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OBITUARIES : Dr. Mitsuo Inouye, 1925 - 2007

Aided U.S. survivors of atomic blasts in Japan

December 28, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Mitsuo Inouye, a Culver City physician who helped bring teams of Japanese medical experts to the United States to examine and treat American survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb blasts, has died. He was 82.

Inouye died Dec. 15 of complications from renal failure at the Culver West Convalescent Hospital in Culver City, said his son, Jon.

A California native who joined the Army from a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans, Inouye took up the cause of the atomic blast survivors in the late 1970s, when an estimated 1,000 were believed to be living in the United States.

Most of the survivors, called hibakusha in Japanese, were concentrated on the West Coast.

Inouye helped lead an effort to bring Japanese experts on radiation exposure to several U.S. cities, where the doctors took thorough socioeconomic and psychological histories and conducted physical examinations of those who lived through the 1945 bombings.

He also testified before a congressional subcommittee in 1978 to appeal for U.S. aid for the American hibakusha.

"This is my way of paying back and honoring the dead because I might be with them," he told People magazine in 1990 on the 45th anniversary of the bombings.

An estimated 30,000 Americans of Japanese descent were living in Japan during the summer of 1945. Many were children whose parents had sent them to Japan to receive a traditional education. Others were there on vacation.

When war erupted between the U.S. and Japan in 1941, it stranded thousands of Japanese Americans far from the country they considered home. Hundreds of them were caught in the atomic holocausts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that claimed at least 100,000 lives and perhaps as many as 200,000, according to official estimates.

The victims included close relatives of Inouye's future wife, Lily Ann.

Inouye, too, could have been among them.

When the war broke out, his immigrant parents considered leaving their home in Atherton, Calif., where Inouye was born, to return to Japan, but their children talked them out of it.

While his two older brothers were fighting for the U.S. in Europe, Inouye and his parents were sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, one of several internment camps established by the federal government to detain thousands of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

He left Heart Mountain to join the military, becoming a translator and telecommunications specialist in the Army Signal Corps. After the war he served on Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff during the American occupation of Japan.

When he returned to the U.S., he entered UC Berkeley on the GI Bill and earned a degree in biochemistry in 1950. In 1953 he received his medical degree from UC San Francisco.

Over the next five decades, he practiced general medicine in Culver City, helped open the Culver West Convalescent Hospital and was chief of staff for Washington Medical Center in Culver City.

In 1977, he helped organize the first Japanese-sponsored clinic for atomic bomb survivors in the United States. He arranged for the medical team from Hiroshima to return to the U.S. every two years to hold clinics in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu.

Like their counterparts in Japan, the U.S. hibakusha had a higher incidence of cancer -- particularly cancer of the stomach, breast, skin, lungs and bone marrow -- than the general population.

They also were more inclined to show signs of anxiety and depression. Many of those who showed no signs of illness worried that they or their children would one day be stricken by maladies related to radiation exposure.

"There's always a constant fear that the radiation is going to come up any time. They say very often that they live in constant fear," Inouye told the Associated Press in 1983.

The hibakusha also told Inouye that they felt abandoned and misunderstood by fellow Americans, who regarded them as the enemy and therefore deserving of the tragedy that befell them. That attitude doomed a bill before Congress in 1978 that would have provided medical care for the American survivors of the bombings.

A hearing on the bill was held in Los Angeles. The first expert to testify was Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the Los Angeles County medical examiner and a leader in the Japanese American community, who helped draft the bill.

Noguchi testified about the medical issues faced by the U.S. hibakusha, "quiet Americans" who were suffering from an array of serious health problems because of the bombs dropped on them by their own government.

The last to testify was Inouye, who chose the words of 17th century English poet John Donne to drive home his argument: that all of humanity bears responsibility for the devastation unleashed by the bombs.

"No man is an island. . ." he said, quoting Donne, "and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

In addition to his wife and son, Inouye is survived by a brother, Ichiro Inouye; a sister, Toshi Otsuji; two daughters, Sharon and Caron; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 5 at the Venice Japanese Community Center, 12448 Braddock Dr., Los Angeles.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com

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