Ebola is a scary disease because it is so lethal — killing about half of those infected! Fortunately, very few of us in America have been (or are likely to be) infected, but the fears and anxieties still abound.
Soon the flu season will be here and anyone around us with flu symptoms (like sitting next to someone in a room) can create a negative public reaction because the symptoms for Ebola and regular flu are similar.
But nearly a century ago, there was an even worse epidemic. From 1918 to 1920, there was a worldwide epidemic of Spanish flu (an H1N1 virus) that infected nearly one-third of the entire world population and killed as many as 100 million people — making it one of the worst human disasters in history! In the United States, about 28% of the population was infected and over half a million people died.
Among the sick and the dead were many members of the JA community of Los Angeles, and because of the lack of Japanese hospitals and medical staff, Nikkei folks could not get adequate services. In the aftermath of the Spanish flu epidemic, Japanese community pioneers started working to set up a Japanese Hospital, which could provide services to our community.
I bring all of this up because I wanted to talk about an Issei pioneer civil rights hero — a man named Sei Fujii. Even though I had worked in Little Tokyo for over three decades, it was not until fairly recently that I had ever heard of him, which is a shame because I have discovered that Sei Fujii is a true community hero in the same vein as Cesar Chavez and MLK and deserves to be remembered.
Fujii left Japan and came to L.A. in the early 1900s. He went to USC law school even though he knew that Japanese were barred from practicing law. Why would someone go to law school knowing he couldn’t become a lawyer? The answer is because Fujii wanted to know the law in order to overturn the law and other unjust laws. That kind of bravado is the mindset of a heroic activist — brash enough to take on the whole system and try to change it.
Getting back to the Japanese Hospital — it was incorporated in 1926 through the services of Fujii and J. Marion Wright (who was Fujii’s law school buddy and law partner) but the California secretary of state tried to block the incorporation, fighting the case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court! Wright argued on behalf of the Japanese community at the Supreme Court (since Fujii was not allowed to) and won! The Japanese Hospital was built soon thereafter in 1929 and is, by the way, where I got my tonsils removed in 1949.
Fujii and Wright spent a lifetime helping to defend the legal and civil rights of our immigrant Nikkei community and to make changes for the better. After World War II ended, Fujii purposely bought some land in Boyle Heights in order to challenge the California Alien Land Law that since 1911 had prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land. In 1952, because of Fujii’s actions, the California Supreme Court declared the law to be unconstitutional!
Oh, and along the way, Fujii became the outspoken publisher of The Kashu Mainichi newspaper and in November of 1932 he was shot in the face and nearly strangled to death by gangsters who wanted to silence his efforts to push out the criminal element from Little Tokyo. Fujii was found lying in a pool of blood on Second Street in front of the newspaper office and, ironically, was taken to the Japanese Hospital he helped to establish and where he eventually recovered and continued his civil rights work.
I ask you — is that a hero who should be remembered or what!?
Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.