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90th Anniversary of Japanese Hospital Celebrated in Boyle Heights

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The audience included many people with ties to the Japanese Hospital.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Shimpo

The 90th anniversary of the Japanese Hospital, located at Fickett and First streets in Boyle Heights, was celebrated Dec. 1 at Tenrikyo Mission Headquarters.

Hosted by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in partnership with the Boyle Heights Historical Society, the event was attended by about 130 people, many of whom had ties to the hospital.

The program opened with a performance by Yoki Chibi Taiko, made of children instructed by Tenrikyo’s Yoki Daiko.

LTHS Vice President Miya Iwataki introduced LTHS President Mike Okamura, noting that his family has a long history in the area: “Little Tokyo is in his blood. His grandparents on his dad’s side met there in the mid-1920s, got married at the old Union Church, and owned and operated Toyo Florist and Nursery on North San Pedro Street.

“Mike also has a deep family history in Boyle Heights. After World War II his paternal grandparents relocated to East L.A. and had a cleaning business on Brooklyn Avenue. His father was born in Boyle Heights, attended First Street School and lived on Third Street near Evergreen Park … Mike’s maternal grandparents also lived in East L.A. After the war, his mother relocated to Boyle Heights and graduated from Roosevelt High School.”

Okamura delivered greetings on behalf of his father, Paul, 90, and mother, Masako (nee Watanabe), 85, who lived in the former Uptown district and now live in Montebello. He noted that he and his uncle recently visited his grandparents’ grave in Evergreen Cemetery.

He thanked everyone for attending and said that he has been hearing from so many people whose lives have been touched by the Japanese Hospital.

“We’re here to celebrate the milestone anniversary of the Japanese Hospital, which was one of numerous institutions that anchored the Japanese American community in Boyle Heights in the pre- and post-World War II years,” Okamura said. “Ninety years ago today, Dec. 1, 1929, the newly constructed Japanese Hospital building was formally dedicated … We believe you will leave here today with a new or renewed sense of pride of what the Japanese Hospital meant to Boyle Heights, Little Tokyo and surrounding communities.”

Little Tokyo Historical Society President Mike Okamura welcomes the more than 100 people attending the 90th anniversary celebration.

Historical Context

Alex Tenorio spoke on behalf of the Boyle Heights Historical Society. “Not only was I a resident here 29 years ago, but I also worked at Johnson’s Market on First. when we first got married, we had our son at the Utah Street Hospital. Before that I started working at Atlas Stationers, which was on Fourth and Anderson, and that was close to 60 years ago. So I’ve been in and out of Boyle Heights for a wonderfully long time … We live here on Soto Street right across from the Gold Line, right next door to where my wife’s grandmother had her office. She was a doctor.”

Tenorio provided the historical context for the Japanese Hospital: “The name Hollywood was synonymous with the U.S. film industry and the visual setting of Los Angeles became known worldwide. A lot of job openings attracted heavy immigration, especially from the Midwest and Mexico. The city’s population doubled from 577,000 in 1920 to 1.2 million in 1929 … Petroleum became a major industry, with extractions from large reserves in Huntington Beach, Long Beach and Santa Fe Springs … J.P. Getty had oil wells up and down Beverly Boulevard …

“Some of the things that happened during that time … Mickey Mouse appears in ‘Steamboat Willie,’ the ‘Popeye’ comic strip debuts, ‘Buck Rogers’ and ‘Tarzan’ first appeared. The yoyo was introduced and they had the first Academy Awards in 1929 with the best picture award going to ‘Wings.’ The L.A. City Hall opened … We had the Wall Street crash on Black Thursday, Oct. 23. That was followed by Black Tuesday, Oct. 28. The market crash triggers the Depression.”

L.A. Junior College and Los Angeles International Airport opened during this time, he added.

Tenorio introduced his wife, Sue Sato-Tenorio, granddaughter of Dr. Ai Otani (1873-1953), who practiced at the Japanese Hospital, and Toyojiro Otani (1860-1931).

Sato-Tenorio said that her grandmother graduated from a medical college in Tokyo and worked at the hospital in the 1930s. “ She also saw patients in our home, and we lived at 118 S. Soto St. Our first bedroom was where she practiced occasionally because many times during those times, they didn’t serve Asians. So our first bedroom became part of her practice as well as the Japanese Hospital … She was very helpful because she spoke the language (Japanese). The patients didn’t speak the language (English), they didn’t feel comfortable. So that (assistance) led to their wellness and to their health …

“My sister was a candy striper there. I remember those times they would wear the little stripes. My mom, I remember, had her appendix out and she was in the hospital 10 days. That’s very long by our standards now … At the time they did not allow children to visit … but there was a fire escape. So my dad would bring me up the fire escape and I waved to my mom while she was still recovering from the appendix operation, and that was our visiting hours. So my brother and I would do that. My brother is in the audience today.”

Sato-Tenorio learned from her mother what an extraordinary woman Dr. Otani was. “She had to be licensed as a midwife because she could not practice until she was licensed at that time. They did have interpreters, so she finally did get her medical license with an interpreter helping her along the way. I saw some of her notes and they’re all in Japanese … I just really admire all of that. You needed to pass the test to become a doctor and practice at the Japanese Hospital. So we were very, very fortunate to have her in our lives.”

During the wartime incarceration, Dr. Otani was in ill health. “She was diabetic, so she did not fare well in the camps. So when she came out, she couldn’t practice anymore. However, she tried to do as much as she could … We were able to come back to that home and she was able to live there peacefully until 1953, when she passed. I was nine years old at the time … We were surprised at the outpouring of support and the people who came to her funeral services because she had impacted the community so much … Dr. Ai Otani was certainly a remarkable woman. We sit on her shoulders today as a strong woman of color who followed her dreams.:

Supreme Court Case

Kristen Hayashi, a board member of LTHS, a staff member at the Japanese American National Museum, and a member of the Japanese Hospital 90th Anniversary Planning Committee, discussed recent efforts to have the significance of the hospital officially recognized.

Kristen Hayashi of LTHS shows a smaller version of the historical landmark sign that will be placed in front of the hospital site. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

“I’ve been researching the hospital since 2013,” she said. “It started as a grad school class project and I thought I could wrap up the history in a quarter. Six years later, I’m still actively researching and learning so much about the history of the hospital still today … I know it’s special to all of you because so many of you have a connection. You were born there, you had your appendix, your tonsils removed there, and that’s special. But the building itself has this really extraordinary story that I’d like to tell you …

“Japanese and other ethnic groups in early-20th-century Los Angeles didn’t have the same access to healthcare. You had midwives or maybe you had some traveling doctors that would make house visits. When somebody was sick or when a woman was in labor, they didn’t really have an adequate hospital to serve the entire community … The Japanese community was growing at a substantial pace, so there was this need for a hospital or better healthcare …

“Turner Street Hospital, which was in Little Tokyo … opened in 1913 and it was mostly a maternity ward, but they did provide medical treatment for other types of conditions … It didn’t have the types of surgical facilities that were needed, especially during 1918 and the influenza epidemic that that took its toll worldwide.”

Hayashi told the story of Dr. Kikuwo Tashiro, one of the founders of the Japanese Hospital. “He immigrated from Japan here to the United States. He studied medicine in Japan. And then when he came here, he took the California medical exams and he passed them. But due to discriminatory employment practices, he wasn’t able to find employment at a mainstream hospital. So he had an office in little Tokyo, and then he also made a lot of house calls … About 1926, five Issei doctors, including Dr. Tashiro, decided that they wanted to establish a hospital … So they applied for incorporation.

“The California secretary of state challenges their application, saying that they were aliens ineligible for citizenship and because of the Alien Land Law, they were not able to lease land to build this hospital. They were immigrants without the same rights as citizens, but Dr. Tashiro and the other doctors … challenged this by taking it to the California State Supreme Court (which) ruled in favor of the doctors. (The other founding doctors were Daishiro Kuroiwa, Fusataro Nayaka, Toru Ozasa and Matsuta Takahashi.)

“There was this treaty in 1911 between the United States and Japan, and it basically outlined the rights of Japanese nationals, their rights here in the United States. The language was pretty vague, so both sides used this language in their favor. For the doctors, Sei Fujii, who was a civil rights leader of the Japanese American community … and also Marion Wright, another attorney who represented the doctors … used the vagueness of the language and this treaty to say that it was so vague, it didn’t really restrict Japanese national students from doing certain things.

“Essentially, the treaty said that Japanese nationals could… do commercial things in order to further trade. And so they said medical services was a way to further trade, so the California State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Japanese doctors. California Secretary of State Frank M. Jordan didn’t like the ruling, so he challenged it and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1928 and that was Jordan vs. Tashiro …

“The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the doctors. They upheld the lower court’s ruling and said that the doctors could build this hospital, which was a huge victory. The court cases made headlines in a variety of papers, mainstream newspapers, also in The Rafu Shimpo …

“This is on the eve of the Depression. They were going to try to raise money from the community. What I still haven’t been able to determine is .. if they did actually purchase property or if they were leasing the property.”

The groundbreaking was held in June 1929 and the hospital, with a Streamline Moderne design by Issei architect Yos Hirose, opened six months later. Hirose also designed portions of Tenrikyo in Boyle Heights and Koyasan in Little Tokyo, as well as a school building at the Poston camp in Arizona.

The hospital included a surgical room with state-of-the-art facilities and a sunroom where people with tuberculosis or pneumonia could recover.

During World War II, “the doctors of the Japanese Hospital made an arrangement with White Memorial Hospital, also in Boyle Heights, and White Memorial used Japanese Hospital as a maternity ward … Then the hospital reopened in March of 1946 and White Memorial gave the hospital back to the doctors,” Hayashi said.

She noted that the care provided at Japanese Hospital was so well-regarded that many non-Japanese mothers also gave birth there.

“The trustees of the hospital decided in 1961 that they would sell the hospital, so in 1966 that’s when the hospital was sold,” Hayashi said, adding that the building is now known as Infinity Care of East Los Angeles, which provides convalescent care.

Ben Hashiba was one of many attendees who had personal connections to the Japanese Hospital.

Historical Preservation

Out of over 1,100 historical-cultural monuments in Los Angeles, the LTHS has identified only seven that relate to the Japanese American experience: Manzanar, the former Union Church and Nishi Hongwanji buildings, the Oyama Tree (representing the original Koyasan site), the Tuna Canyon Detention Station site, and Holiday Bowl and the Hauerwaas-Kusayanagi residence in the Crenshaw area. LTHS was able to get the Japanese Hospital added to the list.

LTHS also saw a need to add more Japanese American sites to the National Register of Historic Places. “There are more than 1.7 million individual buildings and sites on the national register …. Less than 8 percent of that number represents African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, native people, and women,” Hayashi said. “So there’s a huge disparity there. We submitted a nomination (for Japanese Hospital) to the national register and it was determined ineligible. It would’ve gone through except the owner has been in opposition to our efforts …

“If the owner changes her mind or if new ownership ever comes to the Japanese Hospital, then it will actually be on the National Register of Historic Places.”

As a result of LTHS’ work with the Department of Transportation and with City Councilmember Jose Huizar’s office, a city sign will be placed on the streetlight right outside of the Japanese Hospital site on Fickett Street.

Hayashi showed a small facsimile of the sign and announced that a small dedication ceremony will be held on Jan. 4 after a LTHS meeting, and the public is invited.

Okamura said that LTHS is still collecting artifacts related to the hospital. One such item is a stock certificate issued in 1950 to photographer Toyo Miyatake, provided by grandson Alan Miyatake. Everyone in attendance was asked to fill out a form describing their connection to the hospital. Any photos or documents will be scanned.

From left: Laani Gazeley, daughter of Dr. Kikuwo Tashiro’s daughter Sachiko Tashiro Watanabe; Cookie Tashiro Atsumi, Dr. Tashiro’s only surviving daughter; Jon Kaji, son of Dr. Tashiro’s daughter Frances Tashiro Kaji. (Photo by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

Family members of Dr. Tashiro were introduced, including Cookie Tashiro Atsumi, the only surviving daughter; Laani Gazeley, whose mother was Dr. Tashiro’s daughter Sachiko Tashiro Watanabe; Jon Kaji, whose mother was Dr. Tashiro’s daughter Frances Tashiro Kaji (his brother Dr. Troy Kaji, who has done extensive research on the hospital, was unable to attend); Denise Wallace and Carolyn Lee, Atsumi’s daughters; Louise Tsukahara, daughter of Dr. Tashiro’s daughter Akiko; and Dr. Tashiro’s great-grandchildren.\

Other speakers included Vivian Escalante of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council.

After the cutting of a 90th birthday cake for the hospital and the singing of “Happy Birthday,” a microphone was circulated, giving those with connections to the hospital an opportunity to tell their stories.

Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo (except where noted)

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