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Former LA hospital—once a lifeline for Japanese Americans—is up for landmark status

Its history remains vital to LA’s Japanese-American history and community

This article was updated 8:40 a.m. October 13.

The boxy white building a few blocks east of First and Soto streets in Boyle Heights doesn't look like anything special. But looks can be deceiving. In the 1930s, it was the Japanese Hospital, one of the only places in Los Angeles where Japanese Americans could go for medical treatment.

More than seven decades later, city officials are discussing the hospital’s critical role in saving an untold number of Japanese American lives. The Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote later this month on whether to grant the building landmark status.

“The Japanese Hospital is significant not only for the extraordinary story that characterizes its establishment, but also as a reminder of the integral role that immigrants, ethnic minorities, and ordinary individuals—particularly from the Asian American community—have played in shaping Los Angeles’s urban landscape,” the city’s office of historic resources wrote in recommending the building as a Cultural-Historical Monument.

Before Japanese Hospital, many ill Japanese Americans were often turned away from major hospitals, according to KPCC. Many were forced to suffer without treatment, according to the Los Angeles Times, leading to “a disproportionate number of deaths from influenza and other epidemics.”

The hospital’s nomination application says that, at the time, public health officials made a strong connection between immigrants and disease. They failed to recognize that the unhealthy conditions in which immigrant communities often lived and the subpar health services they received left them vulnerable to illness, and, devastatingly, health officials decided that some immigrants would get access to the same health care that other Angelenos received, and some would not.

“[P]ublic health officials deemed Chinese and Japanese as being the least assimilable of all the ‘foreigners.’ This provided the justification for public health officials to deny Chinese and Japanese from receiving public health services,” the application says.

It wasn’t just patients who endured discrimination. The Japanese American physicians who founded the hospital had to win a landmark anti-discrimination lawsuit before opening the 46 bed-hospital in 1929 in Boyle Heights (which, along with Little Tokyo, is where the Japanese community was centered).

The Secretary of State had denied their application when they had first tried to incorporate the business.

His reasoning? These immigrant doctors were violating the Alien Land Law, which forbid people who were ineligible for citizenship from owning property.

Undaunted, the doctors took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices ruled in their favor in 1928.

Eventually the need for a hospital devoted to Japanese patients waned, and the hospital shut its doors. It’s now in use as a nursing home, says the LA Conservancy.

But its history remains vital to LA’s Japanese-American history and community.

Of the city’s more than 1,000 Historic-Cultural Landmarks, only five are directly representative of LA’s Japanese Americans, and two of those five are linked to WWII internment, Little Tokyo Historical Society Kristen Hayashi board member told KPCC. “The internment experience had a major impact on the community but it shouldn't be what solely defines Japanese Americans,” Hayashi said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Los Angeles City Council has landmarked the Japanese Hospital. The council voted October 11 to extend the timeline for hearing the case. It is expected to decide whether to award landmark status by the end of October.