By Word of Mouth
Russell Alexander Dixon, D.D.S., and Raymond “Ray” Shoji Murakami (D.D.S. ’60) lived in what seemed like different worlds in 1942. On Feb. 19 of that year, in Washington, D.C., Dixon was nearing his 11th year as dean of Howard University’s College of Dentistry, while Murakami was starting a journey that would take the farmer’s son far from thoughts of playtime in San Jose, California, to Sacramento.
Murakami boarded a train to the misleadingly named Tule Lake— one of 10 internment camps designated for some 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. The camps were formed in accordance with then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated Japanese-American citizens. Murakami spent about four years in the stark camp, reclassified as a “non-resident” and renamed “25506C,” not passing back through the barbed wire-tinseled gates and past the guard towers again until the 1945 close of World War II.
He later arrived at Howard in 1956 as one of a number of students of various ethnic groups turned away from other American universities, due to ethnicity-based quotas.
The Internment Camps
According to Murakami’s wife, Mary Murakami, the common place where the government would put notices like 9066 was on telephone polls at the beginning of the forced relocations. The printed information relayed like a game of telephone throughout the affected communities.
Families were bused to fairgrounds and racetracks and made to stay in animal stalls at assembly center sites.
“Our parents were really hurt,” Ray Murakami said. “They’d lost their farms and their homes and businesses.”
According to Mary Murakami, items put in storage were gone by the close of the war. Anyone found unhealthy or “too pregnant” before boarding buses to the Topaz internment camp (where she was placed with her family) was sent to a hospital without his or her families being notified.
One woman “was so pregnant that they said that she could not go, and she put up such a stink that she wouldn’t leave her husband and this was her firstborn, that she fought her way onto the bus,” Mary Murakami recalled.
The woman gave birth to the first baby born in the Topaz internment camp and repurposed a Wonder Bread box and blanket to make a crib.
Following the 1945 close of the war, Ray and his wife, then Mary Tamaki, met as students at the University of California at Berkeley. But Ray Murakami’s education was placed on hold when he enlisted 1946-47.
According to Ray Murakami, he landed in his grandfather’s hometown interpreting Japanese for his relatives and others as part of the U.S. Military Intelligence Service for a year. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011 for his service in the 442nd Infantry Regiment.
Ray Murakami returned to California after his service, earning his associate degree from UC-Berkeley before transferring to UCLA for a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology. He became a dental technician in Los Angeles, making crowns, bridges and a name for himself in some of the larger Hollywood labs.
The Howard University Experience
As a young dental technician in Los Angeles, Ray Murakami and a group of friends learned about Howard from Dr. Richard Otagaki (D.D.S. ’45). Otagaki had been a student at a California-based university before the war and denied re-entry in accordance with the quota systems in place. Not only did Dixon, Howard University’s College of Dentistry dean, permit Otagaki admission but later offered him a teaching position.
According to Mary Murakami, for every 30 applicants to a California-based dental school, the maximum number of spots for Japanese-Americans was three. Otagaki told everyone who didn’t want to wait for the quota system to move east and go to Howard.
Ray Murakami arrived to Howard from California a year ahead of his wife and first child, Diane, staying in Carver Hall. He was shocked by the racial segregation experiences his Black classmates still faced, such as refusal to permit entry into some restaurants and systematic relegation to particular portions of office buildings, during the ongoing desegregation of Washington, D.C.
Some of Murakami’s close friends at Howard were Roger Kuwabara (D.D.S. ’59), a first-generation Howardite from Honolulu, Hawaii, and Irvin McCaine Jr. (D.D.S. ’60), a North Carolina-born, self-proclaimed Army brat, whose father also graduated from the dental school.
With their seats in alphabetical order and discussions of their inexhaustible dreams as a catalyst for conversation, McCaine, Felix Monat (D.D.S. ’60) and Robey Crawford McDonald (D.D.S. ’60), became friends.
Murakami’s abilities as a technician not only endeared him to their crown and bridge professor, Dr. Percy Fitzgerald, but also to the rest of the class, McCaine said.
“He was kind of my mentor, so to speak,” McCaine said. “If Ray had not been there, my education would have been more difficult. But he was a willing kind of guy—he liked to teach, so it was great.”
“He was an outstanding clinician, one of the better clinical students that I had,” said Kuwabara, who graduated the year before Murakami and ended up as one of his teachers, from 1959-60.
McCaine remembers being surprised by Murakami’s wartime internment, which McCaine said was not really covered in the main news media of the time.
“It finally came out, but it didn’t come out right away,” McCaine said. “I would say it might have been in the second year or into the third year, he decided to bring that part of his life up to other people.”
The two traveled together to compete in the first table clinic for the American Dental Association student clinician award. Murakami won second place in the competition of 58 schools.
Ray Murakami’s time at Howard became critical for his wife.
Not only did renowned gynecologist Dr. John F. J. Clark Jr. deliver the couple’s second child, Kimi, in Freedmen’s Hospital in 1955, but he saved Mary Murakami from an unnecessary hysterectomy.
“I had gone to White and Asian doctors and no one could figure out what it was,” Mary Murakami said. But Clark “knew exactly what was the problem (fibroids). It is very common in Black women, so he knew exactly how to treat it. He took the time to cut out each one and leave my uterus in tact. And he said it would last 10 years, and sure enough, it lasted 10 years.”
The Dental Career
Following graduation, Ray Murakami joined the Dupont Circle-area practice of Dr. Clement Alpert, and later opened his own practice with clientele, ranging from heads of state and celebrity entertainers to the practice’s maintenance workers.
Daughter Kimi said her parents considered patients as friends, each day making a list of those who may have had a painful day to see how they were doing by evening time.
“We knew where certain patients lived, because if they had to take a certain bus transfer so many times to get to my father, my mother would pick them up... or my dad would drive them home,” Kimi said.
At nearly 90, Ray Murakami still styles his hair in his signature “college contour”—hair parted on the left and combed to the right—a style maintained since his teenage years. Officially retired from fluoride treatments and crafting bridgework, he now offers preventative treatment for the possible decay of a collective historical consciousness.
“We don’t want people to go through what we went through during the war,” he said. “I think America is sort of like a laboratory of how people from all different parts of the world come here and made this beautiful country of ours. It’s amazing. All over the world, there’s strife. The main thing is to have a dialogue and try to understand each other.”