Former Japanese Hospital Named L.A. Historic-Cultural Monument

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The site of the Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights still stands today. (Courtesy Little Tokyo Historical Society)

In November 2016, the former Japanese Hospital, located at 101 S. Fickett St. in Boyle Heights, became one of Los Angeles’ newest historic-cultural monuments (HCM).

Members of the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS) recognized the significance of the Japanese Hospital and spearheaded a multi-year project to obtain the formal designation from the City of Los Angeles. Their efforts resulted in full support from the Cultural Heritage Commission, the Planning and Land Use Committee (PLUM), Los Angeles City Council, and Mayor Eric Garcetti, validating the importance of the site.

Unlike many other prominent buildings in Los Angeles, the architecture is not what makes the site noteworthy. Rather, it’s the story behind the building that gives the Japanese Hospital its significance.

The Cultural Heritage Commission and members of the City Council acknowledged this. At a PLUM committee meeting in November, Councilmembers Jose Huizar and Gil Cedillo took the time amidst a full agenda to reminisce about growing up in Boyle Heights and acknowledge the importance of designating buildings, such as the Japanese Hospital, that had such a profound impact on the local community.

As a result, the Japanese Hospital was designated HCM #1131 and the seventh Los Angeles City HCM to represent the Japanese American experience. Tuna Canyon Detention Center and Manzanar War Relocation Center are two sites that represent the incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

The other four reflect community life. The original Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple on Central Avenue, the former Union Church, and the Aoyama Tree (original site of Koyasan Buddhist Temple) reflect Japanese American faith, while the now-gone Holiday Bowl building in the Crenshaw District represents the once popular social and recreational gathering spot for Japanese Americans.

The Rafu Shimpo’s 1938 directory lists the Japanese Hospital, which opened in 1929. (Courtesy Little Tokyo Historical Society)

The Japanese Hospital makes a unique contribution to this list by illuminating the success of five Issei doctors who successfully challenged discriminatory legislation to establish a health care institution that would improve the lives of members of the community. The Japanese Hospital is a seemingly ordinary building with an extraordinary human story to tell. It illuminates the Japanese American community’s attempt to create a health care facility as a means to combat racial discrimination in early 20th-century Los Angeles.

The Japanese Hospital was accessible to the surrounding community, primarily to other ethnic groups that faced the same challenges in receiving adequate health care. The clientele of the hospital reflected the diverse makeup of Boyle Heights, causing the Japanese Hospital to build a reputation for providing egalitarian and exceptional care — a legacy that has continued to the present.

Understanding the impact that the hospital had both within and beyond the Japanese community was particularly poignant to LTHS member Kristen Hayashi, who authored the HCM application. As a Ph.D. candidate in history currently working on a dissertation, she spends considerable time in archives, poring over documents to piece together the past. While this was her approach for researching and writing the nomination, she has been incredibly moved by the continuous discovery of how many lives have been impacted by the hospital.

Countless individuals have revealed that they were born at the hospital, had their appendix removed, or were inspired to go into the medical profession after receiving care from doctors and nurses at the Japanese Hospital.

Supporters of historic-cultural monument status for the Japanese Hospital attended various committee, commission and council meetings at Los Angeles City Hall. Front row, from left: Michelle Magalong, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historical Preservation; Mike Okamura, Kristen Hayashi, Kathryn Bannai, Robert Miura and Cindy Abrams, LTHS. Back row, from left: Ken Bernstein, Office of Historic Resources; Victoria Torres (partially hidden), Boyle Heights Historical Society; Mark Robbins, formerly of Japanese American National Museum; Jeff Chop and Yuko Gabe, LTHS; Arthur Torres, BHHS. (Courtesy Little Tokyo Historical Society)

“This project has reinforced the importance of public history, historic preservation, and the need for formal recognition of the sites and buildings that have meaning for our community,” Hayashi said. “The Japanese Hospital represents a triumph over discriminatory legislation that Angelenos can point to today and be proud of. Yet, there are so many other buildings and sites that are deserving of HCM status to recognize the long history and contributions of the Japanese American community. I hope the Japanese Hospital will serve as a precedent for the seemingly ordinary and everyday buildings that hold tremendous meaning for our community.”

LTHS President Michael Okamura expressed his appreciation by saying, “LTHS is grateful to the numerous community, individuals, and historic preservation supporters who were with us for the past three years on the journey to secure HCM designation for the Japanese Hospital building. The powerful story of the hospital is largely forgotten or unknown and now with the new HCM#1131 designation, LTHS intends to actively promote the importance of the building to the Japanese American and Boyle Heights communities.”

In underscoring the importance of the Japanese Hospital and the HCM designation, LTHS board member Bill Watanabe suggested, “Health care for all is a basic human right and a civil society that cares about its citizens should provide such services to assist people in their individual pursuit of happiness. Our Issei pioneers did great work to build the Japanese Hospital and we need to let all succeeding generations remember this great story of perseverance and community spirit.”

The LTHS is currently planning a plaque dedication ceremony to commemorate the HCM designation.

LTHS was established in 2006 as an all-volunteer nonprofit organization composed of members and friends who have a keen interest in researching and discovering the historical resources, stories, and connection of sites, buildings and events related to Little Tokyo as an ethnic heritage neighborhood. For information on donating to the Japanese Hospital HCM plaque and LTHS more generally, www.littletokyohs.org/.

To see an article on the history of the Japanese Hospital, click here.

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