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Finding Strength in a Complex Heritage

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

“Being 100% American means fully accepting your heritage — whatever it is,” Mitzi Loftus says, reflecting on her experience growing up in Oregon during World War II as a child of Japanese immigrants. “When you embrace your whole self, you are a stronger person.”

Mitsuko (Mitzi) Asai Loftus was born in Hood River, Oregon, in 1932, the youngest of the family’s eight children, seven of whom were  delivered at home by their father. Because of complications, Miitzi’s birth was assisted by a doctor and nurse whom her father brought to the home with a horse and wagon. Undaunted by cultural clashes, Loftus has spent her life coming to terms with her two identities: her American self and her Japanese self.

 From Rural Japan to Rural Oregon

As the second son born to a family in rural Japan, Loftus’ father, Sagoro Asai, received no inheritance because land traditionally went to the eldest son. So he asked his mother for $100 for a one-way boat trip to the United States, planning not to return to Japan but to send money back to his family there.

When he arrived in San Francisco in 1904, he was greeted by middlemen looking for railroad workers. They would pay the men’s rent and food, and the men would pay them back out of their railroad wages. By 1911, Sagoro had saved enough money to buy property in Oregon. He sent home for a picture bride, the term for a wife chosen for him by a matchmaker, and Loftus’ mother, Matsu Ito, arrived in the U.S. when she was 18.

Mitzi’s parents, Sagoro Asai and Matsu Ito, in 1911, soon after she arrived in the U.S. Photo Credit: Loftus Family Archives

The couple settled in Hood River. They had the beginnings of an orchard and also a large piece of land closer to town where they later built a home; the younger children were born there. The family produced most of their own food, growing vegetables and raising chickens. They would buy large bags of rice in town and store it in a stone root cellar. All the children helped with farm chores.

 Loftus had few playmates near the farm but she enjoyed her classmates at school and remembers being the teacher’s pet in first and second grades. She describes herself as a child who talked a lot and liked to be in school plays.

“In the Christmas play, I was a little gray lamb — the only one in the white herd,” she recalls. “This turned out to be a preview of my life.”

Mitzi’s brother Taro (Tot), her mother, father and brother Gene in back row; Mitzi and her brother Itsuo (Dick) in front row. Photo Credit: Loftus Family Archives

War Changes Everything

One Sunday when Loftus was nine years old, shocking news came on the radio: Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base in what was then the territory of Hawaii. At that moment, Loftus’ father was in town with neighbors helping prepare for a talent show.

Suddenly, police cars arrived and told them all to go home.

The next day at school, Loftus was shocked when one of her classmates spat on her and called her “a Jap.”

“But most people acted the same as ever,” Loftus says.

However, some things did change. People of Japanese ancestry in Hood River had a curfew, and their neighbors were assigned the job of counting them every night. Loftus’ older brothers would be playing poker with their friends and would have to sneak home, she recalls.

The family was also told they would have to move to a camp and would not be able to take much with them. Many possessions, such as swords, cameras, and other valuables, were stored in a warehouse. Others were sold. Many families even broke some treasured possessions, such as family dishes, in order to dispose of them. The Asai family put many of their household items into a single bedroom. When they returned after the war, only a few of the things were still there; the others had presumably been stolen.

On May 13, 1942, the Asai family went, as directed, to the train station in town. Along with all others of Japanese ancestry on the West coast of the U.S., they were told they were to board a train to an undisclosed location and that they could take only what they could carry. Each family was assigned a number, which was attached to each person’s clothing and to the two items they were permitted to carry. None of the detainees knew where they were going, how long they would be gone nor even whether they would ever be able to return to their homes.

It was Loftus’ first train ride. She remembers boarding with excitement, though she also knew she would miss her friends. But to her disappointment, blinds covered all the windows on the train and there were soldiers at the end of each car with guns, so she couldn’t look out. The Asai family was taken to a camp in Fresno, California, for a brief stay, and then to Tule Lake, also in California, for one year. Afterward, they were relocated to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, for two years.

President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 sent Japanese Americans, both citizens and non-citizens, to what were initially called ”relocation centers”, but also described in government documents of the time as “concentration camps”. To give an accurate and culturally sensitive historical account of this terminology, it is important to note that the most appropriate term for these camps continues to be a matter of discussion. 

Japanese American detainees at Pinedale Assembly Center in Fresno, CA, awaiting transport to a temporary “concentration camp,” as described by President Roosevelt who signed the Executive Order 9066. (Photo from U.S. Army Signal Corps).

Life in the Camps

The camps were traumatic in many ways: flimsy barracks where they had to live in cramped quarters; institutional food served in a cafeteria; a general lack of privacy, which made it difficult to preserve the close family structure everyone was used to.

“Kids would eat with their friends instead of with the family,” Loftus explains, “and parents couldn’t discipline them as they were accustomed to doing.”

Although she remembers that children made the best of it, eating together with their friends and joining sports teams and clubs, she also still remembers the nightmarish searchlight that swept over one of the camps all night, repeatedly flashing in her face. 

“Even when we moved to the next camp where there was no searchlight,” she says, “I still saw the light in my mind every night.”

 And even years after leaving the camps, she would have nightmares of being chased. 

“They would always find me,” she says. “And then I would wake up.”

MItzi’s mother, brothers Gene and Itsuo (Dick) with Mitzi standing in front. Photo Credit: Loftus Family Archives

Returning Home After the War

 The camp experience continued to shape Loftus’ life even after the family returned to their home in Hood River.

“When it was announced that the government was sending us home,” she remembers, “my mother didn’t want to return to Hood River. She had seen full page ads in our local newspapers warning Japanese neighbors not to return, stating, ‘You are not wanted.’”

But the Asais did return to Hood River. By then, the older children were all either in the army or working; only the two youngest children returned to the farm with their parents. Each was given $25 and a ticket home.

The Asais were the first local family to return from the camps. They had leased their home and farm, and their neighbors helped protect their property during the period of incarceration. But, once they returned, many local businesses refused to serve them. They often experienced harassment. People would steal tools from their sheds, damage their farm equipment, and make hate calls. When things like this happened, often in the middle of the night, Loftus’ father would gather them together for a family conference.

“Being afraid and giving up is just what they want,” he would say. “We have a right to live here in our own home, and we need to be an example for other Japanese who are still waiting in camps, afraid to come home.”

 Only gradually was the family able to make their life in Hood River again, reclaiming their house and finding a few steadfast friends who welcomed them.

A Child Confronts Racism

 Loftus went back to school in March 1945, a seventh-grader. No one would talk to her at school, and she had to walk to and from school alone. When her brother re-entered the high school, he was asked by the principal not to participate in school sports “so as not to cause any awkwardness,” Loftus says. He complied, even though he excelled at sports and enjoyed them.

Before the war, Loftus used to stop on the way home from school at a neighbor’s house for milk and cookies. Now, however, that same neighbor would come out and shout, “Go back where you came from, you dirty yellow Japs,” Loftus remembers.

That same neighbor would also send her dog out.

“I reasoned that if the dog knew I was scared, it would bite me,” says Loftus. “I knew I must outsmart it. The dog would run up at me snarling, but I forced myself to stay calm and keep walking steadily and slowly. It never actually bit me, but its wet nose would touch my bare leg, and it was only by strict self-discipline I could stay calm and keep on walking by.”

Finally, after almost a year, one of her school friends, Mae, walked home with her one day and heard the neighbor’s comments. When Mae’s family learned of how the neighbor had been harassing Loftus, they quietly communicated their disapproval through the neighbor’s church.

“Lots of people were like that in the post-war years,” comments Loftus. “They would help us in invisible ways, but not even say hello openly.”

Taking A New Name

There came a time when Loftus decided to turn her back on her Japanese self.

“I had always gone by my given name Mitsuko,” she says. “But in high school, I changed my name and registered as Mitzi. When I brought home my first report card with my new name, my father smiled but made no comment.”

During her high school years, Loftus was active in a local church and school events but never had a single date. She was not interested in either of the two Japanese American boys at school and those were the only people she was expected to date.

She graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and worked her way through the University of Oregon before teaching high school for several years. She met Don Loftus when both were guests at a friend’s wedding and he offered her a ride home.

When he proposed a couple of years later, she had already applied for a Fulbright scholarship to teach English in Japan. The couple agreed she would spend her year teaching in Japan and, at the end of the year, he would join her there for their wedding in 1958.

Mitzi and her nephew near the Imperial Castle in Tokyo during Mitzi’s year as Fulbright Scholar in Japan. Loftus Family Archives

Finding A Japanese Point Of View

“I could never pass for Japanese in Japan,” Loftus remembers, “because my body language and behavior showed I was not Japanese. I also wore bright colors, not like what people wore locally. Even when I tried to be sedate and Japanese, it didn’t work. On the train, other women wouldn’t choose a seat beside me.”

But when she returned to the U.S., Loftus realized she saw people and places differently than she had before. She looked for the Japanese sense of balance and harmony as a measure of what was appropriate and beautiful.

She also saw herself differently.

“Living there for a year made me see what a burden I was carrying and how it was preventing me from being whole,” she says. “I took back my Japanese heritage with pride and have become stronger in every way since then.”

 After the couple had three sons and spent a couple of years in Germany, the Loftus family settled in Coos Bay, Oregon, where Loftus taught high school and her husband had his own piano-tuning business.

Following her husband’s death in a car accident in 1996, she continued to teach and later retired to Ashland, Oregon. For many years, she has given public lectures about the Japanese American experience during and after World War II, 

“It’s important to know our history,” she says. “But I look forward, never back.”