Mary Oyama Mittwer
|Name||Mary "Mollie" Oyama Mittwer|
|Birth Location||Petaluma, CA|
Mary "Mollie" Oyama Mittwer (1907–1994) was a Nisei journalist whose writing reflected many of the issues her generation faced during World War II. A leading writer of her generation, Oyama Mittwer dispensed wisdom and controversy through various advice columns and articles, giving Nisei women and men a chance to voice opinions and receive feedback regarding the do's and don't's of delicate topics such as dating and marriage, racism and integration.
She was born in Petaluma, California, to Katsuji and Miyo Oyama on June 19, 1907, and was the oldest of six siblings. She graduated from Sacramento High School in 1925 and later as a deaconess from the Methodist Girls Training School (a school for training missionaries in San Francisco) in 1928. She spent a brief period at the University of Southern California studying journalism before she moved to Seattle, Washington, but soon returned to Los Angeles. In the 1930s, she began contributing articles, essays and poetry for numerous thriving Japanese American newspapers and journals such as the Shin-Sekai, Kashu Mainichi, Rafu Shimpo, Nikkei Shimin, Leaves, and Gyo-Sho, which were well-known for their extensive English-language literary sections. Like many Nisei women writers of the time, her topics focused on gender roles, entertainment and dating, and even taboo topics such as interracial marriage. From 1935 to 1941, Oyama Mittwer wrote an etiquette-advice column, "I'm Telling You, Dierdre," for the San Francisco Japanese American newspaper The New World Sun. Through this column, she provided fellow Nisei with social guidelines to help them navigate complex generational and cultural quandaries they encountered with both white Americans and the immigrant Japanese community.
In 1940, Current Life, the Magazine for the American Born Japanese ran an article on "Who's Who in the Nisei Literary World," profiling fifteen men and nine women, including Mary Oyama Mittwer. Her brother, Joe Oyama, was also a prolific writer and commentator on Nisei culture. In addition to publishing work in publications such as the Japanese American Courier, he served as an editor at the Sangyo Nippo newspaper and was an active member of the Los Angeles Young Democrats, which encouraged collaboration with members of other racial and ethnic groups who faced the same kind of discrimination as the Nisei. Mary Oyama married Frederick Mittwer in May 1937 and subsequently had three children, Richard, Edward, and Vicki (who was born while the family was incarcerated in Heart Mountain). Frederick Mittwer was a Japan-born man of Caucasian and Japanese parentage, who was also employed in the journalism business, working as a linotypist for the Rafu Shimpo and then as a radio operator for the Kashu Mainichi newspapers in Los Angeles. He also wrote a column for the Kashu Mainichi entitled "RCA", reviewing records. Her sister Lily married poet Yasuo Sasaki of Salt Lake City, Utah, who edited a small Nisei literary publication, Reimei.
In 1942, she and her husband were forcibly sent to the Santa Anita Assembly Center and the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, before relocating to Denver in 1943. Her article, "My Only Crime is My Face," appeared in the August, 1943, issue of the popular Liberty magazine, voicing the injustice of the incarceration based on the misfortune of "looking like the enemy." Recent research has alleged that Mary Oyama Mittwer was also known as agent B-31, a informant for army intelligence G2, reporting on suspicious behavior from within the Japanese American community, from before the war up until the forced removal when she was incarcerated at Santa Anita.
Following the war, Oyama Mittwer returned to Los Angeles, although she had continued to write while still in Colorado. In 1943, Mary began writing again for the Pacific Citizen, published in Little Tokyo by the Japanese American Citizens League, and later began a regular column called "Smoglites" that ran through the 50s and 60s. In the resettlement years, she was among many Japanese Americans who pushed for integration and assimilation in the wake of the traumatic experiences of the war. Oyama Mittwer resumed her work as a columnist at the Rafu Shimpo newspaper ("New World a'Coming"), quickly resuming her stance as a supporter of assimilation by repeatedly chastising Los Angeles Nisei for being "clannish" and for hiding behind a self-imposed "silken curtain" separating them unnecessarily from other people. According to Oyama Mittwer, self-segregation resulted in part from Nisei prejudices against Jews, Filipinos, Mexicans, and Blacks, for "we are often just as guilty as the white Caucasians in this respect, with [fewer] 'excuses' for our prejudices. Having been victims of race prejudice ourselves, there is less justification for the 'beam in our eye.'" Oyama Mittwer lived in Boyle Heights, a mixed neighborhood well known for its racial tolerance and large populations of Jewish, African American, Mexican and Japanese immigrants and children. From there, she kept a salon of sorts, and in 1948, she helped found the progressive Nisei weekly publication, Crossroads. She was also a passionate supporter of the theatrical club, Nisei Experimental Group, which included young Nisei writers such as Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Albert and Gompers Saijo. She remained active in the Japanese American community for the rest of her life, keeping a robust and active correspondence with friends like writers Chester Himes, Carlos Bulosan, John Fante, Carey McWilliams and Pearl Buck. She died on January 12, 1994.
For More Information
Matsumoto, Valerie. The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920-1950. Oxford University Press, 2014.
———. "Desperately Seeking 'Deirdre': Gender Roles, Multicultural Relations, and Nisei Women Writers of the 1930s." Frontiers 12:1 (1991).
Murase, Kenny. "Who's Who in the Nisei Literary World." Current Life, October 1940.
Oyama, Mary. "My Only Crime is My Face." Liberty 14, August 1943.
———. "An American with a Japanese Face." Christian Science Monitor, May 22, 1943.
Robinson, Greg. "THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Poet, writer Mary Oyama Mittwer championed literary and intellectual exchanges." Nichi Bei Weekly, December 20, 2012. http://www.nichibei.org/2012/12/the-great-unknown-and-the-unknown-great-poet-writer-mary-oyama-mittwer-championed-literary-and-intellectual-exchanges/
Takahashi, Jere. Nisei Sansei. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.
Yoo, David. Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture Among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
- Valerie J. Matsumoto, "Desperately Seeking 'Deirdre': Gender Roles, Multicultural Relations, and Nisei Women Writers of the 1930s," Frontiers 12:1 (1991).
- Valerie Matsumoto, City Girls: The Nisei Social World in Los Angeles, 1920-1950. (Oxford University Press, 2014) 89.
- Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).
- Mary Oyama cited in, Rafu Shimpo, July 11, 1947 and June 26, 1947.