Mary Yone Akita

Nurse Leader and Public Health Organizer

Mary Yone Akita was born presumably in Los Angeles, California in 1898. She is widely known for opening her personal home in the 1910’s into a maternity hospital for issei (first generation Japanese) women. Akita as one of the earliest Japanese American nurses in the United Stated, provided a well needed service, as many Japanese in the U.S. faced racial discrimination and anti-immigration tensions.

Photo sourced from Jame E. Arsenault & Company

The arrival of Japanese individuals to the U.S. in the early 20th century posed an “economic and imperial threat.” Consequently, Japanese healthcare providers such as physicians faced challenges seeking employment and staff privileges at Los Angeles hospitals. Fortunately, during the early 1900’s, midwifery faced minimal regulations in the West, in comparison to the attack on Black midwives in the South. Akita’s hospital and Japanese midwives’ efforts went largely under the radar of government concern and thrived. Akita along with physician Jyuhei Tanaka, managed the hospital. In response to the influenza epidemic of 1918, limited staffing opportunities for Japanese physicians, and the increasingly exclusionary medical care encountered by Japanese throughout the West, Akita’s hospital was transformed into a larger hospital, the Japanese Hospital of Southern California. The collaboration between Japanese midwives known as sanbas, Akita, and physicians the hospital sought to improve accessibility to care for Japanese individuals. While a visionary effort, the hospital faced immense challenges with funding and issues related to land ownership due to legislation that made it difficult for Japanese citizens to own land.

The approach of World War II, enacted mass hysteria from White citizens toward Japanese and arguably anyone of Asian descent. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942 was a catalyst for what came to be an atrocious treatment of Japanese citizens, internment camps. Under the president of Franklin D. Roosevelt, all people of Japanese descent were isolated in internment camps, “relocation centers” between 1942–1945 as they were deemed a threat to national security. Forced to leave their homes and properties to live in army style barracks, Japanese faced a plethora of dehumanizing conditions such as poor housing and inadequate medical care.

Akita was among the Japanese health professionals isolated on these camps. She maintained a personal diary documenting her experience and activities while interned at the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Being that the U.S. neglected the health of the individuals in these camps physicians and nurse like Akita continued to work and provide medical care often traveling to other camps. Often working long hours and late into the night, Akita documents not only the deplorable conditions of the camps by physical and psychological impact such a double duty has on her. In one entry she notes “Sick to stomach from worry. No appetite.”

Diary of Mary Yone Akita documenting her experience as an interned Japanese-American nurse. Sourced from Photo sourced from Jame E. Arsenault & Company.

After the end of the World War II, it is stated the Akita lived in Cincinnati with her husband. Akita’s legacy and perseverance to ensure care for Japanese individuals primarily in the West, but eventually nationwide speaks to immense value and contributions of nurses who deserve to have their story told. Despite the intentional mistreatment and exclusion, Akita is a pioneer in American nursing, public health, and healthcare.

Further Reading:

Japanese American Midwives : Culture, Community, and Health Politics, 1880–1950 by Susan L. Smith

“Untold Stories of Issei Women: Collective Images and Individual Experiences in Japanese American Oral Historyby Ryoko Okamura

Dissertation from Rebecca Ann Coffin, Nursing in Japanese American Incarceration Camps, 1942–1945

Learn about the Japanese Hospital here

To support Asian Americans for Equality, click here.

Sources

We sourced information for the story above from Japanese American Midwives : Culture, Community, and Health Politics Chapter 3, 1880–1950 Chapter, James E. Arsenault & Company, and Los Angeles Times

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