Ted (Theo) Mittet’s Letters from Japan Part 2: An Olympian and Diplomat Engaging with a Curious Japan

Takeko Honma 1
A picture of Ted (Theo) Mittet, 2nd from left, by Takeko Honma, middle, in front of the National Gymnasium
When I first arrived in Japan in 1986, one of the most popular programs on television was “Naruhodo! The World (なるほど!ザ・ワールド),” a quiz program that showcased the beauty, excitement and uniqueness of the places around the world their reporters visited. This was entertainment, so their reporters were often loud and garish, shamelessly interacting with foreigners in goofball English, often emphasizing stereotypical or even non-representative quirks of a particular country or culture. The questions and insights of the reporters often revealed more about Japanese culture than the culture they were trying to represent.

Ted (Theo) Mittet was a 22-year-old American rower who decided to travel Japan after helping his four-without boat win the bronze medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As explained in Part 1, Mittet made many Japanese friends along the way, who exchanged letters with this young man from Seattle, Washington. Their questions to him said a lot about Japan at the time. Mittet wrote to his family describing the conversations he was having with Japanese all over the country.

I spent last evening with a very good Japanese friend’s family (his father speaks English, as does he) and was treated royally. Sukiyaki and tempura were served in unlimited quantities. After dinner we all discussed love and life and I am amazed at the similarity between East and West. My friend is anxious to learn about Christianity and I am anxious to learn about Buddhism. (He is studying Zen.) I certainly think that Buddhism makes more sense than Christianity. I plan to look into it a little further. – letter from Mittet to family in late October

While coming up the east side of the inland sea I stopped at the town of Niihama where I met three English teachers who asked me if I would speak at their school. I gladly accepted and as a result spent about three hours teaching English conversations to about 150 English students. The school offered me 3,000 badly needed yens, but being a true patriot I could not accept. You might say that it was my donation to the cultural exchange program. I was asked questions about the Beetles, the American date, President Johnson (damn!) and “What you think black man?” It was a wonderful experience and I gained much insight on Japanese life and thought. – letter from Mittet to family in late November

Religion, politics, race – all the things we were taught not to talk about in polite company. But many Japanese knew they had an exaggerated view of the world, and were eager to correct their perceptions. In the case of America, Mittet became their source.

Like the hundreds of others on the US Olympic squad, he got the training from the US State Department about how to conduct oneself properly in a foreign land as a representative of America. But one can argue, based on the letters he received from the many Japanese friends he made during his 2-month travels, Mittet was as much an American diplomat as those who sit in embassies around the world.

When travelling through Ashiya, a city near Kobe in Japan, Mittet met Mikio, a middle-aged man who saw the tall American in a crowded bus, and felt compelled to introduce himself. Like other Japanese energized by the influx of foreigners during the Olympics, and infused with a desire to warmly welcome them, Mikio went up to Mittet in the bus. “I remember first scene when I saw firstly you in the crowded bus,” he wrote in a letter to Mittet. “You are too tall, so you put your head on the bus ceiling. Then I felt too funny. (Excuse me.) But that time, I felt much friendly to you.”

Amazingly, not only did Mikio introduce himself, he invited Mittet to stay at his and his wife’s Eiko’s home overnight, where they ate and talked. But in the letter, Mikio admitted that he was still very curious, his English capability failing him in attempts to ask important questions:

It was first experience for me that I gave a lodge to a foreigner. I doubt I could make a full hospitality to you? It’s most sorry I could speak English very little. If I could speak it more fluently, I wished to ask about America things, and to tell and discuss about several problems of the war, current events and American colored man through all night. And about your life experience and philosophy.

Eiko and Mikio 1
Eiko and Mikio
Even more remarkably, Mikio found Mittet so earnest and trustworthy that he admitted to changing what he felt were prejudicial views of Americans.

I had had a prejudice for American through a few American I know, soldiers and seamen. I have thought American are a spending, war-like, uncultural and bright and cheerful nation. (Excuse me) However general Japanese people don’t think so as me.

I see and tell you, I found mistake. You are wonderful man with wit and culture. If there are many people as you in America, American will develop more and more in future. I hope you become young face of America. My dear Eiko in the room you slept, talk about memory of you.