Mitzi Asai Loftus has led a remarkable life that should be remembered by all of us. Thankfully, her sons recognized this and helped her write down her stories, and get them published in a new book, From Thorns to Blossoms: A Japanese American Family in War and Peace, out this year from Oregon State University Press.

Now 91 years old, Loftus was nine when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced incarceration of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry in camps away from the West Coast of the U.S. Loftus was the youngest of eight children born on their parent’s farm near Hood River, Oregon. The family was sent first to an “assembly center” in Fresno, California and then to camps at Tule Lake, in northern California, and later Heart Mountain in Wyoming. 

“I’ve always talked about the whole experience,” Loftus said. “I’m the youngest of the Nisei generation.” And when the Nisei generation are gone, “the first person stories are going to be lost.” 

“And it’s personal,” Loftus added, “because I was old enough to understand the three years of incarceration” that she and her family endured. “But my most important story is what happened to us when we were allowed to return home.”

Loftus self-published an earlier version of her memoir in 1990, because she wanted her nieces and nephews to know the story of her parents. Most were either too young or weren’t yet born when their Issei (Japanese immigrant) grandparents were alive. “I wanted them to be proud of their Japanese heritage,” she said. 

After the treatment Loftus and her family received at the end of World War II, she had a period in her young life when she tried to shed her Japanese American identity, including changing her name from Mitsuko to Mitzi when she entered high school.

The Asai family were the first Japanese family to return to the Hood River area from the camps. They were greeted by signs in local businesses saying, “No Jap trade” – even in a store where the owner had teared up as he said good bye to the family when they left for the camps and gave them an address book and asked them to write to him. The local American Legion post made national news in 1944 when they hired a local painter to blank out the names of the sixteen Japanese American men (including two of Loftus’s brothers) who were named on the “honor roll” of local men serving in the military outside the courthouse in Hood River.

Loftus, who returned to Hood River as a 7th grader, was the first Japanese American student to re-enter her elementary school in 1945. Before the war, a woman who lived on her mile-long walk to school would invite her inside for cookies and milk. Now the woman would watch for her each day, call her names, and sic her dogs on her. 

But Loftus said her experience with the overt viciousness of the woman and her dogs should not be remembered as the primary lesson from those years. Just as damaging were people who knew what was right but refused to speak up for her and her family. 

“I was just frightened then. The most important thing was that good people, kind people…who would speak to us when no one else was around, but in the public eye would not recognize us as anyone they knew. So it’s the good people who know what is right or what is wrong and don’t speak up and don’t do anything [that should be remembered].” 

“Very few people have the courage to stand up, for fear of being criticized or losing their friends,” she continued. “It’s like right now, what are you going to say about the war in Gaza and what is happening now?”

Loftus completed high school in Hood River, received a degree from the University of Oregon, and became a teacher. In the late 1950s she lived in Japan for a year and taught English as a Fullbright scholar. During this time she reconnected her with her Japanese heritage. She returned to Oregon, where she and her husband raised a family in Coos Bay. 

She now lives in Ashland, close to her middle son, but really she’s there to make it easier to attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and other theater and film events. “I play cards three times a week, and my greatest love is tandem biking,” she said. She and a friend ride a 20-mile route across the bridges of Portland each August for an event known as the Bridge Pedal. She took up the tandem bike seven years ago, at age 85, after not riding a bike for 40 years. 

“Although I was part of the silent generation, I was never silent,” she said. She has been speaking about her experiences for fifty years and has spoken at many events such as the Day of Remembrance (recognized annually in February around the anniversary of Executive Order 9066) in various Oregon cities. She and her family have now made sure her stories are published in a well-researched book, including many photographs of the Asai Lofton family. Because for many years, she said, after every talk, someone would come up to her and tell her she was lying and that the things she had talked about never occurred. This book is meant to “document the fact that these things really happened.” 

Loftus will be speaking (with her son David Loftus) on Friday, May 17, at 7 p.m. at Third Place Books in Ravenna, and on May 18, 2024 at Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island at 6:30 p.m.

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