwer family was confined first in Santa Anita, Calif. with most of the Oyama family, and then at Heart Mountain, Wyo., where Oyama Mittwer worked as an editor for the Heart Mountain Sentinel, the inmate newspaper.

In January of 1943, the Mittwers were able to leave camp and to resettle in Denver. Fred found a job working in the food processing industry. Oyama Mittwer continued to correspond with the Sentinel’s readers even after leaving camp.

Beyond causing her own exile and confinement, the wartime events left a powerful impact on Oyama Mittwer’s writing. First, Oyama Mittwer concentrated on bringing the plight of the Nisei to a larger readership and seeking help from outside allies. She published a pair of articles in Common Ground, a pro-immigrant quarterly founded by Louis Adamic. “After Pearl Harbor,” which appeared in the spring 1942 issue, was a sketch of the misfortunes that the coming of war wrought on the Japanese community.

She followed up soon after with another article, “This Isn’t Japan,” an incisive sketch of conditions at Santa Anita. In November of 1942, she began a regular column, “Heart Mountain Breezes,” in the Powell Tribune, a local weekly newspaper. In the wake of these articles, Oyama Mittwer was commissioned by the popular magazine Liberty (which had, ironically, been rabidly anti-Nisei in the prewar years) to write an article on the predicament of the Nisei. Her contribution, published in the fall of 1943 under the title “My Only Crime is My Face,” was among the first writings by a West Coast Nisei to appear outside of the ethnic press. It pointed up the Americanism of the Nisei, and lamented the injustice of their confinement for “looking like the enemy.”

Meanwhile, Oyama Mittwer’s experience with official racism worked to sharpen her understanding of prejudice against other groups, and to push her to embrace interracial activism. As Oyama Mittwer later described it, the turning point was her house. In a poignant moment in “After Pearl Harbor,” Oyama Mittwer had confided her worries that, unless her husband could find work, they might lose their beloved house. “I had thought it was only in old-fashioned melodramas that people lost their homes …” Once ordered to leave the West Coast, the Mittwers were obliged to rent out their home in order to sustain it.

After they had interviewed several prospective tenants, a friend who worked with an Inter-Racial Fellowship asked whether they would be willing to rent to an African American couple. Oyama Mittwer later recounted her shock at the request. While she had never felt any racial prejudices, she also had next to no experience of blacks in her world. “We were so astonished by the novelty of the idea that we did a split-second mental flip-flop. But in that ‘end of a minute’ we did some fast thinking. ‘Negroes — er, ah. OK, gal you’ve always believed in democracy. Now’s your chance to do your stuff.’ So partly to our surprise we found ourselves saying casually, ‘Why, yes — send them up.” The couple was the writer Chester Himes and his wife. Not only did the Mittwers agree to rent, their friendship immediately blossomed.

The result, Molly said, was that she “began to take an intense personal interest in the welfare of all Negro Americans.” Himes was equally affected by his close friendship with Oyama Mittwer, and took an interest in the plight of Japanese Americans. In his novel “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” Himes spoke of the affecting spectacle of “little Ricky Oyama” singing “God Bless America” as his family was being taken away. He also wrote an article about Japanese Americans for the interracial magazine The War Worker (for which Larry Tajiri would subsequently serve as a columnist).

In 1945, after the lifting of exclusion, the Mittwer family returned to Los Angeles, and reclaimed their home in Boyle Heights, where Oyama Mittwer restarted her salon.

Her biggest coup was receiving Marlon Brando as a guest when he first came to Hollywood. (For a time, Oyama Mittwer housed a Nisei teenager, Chizuko Omori, who returned from camp without her family. The future author of the “Rabbit Ramblings” column in the Nichi Bei Weekly remarked that she met Carey McWilliams and all sorts of other fascinating people at Oyama Mittwer’s house).

Oyama Mittwer also threw herself into promoting progressive causes and fighting racism. In 1946 she was selected for the board of directors of the International Film and Radio Guild, an educational association designed to defend minorities from racial stereotyping, and she served alongside such luminaries as Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Lena Horne. Meanwhile, she led a letter-writing campaign to persuade Hollywood studios to make a film about Japanese Americans.

In 1946, Oyama Mittwer undertook a daily column for the revived Rafu Shimpo, which was alternately entitled “Reveille “ and (in homage to African American author Roy Ottley’s book on Harlem) “New World Coming!”.

In the column, and various pieces in The Pacific Citizen, Oyama Mittwer campaigned on behalf of collective action to promote racial equality, and urged Nisei to broaden their horizons and become politically active. Oyama Mittwer withdrew from her Rafu Shimpo column around 1950, and began a continuing column in the Pacific Citizen.
Entitled “Smoglites,” it centered on life in Los Angeles. She maintained it, with decreasing frequency, over the following decade.

Oyama Mittwer also resumed her role as an encourager of literature and social reform. In May of 1948, she joined with Sakei Ishihara, Mary Kitano and Tom Kumuro on the steering committee of the LA Nisei for Wallace, to support Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign for the presidency, and helped found the progressive Nisei weekly Crossroads.

In 1950 she helped form a playwright’s circle, the Nisei Experimental Group, in coordination with Los Angeles City College. It featured the budding Nisei writers Albert and Gompers Saijo, plus an LACC student named Hiroshi Kashiwagi. Their first performance was of Kashiwagi’s one-act play “The Plums Can Wait,” about conflict between two brothers on a Northern California farm.

After 1950, Oyama Mittwer withdrew from her public role and gradually ceased publishing. Over the course of these years, she kept up close relations with her scattered siblings (as well as her brother-in-law Henry Mittwer, a furniture designer in Los Angeles who later moved to Japan and achieved great stature as a Buddhist monk). Fred Mittwer died in 1981. While Oyama Mittwer participated in a Nisei writers’ conference at UCLA in 1985, she remained virtually forgotten until the historian Valerie Matsumoto produced her groundbreaking article “Desperately Seeking Deirdre” in 1991, three years before Oyama Mittwer died. Her work, especially her powerful columns in the postwar Rafu Shimpo, still awaits further rediscovery and analysis.

I wish to conclude this week’s column with a shout-out to Valerie Matsumoto and to Patricia Wakida, the writer and artist. Not long ago, Patricia was commissioned to contribute an article on Oyama Mittwer to the new Densho Encyclopedia, (since I am a collaborator of the Encyclopedia, I will say only that is a vast and comprehensive reference work that will shape the field of study of Japanese American World War II experience). In the process of her work on it, Patricia asked Valerie for information, and Valerie steered her my way, as she knew of my longstanding interest. This reignited my desire to go back to the material I had already collected, and to offer the readers of “The Great Unknown” the present little introduction.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at

One response to “THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Poet, writer Mary Oyama Mittwer championed literary and intellectual exchanges”

  1. stephanie mittwer Avatar
    stephanie mittwer

    Thats my great grandma so proud of my family

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