The Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles
by Kristen Hayashi, Ph.D.
The former Japanese Hospital building, located at 1st and Fickett Streets in Boyle Heights, reflects the local Japanese American community’s determination to ensure that immigrant and American-born Japanese had access to adequate health care. While the hospital is a tangible reminder of the discriminatory legislation that Japanese immigrants were forced to navigate in the early twentieth century, it equally symbolizes a significant civil rights victory in Los Angeles’ history.
Discrimination and the Need for the Japanese Hospital
Beginning in the 1880s, recruiters actively encouraged Japanese laborers to immigrate to the United States to meet the growing demand for an industrial and agricultural workforce. Like the Chinese workers who preceded them, Japanese laborers were viewed as a temporary workforce and exempted from citizenship and naturalization due to their race. Unsatisfied, nativists who intended to “Keep California White” continued to lobby elected officials in California and other western states to pass further restrictions on Japanese immigration. In 1907, Japan and the U.S. signed the “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which halted further immigration of laborers from Japan to the U.S.
In addition to the limitations on immigration, subsequent legislation was passed in California that aimed to constrain the economic mobility of Japanese immigrants who had already settled in the United States. In 1913, the California legislature passed the first iteration of the Alien Land Law, which prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” (Chinese and Japanese immigrants) from owning and, in some cases, leasing land. To circumvent this restriction, many Issei (first generation immigrants from Japan) purchased property in their Nisei (second generation, American-born) children’s names. But, recognizing this loophole in the legislation, an additional amendment was added in 1923 that limited the rights of Nisei children from holding land in trust for an alien parent. The restrictions became even more stringent with subsequent iterations of the Alien Land Law in the 1920s. This exclusionary policy was intentionally designed to undermine the predominance of Asian immigrants in the agricultural industry as well as their abilities to compete as proprietors of small businesses.
These exclusionary policies seeped into other aspects of daily life as well, including healthcare. Public health officials associated disease with recent immigrants and certain ethnic groups, using race to determine how to administer public health programs.1 Viewed as the least assimilable amongst immigrant groups, Japanese immigrants were excluded from Americanization programs and other public health programs offered to recent immigrants in Los Angeles. Owed to housing discrimination and restrictive racial covenants, the Japanese population in Los Angeles was largely confined to the Little Tokyo district downtown and to nearby Boyle Heights and, in turn, xenophobic and racist rhetoric provided the justification to deny residents of those neighborhoods access to mainstream healthcare. Ultimately, key civic leaders viewed immigrant communities as a hindrance to Los Angeles becoming a “modern city.”
In 1913, several Japanese medical professionals established a facility known as Turner Street Hospital in Little Tokyo, which later came to be known as the Southern California Japanese Hospital. Midwife Mary Akita, the first Japanese American nurse in Los Angeles, was integral to the operations of the hospital. Akita recognized the urgent need for a maternity ward as picture brides arrived in the city and Japanese immigrant families continued to grow. Itinerant Japanese midwives assisted with childbirth, and traveling physicians provided treatment of serious illness for Japanese immigrants and their children since they were often denied access to most area hospitals. Although the hospital was an important resource, the growth of the Japanese American community, along with the devastating impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic signified the need for more substantive medical care.
Navigating Obstacles to Establish the Hospital
In 1926, five immigrant Japanese doctors decided that a larger hospital with state-of-the art surgical facilities would help to address the critical need for care in the community. On behalf of his colleagues, Dr. Kikuwo Tashiro filed an application to incorporate the Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles. California Secretary of State Frank C. Jordan denied the physician’s request on the grounds that the application conflicted with a 1911 treaty between the United States and Japan, which intended to outline permissible activities for Japanese nationals in the United States, as well as the Alien Land Law of California, which had been made even more stringent.2
Despite not having the rights and protections of U.S. citizens, the immigrant doctors utilized the legal system to challenge the California Secretary of State’s decision as well as the dejure discrimination that intended to hinder their social mobility. In 1927, just five years after he immigrated to the United States, Dr. Tashiro became the plaintiff in the California State Supreme Court case, which challenged the laws that prevented the establishment of the Japanese Hospital. A year later, his case went before the U.S. Supreme Court. While the California Secretary of State argued that the 1911 treaty did not permit the doctors to incorporate and lease land, the legal counsel representing the doctors provided a counterargument suggesting that, since the language in the treaty was so vague, it gave Japanese nationals leeway to conduct any activities that furthered trade. The doctors prevailed after the US Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.3
The community rallied behind the cause, raising over $100,000 on the eve of the Great Depression to construct the hospital. Issei architect Yoshisaku Hirose designed the two-story hospital building in the Streamline Moderne style, which gave it a modern, state-of-the-art look.4 The majority of Hirose’s architectural work was rooted in Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo, in close proximity to where he lived and socialized. Hirose designed (the current) Koyasan Buddhist Temple on 1st Street in Little Tokyo. In 1937, he designed several of the buildings that comprise Tenrikyo Junior Church of America at 2727 East First Street, located less than two blocks from the Japanese Hospital and his residence on Gleason Avenue in Boyle Heights.
The Japanese Hospital opened on December 1, 1929, signaling hope for the community. The modest exterior of the building, highly sensitive to the economic climate of the time, also suggested that a significant portion of the money designated for the construction of the hospital was spent on the interior spaces. Despite the dismal economic conditions, the hospital remained open throughout the Great Depression.
World War II Incarceration and Postwar Role in Community
On February 19, 1942, just weeks after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066, which established a military zone along the Pacific Coast and determined that the military could exclude anyone it deemed necessary. Shortly thereafter, posters went up in Japanese American neighborhoods within the military zone without substantial information about impending removal nor any indication where they would be going or for how long. With little notice, Japanese families had little choice but to liquidate their assets and make hasty decisions about their businesses prior to their forced removal from the West Coast. In total, 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry—Issei immigrants and their American-born children— were incarcerated without due process between 1942 and 1945, sent first to temporary detention centers before being dispersed among the ten sites that comprised America’s concentration camps.
Anticipating removal, leaders of the Japanese Hospital quickly made arrangements with nearby Seventh-day Adventist White Memorial Hospital for the duration of the war. Dr. Tashiro’s legal victory proved crucial. Since the Japanese Hospital had succeeded in establishing a corporation and purchasing the property, they were able to lease the facility to White Memorial, rather than having to sell it off. The building served as a maternity hospital for the duration of the war. In March 1946, as Japanese Americans began returning to Los Angeles, the facility reopened as the Japanese Hospital.
The Japanese Hospital not only remained a lifeline for returning Japanese Americans in need of medical care, but it also provided employment for Nisei medical professionals who continued to face discrimination and prejudice into the postwar period. Yet, despite its ethnic-specific name, the Japanese Hospital also developed a reputation among other racial and ethnic groups within the area for providing exceptional care. Many of the neighborhood’s Mexican American residents sought health care there, too. Doctors and nurses revealed that no one was turned away from treatment at the Japanese Hospital.
Over the next couple of decades, administrators at the Japanese Hospital recognized an increasing number of Issei elders who required long-term care. The differing needs of the local Japanese American community in the postwar period also partly reflected the shifting population concentrations from the greater Little Tokyo area and nearby Boyle Heights to suburbs in the South Bay, as well as in the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys. Given the escalating cost of upgrading their original facility, the trustees of the Japanese Hospital decided to develop a larger, more modern site in neighboring Lincoln Heights, which became known as City View Hospital. Around the same time, leaders of the Japanese American community established Keiro Senior Healthcare to meet the needs of the aging Issei population. Keiro was intended to be a “culturally-sensitive environment with familiar language, food, and values—a place for seniors in their twilight years to call home.”5 Over the next twenty years, Keiro moved toward senior care, establishing nursing homes, an intermediate care facility, and a retirement home in Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights—all offshoots of City View Hospital.
The leadership of the Japanese Hospital sold the original building in 1966. Despite the change in ownership, the Japanese Hospital building has continuously operated as a healthcare facility.
Historic Preservation Efforts
In 2016, the Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS) submitted a nomination for a City of Los Angeles historic cultural monument designation as a way to recognize the significance of the Japanese Hospital. The site was designated as City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #1131.6 In 2019, the Little Tokyo Historical Society submitted a National Register nomination for the hospital given the national significance of the U.S. Supreme Court case.7 Due to the owner’s opposition to the nomination, the Japanese Hospital was determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. A few months later on December 1, 2019, the LTHS hosted an event to commemorate the landmark designations as well as the 90th anniversary of the opening of the hospital. The majority of attendees had a direct connection to the Japanese Hospital as a result of being born there or receiving medical treatment there. This event, along with additional public programs and media coverage, capturing the history of the Japanese Hospital have inspired individuals with connections to the Japanese Hospital to share their stories with the LTHS.
Although institutional records for the Japanese Hospital appear to no longer exist, the widespread impact of the hospital continues to become better known through the stories that members of the community have shared. While the hospital remains hidden in plain sight, the LTHS felt that a street sign would help to pique interest in the history hinged to the building. In January 2020, the LTHS dedicated a sign that reads: “Immigrant Japanese doctors prevailed in 1928 US Supreme Court case.” For the LTHS members, it was important to underscore the courage of immigrants to challenge the dejure and defacto discrimination they faced. The historic landmark designation and signage assert that this place matters since it represents a civil rights victory that all Angelenos can point to and be proud of.
To learn more about the Little Tokyo Historical Society's ongoing campaign to preserve the Japanese Hospital, click here.
1 Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 11. Molina argues that race shaped the city’s public health policies and determined the accessibility of health services to various communities. She describes a racial hierarchy that public health officials used to determine whether public health services would be extended to the city’s Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese populations.
2 “Treaty of Commerce and Navigation Between the United States and Japan,” The American Journal of International Law 5, 2, Supplement: Official Documents (April 1911): 100.
3 Tashiro v. Jordan, 256 P. 545, Supreme Court of California, 1927. Westlaw Next 201 Cal 236. Jordan v. K. Tashiro, 49 S.Ct.47, Supreme Court of the United States, 1928. Westlaw Next 278 U.S. 123.
4 In 1903, Yoshisaku “Yos” Hirose left Nagasaki, Japan, his birthplace and home of twenty-one years to immigrate to the United States. From 1911 to 1915, Hirose attended the Armor Institute of Technology in Illinois. Soon after earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture, he migrated to Los Angeles where he began working as an architect, draftsman, and engineer. He established his office in the Pico-Union neighborhood and resided across town in Boyle Heights. In addition to the buildings in Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo that Hirose designed before the war, he also designed the school at the Poston concentration camp where he was incarcerated during World War II.
5 Keiro Senior HealthCare, Fifty Years, 50 Stories Celebrating All Things Keiro (Los Angeles, 2011), 76.
6 Kristen Hayashi, City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument Nomination for the Japanese Hospital, 2016.
7 Kristen Hayashi, National Parks Service National Register Nomination for the Japanese Hospital, 2019.
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This page references:
- Japanese Railroad Workers
- The Japanese Hospital, 1929
- Nurses at the Southern California Japanese Hospital on Turner Street [n.d.]
- Keiro founders, 1960s
- Japanese Hospital of Los Angeles on First and Fickett Streets
- Preserving the Japanese Hospital's Historic-Cultural Legacy
- "Keep the Japanese Out of California!"
- Dr. Kikuo Tashiro, 1918
- Unveiling the Historic Cultural Landmark
- The Japanese Hospital, 2019