In the late 1800s, the sugar plantations in Hawaii were booming and the contract laborers were the backbone of the industry. Between 1885 and 1900, over 70,000 Japanese immigrants crossed the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii to work in the flourishing cane fields. Low wages and unexpected expenses soon caught up with the newcomers and many found themselves in destitute circumstances.
During this period, relief to needy persons was provided according to ethnicity by various charity organizations such as the Hawaiian Relief Society, British Benevolent Society and Ladies' Portuguese Charitable Association.
Although several Japanese charity groups were formed, these organizations provided limited relief and many were in existence for only a short time. However, one such organization, the Japanese Benevolent Society, survived over the years to become the forerunner to Kuakini Medical Center.
The Society was established as a voluntary association in 1892 and incorporated in 1899 as an eleemosynary corporation for the purpose of giving relief to the Japanese in Hawaii whose needs resulted from illness, poverty, accident or other causes. Shortly after its incorporation, the Society thought about constructing a hospital, but no immediate action was taken until after disaster struck.
In December 1899, many residents in the Chinatown section of Honolulu were afflicted with bubonic plague and the entire area was quarantined. The Board of Health burned many structures in order to eliminate the contamination. In January 1900, one fire got out of control and razed the entire area, leaving thousands of Japanese immigrants without homes, food or clothing. The Society provided emergency relief and then immediately started plans to build a hospital.
The Society did not have an endowment and depended on membership dues and donations to finance its activities. After raising enough funds, they purchased a site with more than half an acre of land located in the Kapalama district of Honolulu, south of King Street at the end of a narrow lane. In July 1900, a two-story wooden building containing 38 beds was completed and called the Japanese Charity Hospital. It operated for two years at full capacity and soon became inadequate for patient needs.
In August 1902, the hospital moved a few miles away into another two-story wooden structure that had 40 beds. For fifteen years, the Society maintained this hospital until it, too, became overcrowded and rundown.
By April 1917, funds from the Society and public contributions (which included a special donation from Emperor Taisho and the Empress of Japan) helped build a modern facility at the hospital's third and present site on Kuakini Street. The 16-building hospital had 70 beds and was equipped with up-to-date appliances and facilities. The institution, whose name was shortened to “Japanese Hospital,” was situated on almost four acres of land and had abundant space for the immediate as well as future needs of the hospital.
The Japanese Hospital's nursing school was started in 1931 and provided a three-year training program for an average of 20 nurses per class. Initially, the nursing program was patterned after the training schools in Japan and used Japanese language classes. However, this gradually changed during the 1940s and the school's faculty began working with the Territory of Hawaii's Board of Nursing to upgrade the school.
In 1932, many of the Japanese immigrant men who had worked on the plantations had reached retirement age, were unmarried and had no families to care for them.
In order to assist these elderly men who were not acutely ill but needed a protective environment, the Society built the Japanese Home of Hawaii on the grounds of the hospital using community donations. The 50-bed facility, the forerunner of the present Kuakini Home, provided care, food and shelter for these elderly men.
A major expansion program that was completed in 1939 increased the hospital's size to 100 beds and provided more services with the addition of X-ray, surgical, pediatric and maternity facilities.
A portion of the new building (designed with a copper dome) was called the Imperial Gift Memorial Building in recognition of the financial support Kuakini received from the Imperial Family of Japan. (In 1934, Emperor Showa and the Empress of Japan donated 10,000 yen for the hospital expansion program.)
With the onset of World War II in 1941, the U. S. Army took control of over half of the hospital's facilities. During the war, the hospital was called the “147th General Hospital Oahu.” Due to the fact that Kuakini's Board consisted of descendants of Japanese immigrants, Kuakini was the only hospital in the United States to be occupied by the U.S. Army. In 1942, the hospital changed its name to Kuakini Hospital and Home.
There is a controversy over how the hospital received its name. A few sources indicate that the hospital was named after Chief Kuakini, who was the acting governor of Oahu in the early 1800s and the brother-in-law of King Kamehameha I. Others dispute this fact and say the hospital was named after the street it was on. The hospital was returned to civilian control in 1945.
Along with its new identity, Kuakini had broadened its scope of services from initially caring for the Japanese immigrants to providing health care services for the entire community. With this change, there came a need for larger and newer facilities to adequately provide quality patient care.
A major fund drive in 1951 financed the construction of the hospital's Ewa wing and part of its Waikiki wing which increased Kuakini's bed count to 140 beds.
The hospital's nursing school was accredited in 1951 but due to continuing problems in faculty recruitment, the school was closed and no students were admitted in 1952. The last class graduated in 1955.
Kuakini received its first accreditation from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (now called the Joint Commission) in 1954. At that time, there were 235 employees, 63 full-time registered nurses and 225 doctors on the medical staff.
With its modern, well-equipped facilities, the hospital was an excellent training ground for interns in need of further medical experience. Physicians from Japan came to Kuakini to receive training in American medicine before going to mainland hospitals for additional experience. Senior medical technology students from the University of Hawaii spent a year in the hospital's laboratory for training and nursing students obtained their clinical experience in medical and surgical nursing at Kuakini.
In 1956, the governing Board of Kuakini authorized the use of an architectural consultant to assist in the development of a master plan for future physical expansion at Kuakini.
By 1958, the hospital's internship program was accredited by the American Medical Association and was also recognized by the State Department as a designated Exchange-Visitor Program which permitted Kuakini to bring doctors from foreign countries to the hospital where they obtained their postgraduate medical training. To provide housing for the hospital interns, Kuakini built two apartment buildings in 1963.
In the late 1950s, more physicians became specialists and pediatric and obstetric patients began to seek these physicians as well as the specialty hospitals for their care. With the resulting low occupancy rate of its obstetrics and pediatrics units and the need for more medical/surgical beds, Kuakini made the difficult decision to eliminate its obstetrics department in 1964 and its pediatrics department in 1967. This decision not only benefited Kuakini through the availability of more beds for medical and surgical services, but it also helped increase census at the specialty hospitals in the community through the elimination of duplicate services at Kuakini.
Through the years, Kuakini has kept pace with the community's demand for quality health care. The hospital was renamed Kuakini Medical Center in 1975 to reflect its expanded programs to the community and in celebration of its 75th anniversary. Kuakini has the distinct honor of being the last surviving hospital established by Japanese immigrants in the United States.Today, Kuakini Medical Center is committed to providing quality health care to the community through a wide range of comprehensive services and programs. These programs and services are available to everyone regardless of ethnicity, sex, physical disability, age, religious affiliation or ability to pay.
Kuakini is a 250-bed acute care hospital accredited by the Joint Commission and licensed to operate in the State of Hawaii. Kuakini is certified to participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs and is a community teaching hospital affiliated with the family practice, medical, surgical and transitional residency programs and geriatric fellowship program at the University of Hawaii (UH) School of Medicine. Kuakini also carries affiliations with registered nurse and licensed practical nurse training programs with the UH School of Nursing and community colleges, and Hawaii Pacific University; and allied health professional training programs at the community colleges.
Kuakini Medical Plaza, an eight-story physicians' office building next to the Medical Center, was completed in 1979 to provide a medical facility that enables doctors to be near their hospitalized patients. An 834-car parking facility was completed in 1979 to accommodate patients, visitors, and employees.
In March 1980, Kuakini dedicated its Hale Pulama Mau (House of Cherishing Care) building. Acute medical/surgical services as well as geriatric care services are provided within Hale Pulama Mau. A helipad atop this facility is used to receive emergency cases transported by helicopter. A second physicians' office building, the Kuakini Physicians Tower and a new parking facility for employees were completed in 1998.
Kuakini Health System is a leader in Digital Imaging and is one of Hawaii's pioneers in the field of telemedicine.