Japanese-American Doctors Overcame Internment Setbacks

posted on January 27, 2017

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Poster announcing Executive Order 9066 - 1942

Poster announcing implementation of Executive Order 9066 (detail), May 15, 1942

Ten weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This law, enacted February 19, 1942, authorized the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent and resident aliens from Japan. This measure only affected the American West; the U.S. military was given broad powers to ban any citizen from a fifty- to sixty-mile-wide coastal area stretching from Washington state to California and extending inland into southern Arizona. The order also authorized transporting identified citizens to military-run “internment” camps in California, Arizona, Washington state, and Oregon.

This controversial action was undertaken in the name of national security and affected almost 120,000 men, women, and children. The Order was suspended at the end of 1944 and internees were released, but many had lost their homes, savings, and businesses. Subsequent efforts by community and legal groups in the 1970s resulted in rescinding the Order and offering compensation to those affected, and legislation was passed to try to ensure that such a broad disruption of civil liberties would not happen again.

The impact of the war, and of the suspension of basic human rights, personally affected two of Kaiser Permanente’s first Japanese American physicians. Once hired, they remained here their entire professional careers.


Dr. Isamu "Sam" Nieda

Dr. Isamu Nieda, circa 1955

Isamu Nieda, MD (1918-1999)
Hired as a radiologist at Kaiser Permanente in 1954, retired 1987

Isamu “Sam” Nieda was born in Ashland, Calif. (a small community in the central East Bay of San Francisco) in 1918 to Japanese-born parents. He was an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and then went to medical school at U.C. San Francisco. Partway through his studies he heard the news of Executive Order 9066.

According to Dr. Nieda’s late sister, the family held a meeting with Sam and determined together that he would leave the evacuation area to continue his studies. Family lore stated that he had to sell his microscope to pay for the journey, and that the rest of his family chipped in as well. He then departed for Salt Lake City, where he worked briefly as an orderly, before continuing to Temple University in Philadelphia. The American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) helped Sam through the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council. This program worked with colleges and universities in the Midwest and Eastern States to admit qualified students from the camps, and placed four thousand students before war’s end.

Dr. Isamu "Sam" Nieda

Dr. Isamu Nieda, circa 1975

Dr. Nieda completed medical school in 1944 at Temple University, and after World War II he served as a Venereal Disease Control Officer in Japan, working for the Public Health and Welfare department of the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the American occupation (1945–1952).

Dr. Nieda returned to the U.S. and worked as a radiologist at Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Medical Center for 33 years.

Dr. Nieda always identified as a U.C. student, so it was meaningful to the family when in 2009 UCSF granted honorary degrees to all Japanese American students from the Medical, Dental, and Pharmacological schools who had to stop their studies due to internment. (Sam had passed away ten years prior.)


Planning for Health newsletter 1962-Fall

Dr. Ikuya Kurita, Planning for Health, 1962

Ikuya T. Kurita, MD (1922-2005)
Hired in respiratory medicine at Kaiser Permanente in 1957, retired in 1999.

Ikuya “Eek” Kurita, MD, was born in San Francisco in 1922 to Japanese-born parents. He attended U.C. Berkeley for two years until 1942, when he and his parents were relocated to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. Internees could leave Topaz if they had a job or were admitted to school, so Kurita was able to complete his undergraduate degree at the University of Utah. He then served in the army from 1944 to 1947 and returned to the University of Utah where he graduated from medical school in 1950.

Dr. Kurita worked at Kaiser Permanente hospitals for 42 years, first in Oakland where he began as Chief of Emergency from 1957.

KP Reporter, 1975-06-13

Dr. Ikuya Kurita, KP Reporter, 1975

He was appointed chief of the Department of Emergency Services at the Oakland hospital in 1965, and in 1975 ran the new rehabilitation and educational clinic for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). An article in the KP Reporter described that program:

According to lkuya Kurita. MD., Emergency Department Chief at Oakland, and physician consultant for the Respiratory Care Clinic, the purpose of the program is to bridge the gap between acute hospital care and home management, with primary emphasis on reaching and helping patients before their condition erodes to the point of warranting hospital admission. “The clinic helps to fill the gap between acute care and what is often fragmented care,” says Dr. Kurita, who is a specialist in pulmonary diseases.

Dr. Kurita began working at the Martinez Medical Center in 1977 and retired from there in 1999.


Special thanks to the family of Isamu Nieda, retired Permanente physician Michael Gothelf, Dr. Ken Berniker of the TPMG Retired Physicians’ Association, scholar Elaine Elinson, and video producer Robert M. Horsting for their help with this article.

Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/2kBCMPj


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18 Responses to “Japanese-American Doctors Overcame Internment Setbacks”

  1. Meri Lane says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Isamu Nieda was my father and I appreciate this tribute to his memory and that of all Japanese American internees. At a time when my father had trouble finding work as a physican after WWII due to racial prejudice, Kaiser was willing to hire him. Kaiser deserves great credit for its openness to Japanese Americans at a time when so many other doors remained closed.

  2. Robert Horsting says:

    Hi Lincoln, Many thanks to Kaiser for their progressive stance in hiring based on a person’s qualification rather than their heritage. Thank you for sharing the story of these two men and bringing some attention to the challenges that Japanese Americans faced during the WWII era and for some time after.

  3. Helene Fagan-Hobdy says:

    I LOVED reading these stories of two very brave men. Especially poignant in light of recent events. Thank you Ms. Lane for your Father’s great contributions.

  4. Gregg Kurita says:

    I also want to thank you for this article. Ikuya Kurita was my father and my family and I are very proud of what he was able to achieve in his life. I found this article when performing a search on KP history and I was surprised by the emotion I felt when reading about my father. I am a 33 year KP employee and to this day I still run into people who knew my father. The stories they share bring a smile to my heart. I echo Ms. Lane’s statement of gratitude to KP in the employment of my dad. He truly enjoyed going to work every day and my family and I appreciate all that KP has done for us and the community.

  5. Bacon Sakatani says:

    Thank you very much for the stories of these two men. I was a 12-years-old Japanese American when the war started and sent to a camp in Wyoming. It was quite tough after we were let out 3-years later, but we survived. I hope the U.S. learned something from WWII that it will not happen again to innocent persons. And I am well taken care of by KP.

  6. Sarah-Marie Hall says:

    Thanks for sharing this story of these wonderful doctors & all they accomplished in such trying times. I am glad their families can see how much we appreciate their service, sacrifice & contributions to KP & medicine. Heart warming & inspiring indeed.

  7. Leslie Young says:

    I am proud to be a partner at SCPMG, where the skin color of our providers and members matters not in the care that’s delivered and received.

    If there is ever a time where we can learn something from history, this is it.

  8. Kymberly Ceres says:

    I enjoyed reading this history. Inspiring story during such a shameful period in our country.

  9. Nhung Brandenburg says:

    I enjoyed reading this heart-warming story about 2 very brave and inspirational doctors whose lives highlighted the fact that Kaiser has always been on the forefront of promoting diversity and equality in the workplace. Makes me proud to be a partner with TSPMG.

  10. Randy Kado says:

    Thank you for shedding light on these doctors lives during a dark period of American History. My parents were “interned” in tar paper barracks until my father was asked to sign a loyalty oath which led to his being drafted in the U.S. Army. My mother, 13 years old at the time spent four years in the camp. A difficult time due to war hysteria, prejudice, and failure of leadership finally corrected during the redress movement.

  11. Steven Tanaka, MD says:

    Nice to learn about other Japanese-American MDs and their KP connections from one who is new to KP of WA (2/1/2017) as well a former KP member in Cleveland, OH

  12. Carrie Nakamura says:

    Thank you for acknowledging contributions to Japanese Americans who were interned and were inspirational for health care. It was not a easy time for people not only of Japanese but also of Asian descent. Its important to not forget that our past, especially during this current time of others presenting fears, that we work to promote good health for all.

  13. Gene Nakagawa, PharmD says:

    Mr. Cushing, many thanks for contextualizing the courage of these two young men who refused to quit pursuing their dreams. Dec. 14, 2013 marked the 25th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Reagan, which authorized redress payments and a formal apology to Japanese Americans interned by the U.S. government during World War II. The lessons learned from that time in American history are especially important today.

  14. Thank you for posting this wonderful article highlighting two physicians that persevered despite the challenges to complete their education/residency and achieve their professional goals. I am of both Japanese and African-American descent and I think the timing of this article could not be better. A reminder to us all to not make the same mistakes of the past.

  15. William Bisharat says:

    I was pleased to read of the very strong men who though interred in camps [shamefully so!] persevered and became MD’s. I fear for this country as we have again become as fearful as were the Americans that created the internment camps. I am of Palestinian American heritage and fear men like The Donald

  16. Beverly Saito Acuna says:

    Thank you for posting the stories. My Mother was at Topaz. My Father in school and then the US Army.
    I have just read about Italians being incarcerated and Germans facing discrimination during the war. People are not guilty just because of their ethnic/religious background.

  17. Carolyn Doi says:

    Thank you for writing this article! All 4 of my US born grandparents were interned with their parents and 4 children (8 kids total). I feel this is a very timely story given our current affairs…

  18. Regina Allen says:

    I love the stories Kaiser post online. And for this Dr. to continue to persist and remain steadfast to his dream of being a doctor regardless of the set back and delay in his life of facing discrimination during this time of war. We should all remember that all people should not be judge other by the color of their skin but by the character of their conduct.

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