By GWEN MURANAKA
Rafu English Editor
It turns out that access to health care isn’t just a debate for the Obama-era. Last Sunday, the struggle of Issei doctors in the 1920s to open a Japanese Hospital was detailed in a symposium at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum.
A capacity crowd, many the families of former doctors, attended the symposium which was cosponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society and the Japanese American National Museum.
Dr. Troy Kaji, a family practitioner and grandson of hospital founder Dr. Kikuo Tashiro, and Janice Marion Wright LaMoree, daughter of the late attorney J. Marion Wright, explained how the Issei doctors took their bid to build the hospital all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Born in 1894, Dr. Tashiro studied medicine in Nagasaki and moved to California in 1921, setting up a medical office in Little Tokyo in 1923. Due to discrimination, Japanese physicians were unable to practice in other hospitals. The first small hospital was opened in 1918 in response to a major flu epidemic on Turner St. in Little Tokyo.
Later as the Alien Land Law took farm land away from the Issei, many moved to the city seeking work.
“The dispossessed farmers are moving to the city. L.A.’s population of Japanese is growing to 43,000,” Kaji said. “The Turner St. hospital has outgrown its capacity, so my grandfather and four other Japanese physicians applied to incorporate to build a hospital, California said no.”
The State of California refused to grant articles of incorporation, stating that it wasn’t permitted under the 1911 U.S.-Japan treaty. The doctors turned for help to attorney Wright, a USC alumni and friend of Kashu Mainichi publisher Sei Fujii.
“He had a firm affection and sympathy for the Japanese people in Los Angeles at that time,” said LaMoree of her father, who also argued against the Alien Land Law.
She recalled traveling with her father by train to Washington where she saw the newly built Lincoln Memorial and also attended the Supreme Court hearing.
“It was very impressive and it was particularly impressive because William Howard Taft, chief justice at that time, weighed 350 pounds,” LaMoree said.
With the court victory, the supporters of the Japanese Hospital were able to raise $129,000 for the new 42-bed facility on Fickett St. in Boyle Heights. The facility continued to serve the Japanese American community until 1941 when it was taken over by White Memorial for the duration of World War II. Dr. Kaji said that the doctors treated ailments including stomach cancer, farming accidents and delivering babies.
The symposium also included video interviews with Dr. Sakaye Shigekawa, who has delivered more than 20,000 babies; Frances Kaji, daughter of Dr. Tashiro; Margaret Kuroiwa, daugher of Dr. Daishiro Kuroiwa; Yoshiko Inose, daughter-in-law of Inosuke Inose, the president of the Southern California Japanese Hospital and Dr. Masako Kusayanagi Miura.
For the physicians, the work was difficult and their patients often paid what they could. Dr. Kusayanagi Miura, in a video interview, said that patients would give vegetables or other items as payment.
“It isn’t like here now, where there are all these health services. You had direct contact with the doctors, you paid directly, you didn’t go through any third party. It’s actually better I think,” said Dr. Kusayanagi Miura.
Dr. Tashiro struggled with tuberculosis throughout his life. His grandson explained that as he was convalescing in 1953, he performed a 13-hour surgery on a patient despite his own frail health. He passed away of a heart attack the following week. Tashiro’s funeral on Feb. 11, 1953 was attended by 1,000 people and his grandson noted, his last patient recovered fully from the surgery.
“This is a story of leadership, of looking at your current situation, at the hand you’ve been dealt and making the most of it, cooperating with friends and going forward. That’s the lesson I would put to you,” said Kaji.