Fulfilling Passions as a Physician and Writer
Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural
Center of Hawai‘i
Editor’s note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations, continuing their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, professor emeritus of library science at UH Mänoa, both volunteers with the JCCH. The complete interview with Michael Okihiro, the subject of this month’s profile, is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center and also at jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/DownloadImageFile.ashx?objectId=1713.
Michael Okihiro has managed to successfully pursue more than one passion in his life. He has distinguished himself in the medical field and actively published writing on diverse local topics.
Born and raised in He‘eia in 1927, Okihiro was always a hardworking and enterprising young man. As a child, he recalls pulling weeds in his grandfather’s taro patch in Keapuka. At 14, he had a job cleaning up at Honey’s in Käne‘ohe, a restaurant bar owned by entertainer Don Ho’s parents. Okihiro recalls playing ball with Don who was several years younger. On Dec. 7, 1941, he was cleaning at Honey’s when he heard planes buzzing overhead. He left the restaurant and went to Sunday school where a crowd had gathered. The police station was across the street and the officers told everyone to go home. He and his dad went to a neighbor’s yard with a view of Coconut Island where they could see the flames and smoke from Naval Air Station (now Marine Corps Base Hawaii).
Life took a downturn for the Okihiro family because of the war. Michael’s father’s boat was confiscated. No longer able to fish, that father took on carpentry jobs for a contractor friend. Okihiro got a part-time job at the Board of Water Supply as an oiler for the power machines at different pumping stations while he was also matriculating at Mid-Pacific Institute. He admitted that he had not considered going on to college prior to attending MPI. However, everyone at the school talked about college and Okihiro decided to enter the University of Hawai‘i to focus on a medical career.
On his 18th birthday in 1945, he was drafted and spent two years at Fort Lewis in Washington. The GI Bill made it possible for him to obtain a medical degree in Michigan. He worked as a medical technician at Beyer Hospital near Ann Arbor to make ends meet. In 1957, he entered a residency program in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. At the clinic, he made a life-changing decision to specialize in neurology when he had the opportunity to work with “some of the best teachers in neurology at the clinic.”
Okihiro returned to Hawai‘i in 1961 to set up his practice. By then, he was married with four pre-school children “and a very empty pocket.” Unfortunately, the banks were not willing to make loans to new doctors who had zero collateral. He wound up doing his first consultations at Dr. Victor Mori’s office when the doctor was away. A few months later, he was invited to join Straub Clinic. At first, he hesitated because Straub had a reputation as “a strictly haole clinic.” After talking it over with some trusted colleagues, he accepted the offer and became the first neurologist on staff and also the first AJA to join the clinic. He said, “I wound up staying at Straub for 19 years.”
Accomplishments in Neurology
As Hawai‘i’s first doctor specializing in the new field of neurology, Okihiro’s services were in high demand. In addition to Straub patients, he also saw folks at other hospitals and nursing homes in Honolulu and outlying areas. He made monthly visits to O‘ahu’s neighbor islands. He introduced a number of medical breakthroughs to the community, including electromyography, a method of recording the electrical activity of muscle tissue. He also performed the first plasma exchange on a patient with severe myasthenia gravis, which is a chronic neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles. Okihiro’s treatment helped reduce the death rate from MG.
When the John A. Burns School of Medicine opened in 1965, he also became a clinical professor of medicine. Together with one of his brightest pupils, Dr. Thomas Tasaki, Okihiro wrote a paper on a rare disorder that primarily affects the eyes and causes abnormalities of bones in the arms and hands. This disorder is now called the Okihiro Syndrome. In 1980, Okihiro started a private practice in neurology at Kuakini Hospital, finally retiring in 1992.
Love for Baseball
Throughout his childhood, Okihiro’s one great passion was baseball. The person who inspired him was Rev. Shimpei Peter Goto, one of the first stars for the Asahi baseball team. Goto was also the first Christian minister in Käne‘ohe.
Okihiro confessed that he chose to attend MPI as a senior so he could play baseball, because all sports were cancelled for “country” public schools during the war. At the same time, he admitted, “I was not that great at the sport.” That did not stop him from enjoying baseball as an adult. While he was attending medical school, he often played infield for the Ann Arbor Pfeiffers (Pfeiffers Beer is well known in Michigan). When he returned to Hawai‘i, he joined the Meija (Major) Makule League that targets players over 35 and even wound up managing the team until 2019.
Passion for Writing
Along with medicine and baseball, Okihiro enjoyed a third passion – writing. He indicated that he was encouraged to write while he was training at the Mayo Clinic. He contributed to various articles in peer-reviewed medical journals including pieces on multiple sclerosis in Asian populations and on thyrotoxic period analysis, an illness primarily affecting Asian men. He also published an article on “Japanese Doctors in Hawai‘i” that appeared in the Hawaiian Journal of History in 2002. In it, he chronicled the integration of Japanese doctors in this state’s medical institutions beginning with issei physicians, AJAs’ struggle for recognition in hospitals such as Queen’s that was run by Caucasians in earlier years, and the impact of World War II and the GI Bill on the acceptance of doctors of Japanese ancestry. However, Okihiro did not restrict himself to writing about medical topics. Fueled by his curiosity and experiences, he chose to publish on an eclectic range of topics.
In 1999, his enduring interest in baseball motivated Okihiro to research and self-publish “AJA Baseball in Hawai‘i: Ethnic Pride and Tradition.” It was partly inspired by the baseball display that he and Wayne Sakamoto, his brother-in-law who was a baseball player, put together for the Okage Sama De exhibit created by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i in 1998. He credited life-long educator Jane Komeiji, who directed the JCCH project, with getting him involved. After spending three years conducting research and interviews and collecting photographs and memorabilia from around the state for this display, he realized that he had enough material to produce a book. “I wanted to get a flavor of everyone who was involved in baseball,” he said. In the book, he captured the history of the sport in Hawai‘i with profiles of noteworthy players and community leaders who kept baseball alive from plantation days to the present. More recently, he has also contributed various sports features to The Hawai‘i Herald.
A‘ala: Japanese Town
Okihiro’s strong interest in local neighborhoods that have morphed over the years led him to work on two different books. The first, A‘ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawai‘i, appeared in 2003, published by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. According to Okihiro, this project was also initiated by Jane Komeiji with a team of AJA professionals seeking to “evoke the character and substance of the A‘ala area during its peak years, 1920 to 1940.” In their research, the team focused on the old A‘ala Triangle and its colorful collection of shops, taxi stands, theaters, restaurants, hotels and tenement houses. Okihiro took on the task of producing a book that captured the uniqueness of this area that was known as “a Japanese town” in the 1930s.
Japanese in Käne‘ohe
Always interested in the community of his boyhood, Okihiro contributed to the first edition of a book on the Käne‘ohe community that was compiled by Florence Chizuko (Iida) Fanning in 2008. The book was the “Partial History of the Japanese in Kaneohe, 1898 to 1959.” He then urged Fanning to produce a second edition that expanded on the coverage of the Japanese who contributed to life in this windward locale. The second edition, published in 2016 by Henry T. Iida, was largely compiled by Okihiro. Along with the stories of 41 families in the original book, he included another 39 articles. One of them is about his grandparents and parents and another is about his growing up years in Käne‘ohe.
Japanese Eyes, American Heart
Okihiro also contributed to “Japanese Eyes, American Heart,” an important series on AJAs who represent a wide swath of the local community. In the second volume subtitled “Voices from the Home Front in World War II Hawai’i,” Okihiro contributed several personal stories that revealed the hardships suffered by and the achievements of Hawai‘i’s AJA population. Among his co-authored contributions were the following: Tora Kimura (Okihiro’s mother-in-law) about her struggle to keep the family afloat through difficult times, Jack Tasaka and Harry Urata on their post-war successes as an historian and as a musician, Richard Mamiya and Toshio Moritsugu regarding their contributions to the medical field and sugar industry, and Okihiro’s own life as a neurologist and baseball afficionado.
Looking back on his life, Okihiro reflected, “I’ve been a lucky guy. I had good parents and a perfect wife. I’ve had a good life, good family, and good friends.” Michael Okihiro is a man who has enjoyed his journey and has no regrets.