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Former Japanese Hospital could become LA's newest monument

The Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles at its opening.
The Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles at its opening.
The Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles at its opening.
A more recent shot of the Japanese Hospital in Boyle Heights.


UPDATE: On Nov. 1, the L.A. City Council voted 13-0 (with 2 abstentions) to approve the former Japanese Hospital building as a city Historic-Cultural Monument. 


The two-story building on 1st Street in Boyle Heights doesn't look particularly impressive but it hides an exceptional story behind its cement facade.

For more than 30 years it was the Japanese Hospital, a medical facility designed to serve the city's Japanese American community. Its story stretches all the way to the Supreme Court and a landmark case — which is what it took to get the hospital built.

On Tuesday, November 1, the L.A. City Council will vote on whether the former hospital should be designated a Historic-Cultural Monument.

Of the more than 1,100 such landmarks in Los Angeles, "I could only count five that outwardly reflect the Japanese American experience," says Kristen Hayashi, a board member of the Little Tokyo Historical Society. "And two of the sites represent incarceration during WWII. The internment experience had a major impact on the community but it shouldn't be what solely defines Japanese Americans."

ORIGIN STORY

Quality healthcare wasn't accessible to everyone in the late 19th and early 20th century. Japanese Americans and other ethnic minorities were often turned away from major hospitals, both as patients and as doctors and nurses.

In 1918, the global influenza pandemic struck, killing an estimated 675,000 Americans, six times as many Americans as had died in WWI. Japanese doctors in Southern California decided the community needed a hospital.

In 1926, five local doctors, led by Kikuwo Tashiro, formed a corporation to build and open a hospital.

The California Secretary of State denied their application. His reasoning? These immigrant doctors were violating the Alien Land Law, which forbid people who were ineligible for citizenship from owning property.

This small group of doctors took their case to the California State Supreme Court and won. The state appealed and the case ended up going to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1928, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision and ruled in the doctors' favor. The case of Jordan vs. Tashiro set a precedent.

"This was the de facto end to de jure segregation," Hayashi says — but that doesn't mean discrimination ended. "I don't think there was a law or a rule that said that Japanese and other ethnic minorities were to be turned away from health services. It just kind of happened in practice. Maybe they also felt that they shouldn't go to these medical facilities because they were afraid of being discriminated against."

The doctors incorporated, raised construction funds and in December of 1929, barely a year after the court's ruling, the Japanese Hospital opened.

A COMMUNITY AFFAIR

L.A.'s Japanese Hospital wasn't the only one in California. There were two in Fresno, one in Stockton, one in San Jose and several in Sacramento, according to Dr. Troy Kaji, Kikuwo Tashiro's grandson. It was, however, the most sophisticated of all the Japanese hospitals in the state.

"For the time and era, they were able to deliver cutting edge surgical care," Kaji says.

Kaji's grandfather was one of the top three students of his class at Nagasaki Medical School. After graduating, Tashiro trained at a surgical institute in the town of Fukuoka Later, he accompanied his mentor on a tour of various surgical programs in the U.S., including the Mayo Institute.

"My grandfather was plugged in at a high level to organized medicine in Japan," Kaji says. "So when he came to Los Angeles it was with interesting set of skills and connections. He had, from what I could tell, a vision of recreating the excellence of this program in Fukuoka here in L.A."

The facility, state of the art for its time, served predominantly Japanese Americans but was available to anyone.

Hayashi, who is also working on a PhD in public history at UC Riverside, tells KPCC that she has met several people who are not Japanese American who were either born at the hospital or received treatment there.

"[My grandfather] was known for speaking at a very down-to-earth level with patients. He was known for writing off fees and for his benevolence," Kaji says.

Hayashi says the hospital strove to make healthcare accessible to everyone in the community — even down to its architectural elements.

Unlike another nearby hospital, an intimidating structure located on top of a hill, the Japanese Hospital is only two stories high with a humble entrance and a sprawling layout.

During World War II, when many Japanese Americans were interned in concentration camps, Tashiro leased the hospital to White Memorial Hospital, which ran it as a maternity hospital. He and other Japanese doctors returned to the hospital after the Was. In 1961, the building became a nursing and retirement home.

Unfortunately, Hayashi and other researchers haven't been able to locate the hospital's official records. Most of what we know about it has been pieced together through old newspaper stories, birth announcements and oral histories.

That's partly why preserving the building is so important, Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, tells KPCC:

"The building itself is very important in terms of telling the story. Without that place it's very hard to understand how the Japanese-American community in L.A. was treated and why there was ever even a need for a separate hospital. I think most people wouldn't understand that today. The building exemplifies the really difficult story that used to be a reality for so many people in the city."