By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
With ferns encroaching on its front door, grass growing out of its pavement, and a staircase sinking to one side, the Washington Medical Center building has become a symbol of both the ruination of the Keiro nursing home and a beacon for its future.
Last week, Keiro announced it was selling the building, which was once an epicenter for Japanese doctors, to repay a debt accrued during its difficult and contentious closing.
Keiro said it was selling the building to Stan Shimizu “and his investment group.” Shimizu’s family has operated a shiatsu business in the building for three generations.
The announcement said the sale would honor the legacy of Ruby Inouye Shu, the first Japanese American woman physician in Seattle, who was among the first to recognize the need of a nursing home for aging Japanese Americans. Inouye Shu donated the building to Keiro, which was then called Nikkei Concerns.
“This heritage will serve as a strong foundation for a future vision that will continue to serve the needs of the local community and pay tribute to the vision of our founders,” Keiro posted on Facebook.
The announcement came at a time when the community is mourning the closure of Keiro and unsettled by the uncertain fate of its paired assisted living community, Nikkei Manor.
Many community members, including staff members, activists, and others apparently close to the current administration, citing tensions in the community, declined to offer comments in their names.
Those who did comment shared positive memories of the contributions of the Shimizu family and nostalgic memories of the building, and hope it will be used for the community’s needs.
At the same time, the sale has once again stirred up antagonism and reproach regarding the end of a beloved institution that at least some members of the community were counting on as their retirement choice.
Some community members were initially confused about certain aspects of the sale, particularly the legal right of a nonprofit to sell off donated property.
Joan Seko, who founded and led several volunteer and fundraising groups at Keiro for years, was one of them.
“It was my understanding that the property of the Washington Medical Clinic Building, that was donated by Doctor Ruby Inouye to a nonprofit, could not be sold, but could only be passed on to another nonprofit,” she wrote in an email.
“I guess I was told wrong. I feel this sale is wrong because it does not honor Doctor Ruby’s legacy to the Japanese community,” she added.
Another community member, Susan Lane, wondered if the property had ever been put on the open market.
A search on Zillow failed to turn up a listing for the property.
As of press time, the Keiro board had not yet responded to a query whether the property had been put out for public bids.
The Seattle Japanese American League (JACL) saw the sale as “bittersweet.”
“Seattle JACL marks the sale of the Washington Medical Center as another bittersweet brick in the road of the Keiro Nursing Home (NH) history,” it said in a statement issued to Northwest Asian Weekly.
“Keiro NH obtained the Washington Medical Center through the generosity of a beloved community member, Dr. Ruby Inouye Shu,” it said. “While the funds will have to repay the Keiro NH for expenses incurred during the closure, the sale is a stark reminder of the dismemberment of our beloved community asset.”
Still, at least some of the sadness over the sale came from a sense of collective nostalgia over the building’s role in serving the Japanese American community.
According to Lane, the building was a clinic where Inouye Shu had her medical practice along with her husband, Dr. Evan Shu.
“Their patients were primarily Japanese American, and in the 1950s and 1960s the community was concentrated in the Central Area, Beacon Hill, and Rainier Valley,” said Lane.
“When they retired, they donated their clinic, Washington Medical Center, to Nikkei Concerns, the organization which became Keiro Northwest,” she said.
“The building and Dr. Ruby played a significant role in the medical care for the community,” she said.
“Now, since the Japanese American community is dispersed around Seattle and the Eastside, access to healthcare no longer has the same geographic center,” she added.
For Seko, the ongoing presence of the Shimizu family for three generations is a sign that some vestige of the past is still present.
Stan Shimizu, who operates a shiatsu business in the building, declined to comment on his group’s purchase of the building.
His website tells the story of his grandfather developing a bleeding ulcer while worrying about his wife and family when he was in a concentration camp. While in the camp, he was healed by a fellow prisoner who then taught him the technique. Upon returning to Japan, he became known as a Sennin, “a person with supernatural healing power,” and eventually opened a practice in Seattle. His grandson, Stan, now continues the practice.
“My husband used to go to the shiatsu in there,” said Seko, “and I used to wait for him.”
“The Shimizus were there forever,” she continued. “The fathers and sons. They’re quite popular and a lot of people went to them in the community.”
Seko also remembered a popular optometrist in the building that many residents of Keiro used to visit, although in recent years, she said, the offices have mostly been used by Keiro staff.
Since the sale of the building comes at the end of months of internecine disputes and outright rancor between various factions and community members, it has also served to reignite passions.
The Seattle JACL, which was involved in the founding of Keiro 40 years ago, recognized that divisions in the community will make the task of rebuilding all the more difficult.
“Now, more than ever, Keiro NW needs complete community engagement and full transparency,” it said. “We wish the Keiro NW administration and remaining Board members success.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.