She was such a typical St. Paul kid. Born downtown in 1936 at St. Joseph’s Hospital, she attended Sheridan Elementary School on the East Side and Harding High School. She spent blissful late summers at her family’s trinket booth in the craft building at the Minnesota State Fair — munching Pronto Pups and visiting with curious rural 4-H kids.
But Hideko Akamatsu was different. There were only about 50 Japanese-Americans in Minnesota before 1940 and fewer than a dozen living in St. Paul — most of them bachelor cooks working on the Great Northern Railway.
A month before Hideko turned 6, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the fallout reverberated all the way to St. Paul.
“The Akamatsus are examples of ... people, doing their best, who are tragically caught in a world situation which they hardly understand,” the St. Paul Dispatch reported Dec. 9, 1941.
Hideko’s family went to Central Park Methodist Church on that Sunday. Her father, Jiro Akamatsu, served on the church board and had owned the Oriental Gift Shop in downtown St. Paul since 1933.
“I remembered my parents’ worried talk: ‘What will we do?’ — their ears to the radio,” said Hideko, now 82, living near Seattle and known by her married name Tachibana.
The day after that infamous day, U.S. Secret Service agents seized her family’s store at 14 E. 6th St. It was part of a Treasury Department effort to freeze all Japanese funds in the country.
“They took our camera, too, thinking we might be spies,” Hideko said. “My dad turned off the heat when they took over our store. When he went back the next day, the FBI agents were shivering and asked if he could leave the heat on.”
It was a Minnesota winter, after all. With pressure from his fellow churchgoers and neighbors, the government allowed the store to reopen after three days — with conditions.
“Akamatsu will be restricted to withdrawals of $200 per month for living expenses from store receipts,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. Other funds would be kept in a government-supervised bank account.
“An aroused citizenry took up the cause of the Japanese shopowner. The Methodist Church of which the Akamatsu family were such loyal and active members came to their defense,” according to a 1945 report from the St. Paul Resettlement Committee, a group launched in 1942 to welcome Japanese-Americans who had been locked up in West Coast detention camps after war broke out.
When the war ended in 1945, the Pioneer Press went to the Akamatsu home at 1624 Beech St. and ran a photo of a grinning Hideko, her older brother Toshio and mother Yoshiko.
“This Japanese-American family had more reason to celebrate Japan’s surrender to the Allies than many persons,” the caption read. “They, as Americans, felt that they would become more a part of this country.”
The family, Yoshiko said, “had no sympathy for Japan in this war.”
After 1945, Minnesota’s tiny Japanese-American population mushroomed 20-fold to 1,000 statewide and 350 in St. Paul, according to researcher Krista Finstad Hanson. U.S. military officials used Fort Snelling for a Japanese language school, one factor behind the influx. Unease about staying out West, where they’d been treated so harshly, also triggered the relocation.
“After the war, my mother became a one-person social agency,” Hideko said. “Soldiers at the language school would come by on Sunday and she’d cook rice and chow mein all day long.”
Young, single Japanese-American women began enrolling at the College of St. Catherine and Macalester College, while others went to work as housekeepers on Summit Avenue.
“They’d come to our gift shop and my mother would teach them to grocery shop and cook American food,” Hideko said. “She was outgoing and sensitive and she’d counsel the war brides who soldiers brought home.”
Her mother, Yoshiko, was born in Seattle in 1910. Hideko’s father was born in Japan and they emigrated to Omaha before moving to St. Paul during the Depression. U.S. law barred him from gaining U.S. citizenship.
“We are Americans and our loyalties are with this country,” Yoshiko said after Pearl Harbor. “Our home, our children, our lives and our hearts are here. This is our country.”
She lived until 93, dying in Seattle in 2003. Hideko went on to receive a sociology degree from the University of Minnesota in 1959, working at Ramsey County’s welfare office. Her late husband, Richard Tachibana, worked as a probation officer and family counselor. They raised three daughters and eventually moved to Washington state. Her older brother, Toshio, went on to the U and became an anesthesiologist.
Their family story is just one in a new, free exhibit called “Courage and Compassion: Our Shared Story of the Japanese American World War II Experience.” It will be on display from June 30 to Sept. 3 at the Fort Snelling visitor center.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.