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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.

“Her Book Was Transformative”

Carolyn Sanwo of Heritage Source, which promotes books by and about Asian Americans, said, “When I first saw Janet’s picture book, ‘Thanksgiving at Obaachan’s,’ I was inspired to start up Heritage Source nearly 23 years ago. In my eyes, her book was transformative. In the form of an easily accessible children’s picture book, Janet boldly captured a nostalgic time period for many Sansei to recall and share with their fourth-generation children.

“Not only did the title include the endearing Japanese word for grandmother, but the story described a young girl’s special relationship with her Issei grandmother, although their languages were different. Among her watercolor illustrations was one that especially stood out to me — a beautiful depiction of her grandmother’s obutsudan. Wow — to me, it was a great acknowledgement of our JA identity, and I wanted every JA family to have this book in their home library.”

Brown had been working on two more “Obaachan” books dealing with the Japanese traditions of Oshogatsu and Obon. Her daughter said she will try to publish them in the next few years.

The couple established Tani B Productions to develop film and television scripts for production in the world market and provide talent, acting, commercials and voice work to enhance these productions. The website featured the family’s creative endeavors, including the comic strip Tani drew for The Rafu Shimpo, “Willy the Cat,” and Roger’s credits as an actor, which include “ER,” “Criminal Minds” and “CSI.”

In 2003, the family moved to Mar Vista, where they remodeled their home and Brown began to develop a deep passion and interest in the practice of feng shui. She studied with Helen and James Jay in Nevada City, the American Feng Shui Institute in Monterey Park, and the Yun Lin Temple in Berkeley.

She competed and medaled in wushu competitions in China with the Shaolin Wushu Center and developed a deep reverence and commitment to the practices of tai chi, yoga, and meditation. She consulted with hundreds of clients through her practice, The Joy of Feng Shui, and became a devout member of Venice Buddhist Temple, serving as recording secretary for the Fujinkai (women’s association).

The family traveled all over the world on various trips and vacations. Their last trip together was to celebrate Brown’s 69th birthday in Santa Fe, N.M. this past May. While there, they partook in their favorite activities: antiquing, soaking at a Japanese hot spring, eating fresh Southwestern food, reading by the fire, playing poker, and awakening to the smell of pine and cedar.

This year, Brown participated in a program at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute called the Writers’ Salon, an opportunity for writers to read selections from published books or works in progress, followed by a discussion about the writing process, of present and future projects, of the trials and tribulations of writing. After a public presentation, the audience was able to talk with the writers, and to purchase books if available.

Brown’s last speaking engagement was on Aug. 13 at the first Writers’ Salon alongside fellow writers Nick Nagatani, Gary Yano and Akemi Kikumura Yano.

“I met Janet a couple of years ago in the ‘Sansei Stories’ workshop at the Gardena Valley JCI,” recalled playwright Tim Toyama, leader of the workshop. “I was instantly struck with her wit, intelligence, and kindness. And her words. The stories she brought to the workshop were exceptional and eloquent. Through her stories, we got to know and cherish Janet.

“In class, she was the moral center. She had the last word, and her last word was always supportive. In a creative writing class, it’s necessary to tread lightly, so as not to bash the writer and the writer’s ego. Janet walked the fine line between supportive and constructive.

“A writer has left us too soon, is gone, there’ll be no more words, and we are poorer for the loss of her words, but richer because she touched us. And Janet’s voice remains.”

At the memorial service, Tani Brown read a letter she received from her mother while in Vietnam. It read, in part: “Tani, you are a special treasure to me, and you are our legacy. May you follow your special path and have the courage to follow your heart.”

In addition to her husband and daughter, Brown is survived by her brother Jeff, sister-in-law Kathy, and many nieces, nephews and other relatives.

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