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Elevating St. Paul’s Rich Diversity: Ruth Tanbara

As Women’s History Month continues, this week we celebrate women who have made strides in our local business community. These women are entrepreneurs, business leaders, and role models who have been leading the way to better business throughout St. Paul’s history. As a business leader in St. Paul and one of YW St. Paul’s earliest members, Ruth Tanbara lived up to our mission of empowering women and eliminating racism.

Ruth Tanbara and her husband Earl Tanbara wearing traditional Japanese garments at Festival of Nations in 1973
Ruth and Earl Tanbara at Festival of Nations (1973)

Born in 1907, Ruth Tanbara and her husband Earl were the first Japanese Americans to resettle in St. Paul in 1942 when the War Relocation Authority forced the couple to evacuate their San Francisco home.[1] It wasn’t long until the couple made themselves home in the Capital City. The two became members of the Japanese American Citizens League, fighting to repeal the US law  that banned Japanese immigrants from becoming citizens. They also volunteered on the St. Paul Resettlement Committee, helping more than 100 Japanese evacuees from internment camps find housing and jobs in St. Paul.

Ruth Tanbara and Michi Rokutani representing Japanese culture at St. Paul's Festival of Nations in 1952
Ruth Tanbara and Michi Rokutani representing their Japanese culture at St. Paul’s Festival of Nations (1952)

Tanbara was the first Japanese American to earn a degree in Home Economics Education at Oregon State Agriculture College. She would go on to use her degree at YWCA St. Paul for 30 years, teaching classes like glove making, flower arranging, and Japanese cooking.

For decades, Tanbara hosted dinner parties at her home in St. Paul, sharing her Japanese heritage through food. In 1939, Tanbara and her friend S. Akiya collaborated on a cookbook titled Recipes of Japanese Food, which she shared with her students during her cooking class at YWCA St. Paul. In 1947, Tanbara was among the first group to showcase their Japanese culture at the popular Festival of Nations, a celebration of our community’s rich ethnic diversity.

In an interview in 2006 with YWCA’s Kelly Flynn, Tanbara reflected on the trips she organized for our YWCA Board members, often to Japan. She was very instrumental in St. Paul’s sister city relationship with Nagasaki, Japan. Tanbara also spoke of former mayor George Latimer wanting to visit Nagasaki when he was in office, and how she arranged the trip for him and his wife Nancy, even down to the details of providing Nancy with chicken entrees because she did not eat fish (Nagasaki is a seaport town and has a fish cuisine).

Recipe card for Japanese Egg Custard Soup by Ruth Tanbara
Recipe card for Japanese Egg Custard Soup by Ruth Tanbara for her class at YWCA St. Paul

Tanbara spoke of her flower arranging classes and the many invitations she enjoyed to the city’s various garden clubs. For her instrumental work in St. Paul, she was honored with a memorial garden on Kellogg Boulevard when she retired in 1972. Tanbura passed away at age 100 in 2008.







[1] Ruth Tanbara Papers. Tanbara, Ruth Nomura. Ruth Tanbara Papers. August 20, 2018. Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, MN.
Hanson, Kirsta Finstad. Tanbara, Ruth Nomura (1907-2008).” Votes for Women. Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, MN.