By Lori Matsukawa For The North American Post
“Mrs. Fukui is ready to give birth.”Sawa Ozawa Beppu hung up the phone and placed her medical bag in her Ford Model T. It was springtime, April of 1942. She drove to the Fukui’s house. She delivered Frank Fukui, little knowing he would eventually marry her yet unborn granddaughter, Penny Beppu.
It was one of the last deliveries she made before she, her disabled husband Hitsuji, her five children and their families were incarcerated by the U.S. Government, first at the Puyallup Assembly Center and then, at Minidoka concentration camp. It was a cruel fate shared with some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry along the West Coast; they had committed no espionage or treason but were locked up anyway for the duration of World War II. She continued to deliver babies in camp and after her family returned to Seattle. Her family believes she delivered more than a thousand babies in her lifetime.
Sawa learned midwifery at a college in Tokyo. She and Hitsuji Beppu married and came to America from Kochi Prefecture at the turn of the century, eventually settling in Seattle. The couple started their family, naming their sons after U.S. Presidents. Taft was born in 1909, followed by Lincoln, Grant, daughter Hiroko and Monroe. In a photo, she, her husband and infant Taft wear formal Western clothing. Sawa stands next to a seated Hitsuji in a dark, wasp-waist Gibson Girl dress and a wide-brimmed dark hat with light flowers around the crown. Her face is that of a serious businesswoman with a wide set nose and generous lips. Around her neck, she wears three strands of beads. A jeweled medallion graces her waist.
While in Seattle, Hitsuji suffered a stroke and was paralyzed on one side of his body. He used a cane to navigate the upstairs living area. Though largely unspoken, Sawa Beppu, the midwife, became the family breadwinner.
Midwifing paid well. Sawa got $25 per delivery, which was good money at the turn of the century. She was able to purchase the Model T, becoming one of the first women in Washington State with a driver’s license.
When a baby was arriving, Sawa packed her kids into the Model T and drove to the expectant mother’s home. Sawa depended on her sons to help direct her because they could ask for directions in English from folks along the way. She parked outside the expectant family’s home and left her kids in the car while she went in to deliver the baby. Taft remembered how boring it was to wait in the car. However, if the mother happened to be a relative, he and his siblings could wait for Sawa in the house.
Sawa created a warm, incubator-like bed for the newborns by putting a lamp in the crib or cardboard box and covering it with a blanket. She responded to families at all hours of the night. She even drove to Bellevue to help several Japanese farming families. To avoid the long and dangerous drive around Lake Washington, Sawa took the Bellevue ferry across the lake. Sawa’s name appears on several birth certificates throughout the Japanese American community.
What was it like delivering babies in a segregated city like Seattle? And then, behind barbed wire at a concentration camp? What motivated Sawa to attend to so many women, some with the best outcomes and others, the worst? Perhaps a reader knows.
See the related article on Japanese picture brides, which led to rising Nisei birthrates after 1910 (p. 10). Sawa Beppu’s Seattle-area role was later taken over by Nisei physician Ruby Inouye Shu, who delivered 1,066 Sansei babies herself, according to her daughter, NAP proofreader Geraldine Shu. Local redlining maps that influenced the workloads of both Beppu and “Dr. Ruby” are in ”The historic redlining underlying the Garfield High School Centennial” (napost.com, Sept. 9, 2022).
Lori Matsukawa is on the board of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington (JCCCW). Omoide (Memories) is its monthly writing workshop (jcccw.org).