Japanese Hospital: Keeping the Community Healthy

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The Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights opened its doors in 1929. (Courtesy of Little Tokyo Historical Society)

Beginning in the late 19th century, boosters of Los Angeles touted the region’s sunshine and mild climate as a place for health-seekers. Yet residents of ethnic enclaves in Los Angeles were often denied access to health care at mainstream hospitals.

Japanese and other recent immigrant groups depended on itinerant midwives for assistance with childbirth and traveling physicians to make house calls to treat serious illnesses. By the 1910s, the increase in birth rate that resulted from the arrival of scores of picture brides from Japan, along with the detrimental effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic, demonstrated the need for more substantive medical care.

By the 1920s, Japanese Angelenos determined that a larger, more state-of-the art hospital, in addition to Turner Street Hospital, was needed to serve their burgeoning community of young immigrant families. As a result, in 1926, Dr. Kikuwo Tashiro and four other immigrant Japanese doctors submitted an application to incorporate the Japanese Hospital on property they acquired at Fickett Street in Boyle Heights. Members of the Japanese community began to contribute money for construction of the hospital facility.

However, California Secretary of State Frank C. Jordan denied the application for incorporation on the supposition that the immigrant doctors violated the Alien Land Law, which was legislation that placed severe limits on the actions of “aliens ineligible for citizenship.”

The physicians contested the decision under the legal counsel of USC Law School graduates J. Marion Wright and Sei Fujii, causing the case to go to the California State Supreme Court. The legal team representing the Japanese doctors cited the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between the U.S. and Japan as being broad enough to encompass the purpose of the hospital. The California Supreme Court agreed with this interpretation and sided with the doctors.

The building on Fickett Street now houses Infinity Care of East Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Little Tokyo Historical Society)

Jordan appealed the ruling, and in October of 1928, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case. Chief Justice William Howard Taft was quite familiar with the 1911 treaty since it was enacted while he was president of the United States. A month later, the high court validated the lower court’s ruling. The State of California recognized the incorporation of the Japanese Hospital a few months later on Feb. 2, 1929.

With the incorporation papers filed, Issei architect Yos Hirose began to implement his Streamline Modern design for the hospital with the $129,000 that the community raised. Hirose studied architecture in Illinois before he designed Koyasan Buddhist Temple (1940) in Little Tokyo as well as Tenrikyo Church (1937), which was just down the street from his residence in Boyle Heights.

On Dec. 1, 1929, the 42-bed facility opened to the community, signaling hope amidst the dismal economic conditions that resulted from the recent Stock Market Crash. Given that many local hospitals limited services to Japanese and other ethnic groups, the founding doctors vowed that the Japanese Hospital would be a bastion of health care for all.

The Japanese Hospital was a source of pride for the community, which is reflected in the architecture, accessible layout, and state-of-the art facilities. The flat roof, the wavy edge that runs along the top of the second story, and the incised grooves surrounding the main doorway are characteristic of the Streamline Moderne style.

Kristen Hayashi and Michael Okamura of LTHS testified before the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission about the Japanese Hospital’s historical significance. (Courtesy of Little Tokyo Historical Society)

The design of the Japanese Hospital contrasted significantly to the intimidating design of nearby County General Hospital. Whether it was a conscious decision or not, the design of the Japanese Hospital was far more welcoming than County General Hospital since it was just two stories tall with long, straight hallways and an unpretentious entrance. This is symbolic of the Japanese Hospital’s intention to keep the needs of the community at heart by privileging accessibility.

Incorporation proved to be important during World War II when Executive Order 9066 caused persons of Japanese ancestry to be forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast. Incorporation meant that a third party could not seize the hospital. The doctors made an arrangement with nearby White Memorial Hospital to act as a custodian of the building. The Japanese Hospital functioned as a maternity ward during the war.

In 1945, White Memorial returned the facility to the Japanese doctors and it continued to be an important resource for the Japanese American community after it reopened in March 1946.

Despite the end to the war and the closure of the concentration camps, Japanese Americans returned to a tense social climate in Los Angeles. Dr. Sakaye Shigekawa, a Nisei who earned her medical degree from USC, noted, “The hospitals didn’t accept us for employment when we came back here. I couldn’t get any privileges. So we were very fortunate to have a Japanese Hospital.”

In the early postwar period, the hospital continued to serve the needs of the community. When Massie Saisho returned from Manzanar to her home in Boyle Heights, she delivered her first child at the Japanese Hospital. She recalls, “It was the only medical facility I knew growing up and the only place I thought of when it was time to deliver my baby.”

Perhaps one of the most compelling stories of how the hospital served the local community came from Lillian Estrada, a Mexican American mother of two living in East Los Angeles in the early 1950s. After losing a child during a previous pregnancy, she wanted to ensure that this never happened again. A friend suggested that she seek treatment at the Japanese Hospital since it was known for providing quality health care.

Estrada gave birth to her second son, William David Estrada, at the Japanese Hospital in September of 1953. His birth is a testament to the impact of the hospital in Boyle Heights, extending beyond the Japanese community, despite its ethnic-specific name.

By the 1960s, though, it was becoming clear that a larger facility was needed to provide adequate care for the aging Issei. Subsequently, nearby City View Hospital and Keiro Senior Health Care carried on the lineage of health care that originated with the Japanese Hospital. In 1966, the property was sold, ending the period of significance for the Japanese Hospital, although it has continuously operated as a health care facility ever since.

Today, Infinity Care of East Los Angeles occupies the building, continuing to provide health care services to the neighboring community. Although alterations and additions have been made since 1966 and various health care institutions have occupied the building, ultimately the overall look and feel of the original building remains.

A large panoramic photograph of those in attendance at the 1929 opening of the Japanese Hospital remains prominently on display in the lobby as a reminder of the building’s special history.

To see an article about the successful effort to have the Japanese Hospital declared a city historic-cultural monument, click here.

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