Remembering Aunt Ruth
Ruth Nomura was born in Portland in 1907. One of the first Japanese Americans to grow up in Oregon, she graduated with honors from Oregon State College earning a bachelor of science in home economics. In 1935, she married Earl Tanbara, born in 1905 of Japanese American parents, and they moved to the Bay Area where Earl became Director of Marketing for the Dollar Steamship Company. With her expertise in home economics, Ruth authored one of the first English language books on Japanese cooking which helped introduce Japanese recipes and methods to first generation Japanese Americans.
The Tanbara's lives were filled with promise, but it was 1942, and wartime internment efforts were underway. They re-located to a farm in Reedly, California. Soon after, they had to register with the government. The U.S. Army's Provost Marshall offered Earl and Ruth the option of moving to the East Coast or Midwest where their assignment would be to help build community acceptance. Ruth's brother, Paul Nomura already lived in Minnesota where he was enrolled in the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Camp Savage, and so the Tanbaras chose to come to Saint Paul.
After arriving in Minnesota, Earl and Ruth spoke to hundreds of youth groups, schools, colleges, church groups, and farming communities about Japanese Americans. They opened their small home to families and students who wanted to re-settle from the internment camps. The Tanbaras found retailers and services who would accept Japanese American customers, help place evacuees in work situations, and assisted them in continuing their college educations.
Among those evacuees was their young nephew, Tom Kurihara, who at the age of seven, was interned with his parents at concentration camps Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Poston Camp III, Arizona. Arriving safely in Saint Paul with his parents in 1945, Tom attended Linwood Elementary School, then graduated from Monroe High School where he was elected president of both his Junior and Senior class, and received the Franklin Blume Award for Scholarship and Athletic Accomplishment. He was awarded the Junior Achievement Scholarship and an NROTC Scholarship to Stanford University where he studied electrical engineering. After his service as an officer in the U.S. Navy, Tom was employed in both the private and public sectors, and later established an independent consulting service. He has made northern Virginia his home since 1966.
Meanwhile, back in Saint Paul, Ruth earned a masters degree in home economics from the University of Minnesota and began a 30 year career with the YWCA directing adult education classes and the world fellowship international programs. In addition she helped establish the Saint Paul Council of Human Relations as well as the Saint Paul-Nagasaki Sister City Committee, and served in leadership positions for the Festival of Nations and the Japan America Society of Minnesota. She often quoted an anonymous author who wrote that "civilization is maintained by individuals who live for others, who radiate kindness and friendship and live beyond themselves to add something to your contentment and happiness for others."
Beginning in 2004, Tom made frequent trips to visit his Aunt Ruth and learn of her travels, education, and life experience. She inspired him to look into family history and while doing so, he developed an interest in the very organizations that Aunt Ruth was instrumental in founding, and meeting the people who greatly admired her lifelong efforts. To celebrate her life, Tom commissioned the artist HIRO to create a biographical portrait painting in recognition and in honor of Ruth's lifetime of public service to the communities of Portland, San Francisco, Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and the international community. The painting and Ruth's papers are in the archives and collections of the Minnesota Historical Society.
The Earl K. and Ruth N. Tanbara Fund for Japanese American History in Minnesota, established by Tom earlier this year, may be used in support of oral history, women's history, exhibitions, conservation, education, public affairs, publications, collections, and statewide outreach related to the Japanese American experience in Minnesota.