A painting, a garden, a documentary and 120,313 paper cranes – tributes to Japanese Americans


The Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) recently received a triptych portrait of the late Japanese American activist Ruth Tanbara by Virginia artist Hiro. Mrs. Tanbara’s nephew Tom Kurihara commissioned Hiro to do the portrait showing the many accomplishments of his aunt on the three-panel painting and presented it to MHS as a gift.

In 1942 the War Relocation Authority asked Mrs. Tanbara and her husband Earl to come to the Twin Cities and help Japanese Americans coming out of relocation centers and camps and settling here finding homes, jobs, schools and adjusting to a new way of life.

The reason for the Japanese Americans move to Minnesota was the war. Many Americans, especially those living on the West Coast, were frightened, as Japan had bombed Pearle Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941 bringing the United States into World War II. On February 19, 1942 President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 removing all Japanese, citizen or not, from their West Coast homes to inland relocation centers which were surrounded by barb wire and armed guards. Once in camps, if people could prove they could support themselves and be accepted they could leave and resettle elsewhere as long as it wasn’t the West Coast.

Also at the start of the war, the Army Military Intelligence Service Language School, which refreshed Nisei soldiers (second generation Japanese American) in speaking and writing Japanese, the language of their heritage, was billeted at the San Francisco Presidio. These men were sent to the Pacific theater where they went behind enemy lines capturing and translating Japanese war plans, interrogating prisoners and earning many medals and the distinction of shortening the war in the Pacific by two years.

Even though the students were American soldiers who loved and wanted to serve their country, they had the face of the enemy and the school was forced to move in 1942 to a vacant homeless man’s camp in Savage, Minnesota and later to Fort Snelling. The soldiers at Camp Savage wrote their families living in relocation camps inviting them to come to the Twin Cities.

Mrs. Tanbara not only distinguished herself in the Japanese community serving the Japanese American Citizen League, the Saint Paul -Nagasaki Sister City Committee, the Japan America Society of Minnesota and other community projects including a long career with the YWCA communicating with YWs through out the world and eventually became known as “Ambassador without a Portfolio.” When she retired in 1973 the downtown Saint Paul YWCA (now the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School) created and dedicated the Ruth Tanbara Japanese Garden in one of their building’s alcoves in appreciation of her years of service. It was rededicated last year in the Wellstone School and has become a vital part of the students’ educations.

While the Ruth Tanbara Japanese Garden stands as a memorial to a dedicated lady in a Saint Paul school, two 14 year old students, Carly Nicole Gutzmann and Michelle Ilia Reed, in an Eagan school are rapidly making a name for themselves by making people aware of the plight of Japanese Americans in World War II.

Two years ago when the girls were in the 7th grade at Dakota Middle School they entered a statewide competition for National History Day sponsored by the University of Minnesota and MHS. The theme was Triumph and Tragedy in History. It was then that they heard about the relocation camps and centers of World War II where 120,000 plus West Coast Japanese Americans were uprooted and moved to inland relocation camps. They decided to do for their project a ten-minute TV documentary on these camps and centers. Because of the book Topaz Moon about Japanese American artist and former internee at Topaz Relocation Center, Utah, Chiura Obata (1885-1975) and the art school he started at the camp, they titled their documentary: The Art and Soul of the Topaz Relocation Center.

The documentary got wide coverage showing the despair the relocation of Japanese Americans wrought but also the hope that was expressed along with despair in the internees painting.
The documentary went on to capture first place in the Minnesota Regional competition and sent Carly and Michelle on to a new stage to continue to tell the story of the plight of Japanese Americans in World War II.

After seeing Paper Clips, a documentary about a school that collected paper clips — one for each person who was killed during the Holocaust, Michelle thought of a like memorial to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Last year the girls folded and sent 350 paper cranes to the University of Utah to take to the school’s annual pilgrimage to Topaz. The school sent 1,200 cranes back — the memorial was started. The girls have set a goal of 120,313 cranes for the memorial — one for each person interned.

They want to give the first 11,212 cranes to the Topaz Museum for the help they received on the documentary and are looking for a home for the remaining 109,101 cranes when they come in. As of November 2, they had 28,895 cranes. That’s a good number but there are still over 90,000 to go because there were a lot of internees.

If you would like to help, Carly and Michelle’s web page www.120313cranes.org shows you how via video to make a paper crane. And when you fold them you can send them to: Paper Cranes, c/o SGI, 2750 Blue Water Road, Eagan, Minnesota 55121.