OBITUARY: Janet Mitsui Brown, Author of ‘Thanksgiving at Obaachan’s’

Janet Mitsui Brown

Janet Mitsui Brown

Services were held Dec. 10 for Janet Mitsui Brown, a children’s book author/illustrator, award-winning writer/columnist, and feng shui master consultant, who passed away peacefully with her husband and daughter by her side after a courageous battle with lung cancer at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica on Oct. 27.

She wrote and illustrated “Thanksgiving at Obaachan’s” and co-authored with other writers from the Northern Hemisphere “The Happiness Chronicles,” “Journey to Health,” “Book of Harmony,” and “The Essence of Love.”

Janet Sachiko Mitsui was born to Satoru and Akiko Mitsui on May 8, 1947 at Providence Hospital in Burbank, next to Walt Disney Studios. Her parents met at the Manzanar camp in Inyo County during World War II. After the war, they married in 1945 in Salt Lake City and relocated to Los Angeles, where they settled in as one of the first Japanese American families in the Jefferson Heights district.

After their daughter’s first grade of elementary school at Coliseum Street School, the couple bought their first home in the Crenshaw district and had two more children, John (born in 1949) and Jeff (1953).

Lillian Osajima, who knew Brown since the third grade, recalled during the service at Nishi Hongwanji, “It was a time that you could walk and run and bike to and from all of your friends’ homes. A time when you met lifelong friends — from Coliseum Street Elementary School, to Audubon Junior High to Susan Miller Dorsey High School … What a neighborhood — Japanese, hakujin, Jewish, African American — all inclusive without a second thought.

“Janet participated in many activities at Dorsey and joined clubs, including the Jeunes. After years of walking together to Coliseum Street, Audubon and Dorsey, Janet became my ride. All of a sudden in the 12th grade, she was driving that red mustang and we were cruising, not walking, to Dorsey …

“Well-liked? Well, if you were calm and friendly and had a great sense of humor, you’d be well-liked too. But if you had that laugh — that unmistakable laugh … you would be unforgettable and loved — and she was.”

Osajima is the godmother of Brown’s daughter, Tani.

Brown exhibited a talent for the arts at a young age, and in the mid-1960s her vision changed when she received the opportunity to attend UCLA and study pictorial arts. Upon graduation in 1970, she moved up to the Bay Area, where she worked at the UC Medical Center, then located in Richmond, near Berkeley. She enrolled for a semester at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, before withdrawing to pursue a career in the arts.

She moved back to Los Angeles and was eventually hired as an administrator for East West Players, one of the nation’s first Asian American theater organizations, then located in the Hollywood area. This proved to be a life-changing experience. Brown was instrumental to the financial and administrative development of the theater company in the 1980s, working alongside and being heavily influenced by actor and artistic director Mako. It was through him that she developed a love of theater that would last a lifetime.

Brown submitted grants to the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, Los Angeles County and various art agencies that would go on to support and enable EWP to produce works and educational programs that gave a voice to the Asian Pacific Islander experience. Her work increased access and opportunity for API artists on stage and in television and film, a legacy that continues to this day.

Tim Dang, former EWP artistic director, said in a Facebook post, “Thank you so much, Janet Mitsui Brown, for bringing community, family, and love wherever you went … The East West Players family thanks you for all of your support and dedication through the decades. Many of our extended family may not know that you were one of our first full-time administrative staff members working in the ‘back house’ while we were creating in the black-box theater on Santa Monica Boulevard. From all of us, a standing ovation for you.”

Abraham Ferrer of Visual Communications, which is housed with EWP at Union Center for the Arts in Little Tokyo, said in a Facebook tribute, “Janet Mitsui Brown served as a member of VC’s board of directors for a relatively brief spell during the 1980s, a time when things were touch-and-go due to us digging out from under a major production deficit.

“I didn’t really get to know Janet until years later, when she started getting into feng shui and hung out at occasional VC events with her husband, actor Roger Aaron Brown. During those times that we had a chance to chat, she really let me and the VC crew know that even though she had stepped off the board for some time, she was always rooting for us to succeed.

“Besides her side projects as a writer, illustrator, and producer, just knowing that she was keeping an eye out for all of us was reassuring. Like one of the aunties who always were there when you needed the affirmation the most.”

Janet Mitsui Brown with her husband, Roger Aaron Brown, and their daughter, Tani Erin Mitsui Brown.

Janet Mitsui Brown with her husband, Roger Aaron Brown, and their daughter, Tani Erin Mitsui Brown.

While at East West, Brown met her future husband, who appeared in such plays as Velina Hasu Houston’s “Asa ga Kimashita.” After their first date at Acapulco Restaurant and a year or two of dating, the two were married in 1986. A multiple breast cancer survivor, it was during the first diagnoses and treatment that she and her husband fell in love.

Their daughter, Tani Erin Mitsui Brown, was born on Sept. 14, 1988. The family purchased their first home in Inglewood, and Janet Brown wrote and illustrated her first children’s book, “Thanksgiving at Obaachan’s” – a dream of hers while raising Tani. The family enjoyed camping in Malibu, trips to Ojai, and supporting the rambunctious little Tani in gymnastics, tap dance, softball, and finally basketball.