Nearly 100 years ago, Shizue Komu came to Tufts School of Medicine from Hawaii with a dream to become the first woman of Japanese descent to practice medicine with a degree there
The first thing that struck Shizue Komu, arriving in Boston in the fall of 1931, was how tall the buildings were compared to those in her hometown of Honolulu. The chill in the air was new to her as well, and she was excited to see her first snowfall and try sledding, which she’d only seen in pictures. Mostly, she was excited to start classes at what is now Tufts University School of Medicine—and take a vital step towards her dream of becoming the first woman of Japanese descent to practice medicine with a degree in Hawaii.
Komu’s goal was an audacious one. At a time when few women of any ethnicity became doctors, she had come 5,000 miles from a U.S. territory that wasn’t yet a state. The country was reeling from the shock of the Great Depression, and racial discrimination was running high in the wake of draconian laws limiting foreign immigration. But Komu was determined to succeed.
A photograph of her from October 1931 that ran in The Boston Globe shows her with a classmate who had accompanied her from Hawaii. Komu is dressed in a checkered blazer and skirt, a chunky necklace of beads and shells nodding to her Hawaiian heritage. Holding stacks of books in front of a shelf full of microscopes, she gazes confidently into the camera, eager to meet the challenges ahead.
Komu was born in 1908 in Aiea, a sliver of Pearl Harbor across the water from Honolulu that was mostly occupied by a giant sugarcane plantation run by the Honolulu Plantation Company. Her father, Mannosuke, had come from Japan at age 16 as part of a stream of nearly 200,000 Japanese laborers to work the plantations, which eventually became the largest ethnic group on the islands. The plantation doctor took a liking to him, eventually employing him as a pharmacist at the plantation hospital, despite only having an elementary school education. He taught himself English and Spanish and consumed medical books at night. Mannosuke started investing in land around Honolulu as well, including along Waikiki Beach, which was just starting to sprout luxury hotels; a half-century later, he would die a millionaire.
Clearly, Mannosuke passed his drive along to Shizue and her younger sisters Mitsue and Yukie. “I grew up at the hospital, so naturally I became interested in medicine,” Komu said in an oral history interview in 1993. At the time, a minority of second-generation Japanese children attended high school, and most of those were boys, who outnumbered girls 2 to 1 in 1925, according to research by Eileen Tamura. While many Japanese parents saw little need for girls’ education past middle school, Komu’s father was an exception—perhaps because he didn’t have boys of his own, or perhaps because he’d seen how education had improved his own prospects. Whatever the reason, Komu did well in school. At the same time, she played piano at a local music academy and earned perfect attendance at Sunday school. Before graduation, she helped design a new shield and honor code for her high school, pledging, “I stand for Honesty, in all I do and say; for Industry in study, work, and play” and “Courage, to meet life’s every need.”
She went on to study at the University of Hawaii–Manoa where she “excelled in science,” according to Tamura, who interviewed Komu for her book Americanization, Acculturation, and Ethnic Identity, about second-generation Japanese in Hawaii. At the time, Hawaiian and federal officials emphasized “Americanization” of foreigners to assimilate them into American culture; the year Komu was born in 1908, a “gentleman’s agreement” curbed flow of immigrants from Japan, and the Immigration Act of 1924 stopped it altogether. Komu, however, proudly embraced her heritage, joining the Japanese sorority Wakaba Kai, which arranged ceremonies featuring kimonos, paper lanterns, and traditional dances. Komu headed the refreshment committee, helping serve tea along with rice crackers and sweets.
“The fact that she did not need to work part-time while going to school, since her family was financially more secure than most Japanese families, allowed her to concentrate on her studies,” writes Tamura in her book. “Moreover, her forceful personality and independence of mind enabled her to pursue a career in medicine at a time when few women did so.” Graduating university with a degree in education, she chose to apply to Tufts because of its excellent reputation, as well as its location in Boston, a city she had always wanted to see. “I wanted to go to Boston in the worst way,” Komu said in the 1993 interview. “And I’m glad I went there because I learned so many things, much more than medicine.”
Komu left Honolulu on August 29, 1931, on the ship City of Los Angeles along with eight other classmates. Two others were women, including one who was also headed to Boston to attend Simmons College. The others, all men, were bound to medical or dentistry school in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. The ship took nearly a week to journey across the Pacific, finally arriving in Los Angeles on September 4. From there, the women traveled by train to Boston, most likely through Chicago and New York, changing trains several times along the way. The trip took them five days, as they excitedly pressed their faces against windows, wondering at the skyscrapers, snow-peaked mountains, and vast plains so different from their island home.
Komu’s journey was so rare it occasioned a wire service item, which was picked up in newspapers from Florence, South Carolina, to Muncie, Indiana, noting that “among the coeds in the freshman class at Tufts Medical School” were “Japanese girls from Honolulu” who “hope to be the first American-educated Japanese women doctors in Hawaii.” After entering Tufts Medical School on September 21, 1931, Komu lived in a three-story brick apartment building on Gainsborough Street in Boston, which she noted was only a “five-minute” commute to the medical school, then located at 416 Huntington Avenue (the current location of Northeastern Law School). Later, she moved even closer to the school at 460 Huntington, directly across from the Museum of Fine Arts. “Every Sunday they would have lectures, and we listened to them, and it was so nice to be able to do that,” she said during the oral history interview. “We learned to appreciate the symphony, because Boston has a great symphony orchestra. We really enjoyed our lives there.”
Komu admitted she wasn’t the best student. She struggled with the rigorous curriculum, earning a four-year average of only 81.9. But she found time to enjoy herself at school, including participating in a “medical historical pageant” in November 1934—an event for first-year students featuring medical personages from throughout the ages. Komu wore a “Chinese savant costume” from 2697 BCE, alongside classmates dressed as various doctors and scholars from Europe and America.
Komu succeeded in graduating with her MD on June 17, 1935. She went on to intern for a year at New England Hospital for Women and Children, a hospital founded in the late 19th century specifically to train women as doctors and nurses. Now the Dimock Center, the staff there remained all female until 1950. Komu earned A’s and B’s on her evaluation, particularly commended for her knowledge of cases, personality and appearance, sick room presence, deference to staff, and reliability. “A good worker, enjoyed by patients and staff,” her supervisor noted. Komu made the return trip across the country alone, sailing back to Hawaii from San Francisco on July 25, 1936.
Now 27 years old, Komu arrived home to a celebration at the Waioli Tea Room in the lush Manoa Valley, surrounded by family and friends. Less than a month later, on August 24, 1936, she received her official license to practice medicine, fulfilling her goal of becoming the first trained female doctor of Japanese descent in Hawaii. While she tentatively accepted a position as associate medical officer at a territorial hospital on the opposite side of Oahu, she eventually changed her mind, deciding she needed more experience with treating Japanese patients. That November, Komu set sail for Tokyo, where she studied for an additional year at St. Luke’s International Hospital and the Tokyo Eisei Byoin, focusing specifically on women’s and children’s medicine.
By 1938, she returned to Honolulu and set herself up in the Palama Hotel, owned by her father, a mile and a half northwest of downtown Honolulu. On April 6 that year, she placed ads in the local Hawaiian newspaper announcing that she had set up her own medical examination office, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics, along with general medicine.
The practice seems to have been a success, with Komu soon working over 50 hours a week. In addition to the time seeing patients at her clinic, she was in high demand as a speaker—giving a talk on her travels in Japan at Aiea Young People’s Christian Endeavor Society in May 1938; on “Family Hygiene” to the Japanese Mother’s Club in June 1938; on “The Physical Development of Women” to the Japanese Women’s University Club in March 1939; and on “Understanding the Adolescent” to the Ladies Home League of the Salvation Army in June 1940. In September 1941, she was named secretary of the Honolulu Japanese Medical Society, even as war was coming increasingly closer to home.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, causing the United States to enter World War II, the Japanese population of Hawaii was ironically less impacted than that of the mainland, despite the proximity to Japan. Perhaps because those of Japanese descent were more firmly integrated into Hawaiian society, only some 1,500 Japanese people were held under internment, mostly noncitizens—a small percentage of the 125,000 interred in the United States as a whole. One of those, however, was Komu’s father Mannosuke, who was interned on the mainland for three years.
As the war dragged on, life continued for Komu, who worked at a first-aid station and married a fellow doctor, Mitsuo Kuramoto in June 1942. “The war at Midway was raging when you got married,” Komu remembered a friend saying. Over the next few years, she had two boys of her own, continuing to practice part-time.
In addition to her own patients, she began to see children at the Palama Settlement, a social service agency in her neighborhood, in a program funded by the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce. Every Thursday afternoon, a story in The Honolulu Advertiser read in May 1949, “a dozen to 30 youngsters all line up for physical examinations by Dr. Shizue Kuramoto.” In the accompanying photo, a smiling Komu held a stethoscope to an 8-year-old boy’s chest. Komu checked them for “defects of teeth, heart, nutrition, tonsils, eyes, ears, and skin” the story continued, noting the program “brought to light many minor health defects which might otherwise have become major ones.”
"I wanted to go to Boston in the worst way, and I’m glad I went there because I learned so many things, much more than medicine."
In that social service work, Komu emulated her father, who gave back to the communities he came from, establishing an educational foundation in his hometown in Japan, a social club for plantation workers, and a language school in Aiea. In the 1950s, Komu increasingly donated her time to charity work as well, serving as a director for the Oahu chapter of the Hawaii Cancer Society, conducting educational sessions on cancer prevention to the public, and helping plan benefits for the organization, including a one-week benefit showing of a Japanese movie. She also served as medical officer for the Aiea district.
By 1955, she had a new position as director of intern education at Kuakini Hospital, a hospital near her practice, recruiting interns from Japan, and supervising them and coordinating instruction by hospital staff. She also co-chaired a fashion show of the latest styles from Paris arranged by the volunteer Kuakini Auxiliary, raising $2,000 to purchase needed equipment for the hospital.
In March 1960, Komu traveled from Hawaii—now finally a state—for her first trip back to Boston to attend the 25th reunion of their medical school class of 1935. There, she “had places of honor at the elaborate celebrations which spanned three days,” according to story in The Honolulu Advertiser that showed her smiling broadly with flowers in her lapel while greeting Class of ’35 president Dr. Edward McCarthy. She had “forgotten how chilly it gets up here,” she told The Boston Globe.
Komu continued to thrive, traveling to places such as Florida and Brazil. After her father’s death in 1966, she inherited some of his property, including one Waikiki parcel that she and her sisters sold in 1973 for $2 million. The following year she opened a store with her son John selling fine silk imported from India, Guatemala, and Japan. Even towards the end of her life, Komu continued to value education, setting up a trust fund along with her husband to pay for her grandchildren’s education. When her granddaughter, Leanne, won first place in a photography competition in 1988 while attending the University of Hawaii–Hilo, she proudly told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald that it was her grandmother who purchased her new Nikon camera.
“There was no one like my grandma,” says Leanne. “She carried herself with a graceful demeanor and cosmopolitan flair.” Growing up, she remembers her cultivating a flower garden and cooking Sunday dinners for the extended family. Another granddaughter, Suzanne, remembers her “effortless style” and love for “classical music and the performing arts.” After dinner, her grandmother taught her how to knit, despite her lack of talent for it. “When she thought I wasn’t looking, grandma would remove the stitches I did the previous night and re-knit them,” she recalls. “I think this is what she did throughout her life, quietly making things better in big ways and small.”
Komu died in 2007 at 98 years old, buried next to her husband in Honolulu. Her legacy lives on at Tufts School of Medicine, whose graduates come from increasingly diverse communities, and often return to those communities to improve health and wellness for the next generation.