Hospital a Pillar to Japanese Americans

In retrospect, it was a silent precursor to one of the darkest episodes in U.S. history.

For decades, before racial prejudice and wartime hysteria resulted in the shameful internment of Japanese Americans, physicians and patients of Japanese descent were the victims of routine--and often deadly--discrimination by Los Angeles' hospitals and medical professionals.

Not only were Japanese-born doctors barred from staff privileges at local hospitals, but Japanese American patients were sometimes denied even the most rudimentary health care by the city's white medical establishment.

One of the group's responses to this discrimination was the Turner Street Hospital, an institution established by and for Japanese Americans. In 1915, Los Angeles' first Japanese American nurse, Mary Akita, opened her small home at Turner and Alameda streets in the shadow of the L.A. Soap Company, just east of Little Tokyo, as a maternity hospital for issei (first generation immigrant) women.

By 1922, Kikuwo Tashiro, a visionary physician who had spent eight years learning English and studying German medical textbooks, arrived in Los Angeles and joined Akita at the tiny hospital.

One year later, Tashiro passed the California state medical exams. Though he was licensed to practice medicine, very few hospitals would give him staff privileges. Sometimes his desperately ill Japanese patients were able to gain admission to hospitals through sympathetic white doctors. Others, unwilling to endure the insults and discrimination that prevailed in the hospital wards of the day, simply went without treatment. As a consequence, the issei suffered a disproportionate number of deaths from influenza and other epidemics.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which ended immigration from Japan, a wave of so-called picture brides flooded into Los Angeles to join the husbands their Japanese families had chosen for them by mail.

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Akita and Tashiro's hospital was taxed to the limit, and the need for a larger facility and more doctors became clear. Tashiro sold stock in a new medical establishment, yet to be built, while other members of the immigrant community held fund-raisers. Tashiro and four other Japanese doctors purchased a piece of property at 1st and Ficket streets in Boyle Heights, with the help of attorney Marion Wright. The property was originally placed in the name of one of the doctors, a Japanese American.

Ready to start building in 1926, Tashiro filed a corporation petition, which was refused by the secretary of state's office on the grounds that "aliens ineligible for citizenship" could not incorporate under a 1911 treaty between Washington and Tokyo.

Tashiro decided to challenge the law.

In 1927, the California Supreme Court upheld his challenge; the state appealed and, one year later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the discriminatory treaty provisions in a landmark decision.

The courts' rulings cleared the path for construction to begin on the new Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights.

In 1929, just months before the stock market crash signaled the onset of the Depression, the gleaming, 42-bed facility opened to much community fanfare and great hope.

In 1935, as anti-Japanese sentiment grew and money got even tighter, Akita's Turner Hospital closed, merging with the Japanese Hospital. Shortly before the merger, a Japanese royal prince and princess came to Los Angeles to honor the hospital trustees for their contributions to the community.

As World War II grew closer, white Angelenos fell into a kind of collective hysteria. Rumors spread that Japanese fruit vendors were telling their customers that they were really generals in the Japanese military, and would soon be taking over the country. Others had Japanese gardeners spiking their employers' home vegetable gardens with arsenic and sending signals to Japanese submarines.

Panic swept the city after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On Feb. 19, 1942, a presidential order was signed, giving Japanese residents five days to pack up and sell personal property before they were rushed off to assembly centers.

Tashiro's and the others' torturous legal odyssey to incorporate then paid off an unexpected dividend: The hospital could not be seized along with many of the other Japanese holdings. So the trustees were able to use the little time available to them to lease their facility to the Seventh-day Adventist Church's White Memorial Hospital, which operated it throughout the war as a maternity hospital.

After the war, in May 1946, operation of the Japanese Hospital reverted to the original trustees. Tashiro, who had spent most of the war years at a Monrovia sanatorium with tuberculosis, returned to help reopen the hospital.

Less than two decades later, the Japanese Hospital moved again, to a modern 53-bed acute care facility on a five-acre hilltop in Lincoln Heights, and changed its name to City View Hospital in 1962.

At first, the facility appealed strongly to older members of the Japanese American community by blending up-to-date medical treatment with the staff's bilingual skills and ability to maintain a traditional cultural ambience. But, over time, the acculturation and increasing affluence of most Japanese Americans diminished the need for such a facility. Its mainly nisei (second generation) doctors and nurses moved closer to retirement and most sansei (third generation) patients found no need for a "Japanese" hospital.

In 1985, the hospital closed. It was later torn down and replaced with a housing development. Some of the remaining City View staff, in fact, use a wing at St. Vincent's Medical Center as a Japanese-language ward.

The former Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights still stands. Today, it is called East Los Angeles Convalescent Hospital and cares for patients of all races. In that sense, it is one of the city's silent monuments to the triumph of courage, fortitude and principle over ignorance, hysteria and hatred.

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