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 and continue their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. Both volunteer with JCCH. The complete interview with Satoru Izutsu, the subject of this month’s profile, is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at

Throughout his distinguished career, Dr. Satoru Izutsu has had a consuming interest in the wellbeing of underserved segments of Hawai‘i and the world’s populations. He has combined his medical work in occupational therapy and his academic background in education to reach groups ranging from youngsters with physical disabilities to geriatric patients. His long association with the University of Hawai‘i’s medical school has also created new generations of successful practitioners.

Early Years

The youngest of seven children, Izutsu was raised in a plantation camp in Makaweli, Kaua‘i, where his father Ryozo was the manager of the camp store. Ryozo taught himself English and helped less literate Japanese immigrants with their correspondence. His work on their behalf with the Japanese Consulate led to his arrest after Dec. 7 and his incarceration at Lordsburg and Santa Fe in New Mexico for the duration of the war. Izutsu recalled his mother Iseno and his older siblings holding the family together during those difficult years and how both of his parents demonstrated persistence (ganbare) and modesty (enryo).

He spent his high-school years first at Waimea High and then at Mid-Pacific Institute and acquired a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. When he took a vocational inventory test upon graduation, Izutsu discovered that he might find a promising career in the fledgling field of occupational therapy. He pursued this specialization at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons on a scholarship. When he returned to Hawai‘i in 1950 he was drafted into the U.S. Army where he served as a second lieutenant during the Korean War. In 1980, he retired at the rank of Colonel after 30 years in the U.S. Army Reserves.

As a veteran, Izutsu took advantage of the GI Bill to complete a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College working with the physically disabled in special education. While in New York, he also worked  as a therapist at the NYC Institute for the Crippled and Disabled focusing on youngsters suffering from cerebral palsy.

Izutsu completed a Ph.D. from Case-Western Reserve University in Cleveland where he also served as a consultant at the Highland View Hospital. At that time, it was the only hospital serving as a rehabilitation center for the physically disabled and the elderly. Izutsu helped to create a program for the physically challenged elderly population so they could enter the competitive workforce.

Dr. Satoru Izutsu.

Training Therapists in Yugoslavia

In 1959, while working in Cleveland, Izutsu received a call from staff at the University of Philadelphia inviting him to work with the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee. They asked if he would train the first cadre of occupational therapists in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. According to Izutsu, “It was all voluntary. They supported meals and a place to stay, but no salary.” What ensued was six months in a country he had to look up on a map. He added, “ I didn’t even know how to order food when I got there. I had a dictionary and I slowly began to learn the language.”

This turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences in Izutsu’s professional career. His job was training 21 vocational education teachers to serve as therapists. During that period, Yugoslavia was being inundated with farm machinery and many workers were getting injured and needed rehabilitative support. To do the training, Izutsu had to work through an interpreter. He explained, “I would train one tutor. I would give the lesson in English, and it would be interpreted in Serbian to this one teacher. The following day, that teacher would instruct the class of 21 students.”

Serving As Director at Waimano Training School and Hospital

Always willing to tackle new challenges, Izutsu returned to Hawai‘i in 1961 to become the Director of Training at Waimano Training School and Hospital. He was just 32 years old. At this institutional facility for people with developmental disabilities, he established a special education (SPED) program for children in the intermediate grades. He later became superintendent.

Izutsu recalled that there were over 800 beds with most of the patients being children who were profoundly mentally disabled. He said, “We don’t see these types of cases anymore, like hydrocephaly, microcephaly, because you can [test for and] abort [fetuses with these conditions] now.

“We got some kids back with their families. We also got a lot of kids into foster homes. The goal was to close that place down, because I felt that there was no need to have an institution.”

Joining a Regional Medical Program

Izutsu left Waimano in 1969 (the facility was finally shuttered in 1991). He joined a regional medical program sponsored by the UH School of Public Health on the grounds of the Queen’s Medical Center. This was part of a national initiative funded by the Federal Health, Education and Welfare Administration which included services to Hawai‘i, American Samoa and the U.S. Trust Territories. The purpose was to bring together

information for heart disease, cancer and stroke to a patient’s bedside as quickly as possible. Izutsu was placed in charge of these Pacific regions.

There were huge obstacles to this pioneering work. Izutsu recalled, “We didn’t even have the basic things to combat heart disease, cancer [and] stroke. The Registry was very minimal. Intensive Care Units and Cardiac Care Units were very minimal. Helicopter aid was almost non-existent. We had to set up a satellite system to reach these populations to educate both the professionals as well as the public.” After 10 years of hard work, they had CCUs and ICUs as well as air evacuation.

Establishing a Training Program in Okinawa

Izutsu also joined with administrators at the John A. Burns School of Medicine to work with Chuba Hospital in Okinawa. At that time, Okinawan physicians did not have a post-graduate training program in surgery. With Dr. Christian Gulbrandsen, then Dean of JABSOM, Izutsu directed the Global Health Program where Hawai‘i specialists volunteered their time and skills by flying to Chuba and offering seminars and workshops. This was coupled with Okinawan medical residents coming to Hawai‘i for observational work. The training program contributed to Chuba’s recognition as one of the top ten hospitals in the country. In 2018, Izutsu received the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun for his distinguished contribution in developing medical education and medical care in Japan and the Hawaii United Okinawa Association Legacy Award for his work in Okinawa.

Working with the Elderly

In the 1960s, geriatric medicine was also a new specialization. As part of his work at JABSOM, Izutsu was interested in a “continuum of care” for Hawai‘i’s population. He recognized that Kua-

kini Medical Center had the best outlook on how people’s lives should progress when they became invalids or when they grew older. Kuakini orig-

inally had housing for immigrant men and looked after the elderly from intermediate to long-term care. He collaborated with Dr. Patricia Blanchette, then chair of JABSOM’s Department of Geriatric Medicine, to initiate a program for the elderly at Kuakini’s Hale Pulama Mau that wound up being one of the nation’s notable geriatric-residency programs.

Mentoring New Physicians at JABSOM

During his tenure at JABSOM, Izutsu served as Director of Admissions for over 20 years interviewing more than 1,000 young physicians. He said, “We look for not just bright young people; they have to have their hearts in helping the communities in which they live.”

More recently, he was involved in the ‘Imi Ho‘öla Post-Baccalaureate Program at JABSOM. The initiative focuses on recruiting Native Hawaiians and other underrepresented groups into medicine. During the intensive year of medical-school preparation, the students are supported by stipends from The Queen’s Health Systems. According to Izutsu, the main question they ask in selecting candidates is, “Would this person make a difference in people’s lives with the knowledge that they’ll gain?”

Izutsu retired in 2017 as JABSOM’s Vice Dean. He has always maintained that work in the medical field requires more than knowledge and skills. It demands a commitment to serve a community. “You need to have the fire in your belly about really wanting to make a difference.” He has modeled this philosophy throughout his more than 50 years of bringing world-class health care and rehabilitation of the physically and mentally challenged to local, national and international communities.


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