Bill Hirabayashi was eager to enlist in the U.S. Army after Japan bombed the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor in 1941. At the recruitment office, however, he was rejected as an "enemy alien" and later sent to an internment camp where thousands of Japanese-Americans were detained during the war.
Hirabayashi, one of a dwindling number of World War II detention camp survivors in Minnesota today, went on to forge a long career servicing and selling Jaguars and other expensive foreign cars.
He and his wife, Anice, were active in the state's Japanese-American community, staffing booths at the Festival of Nations and volunteering at the Minnesota Nikkei Project, a civic group providing support to Japanese elders.
Hirabayashi, 93, died Aug. 6.
"He was a successful business owner, with Twin City Auto Service and two [auto] parts stores," said Peggy Doi, a board member of the Minnesota Nikkei Project.
"Like other [interned] Japanese-Americans who came to Minnesota, they made their lives out of basically nothing."
Hirabayashi grew up on a farm in Thomas, Wash., one of eight children of Grace and Thomas Hirabayashi. He was 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, launching the United States into World War II. An estimated 110,000 Japanese-Americans from the Pacific Coast were forced to evacuate their homes and move to spartan camp barracks.
Hirabayashi was confined at Tule Lake camp in California, where he worked as a cook's helper, said his daughter-in-law, Carol Hirabayashi. Eventually U.S. citizens there were allowed to leave if they found jobs in the U.S. interior. Hirabayashi landed work on an Illinois commercial farm, where he stayed for nearly a decade, she said.
In the early 1950s, he and his wife moved to Minnesota, where his parents had relocated to be near another son who had served at a military Japanese language school called Camp Savage. The couple settled in Richfield.
Hirabayashi worked for several car shops before launching Twin City Auto Service in the mid-1950s. The business operated out of several St. Paul locations until it closed in 1988, said son Larry Hirabayashi of Richfield.
"He had a lot of high-end clients," said son Ron Hirabayashi of Eden Prairie. "He had three generations of customers purchasing cars from him."
Hirabayashi also owned two stores called Foreign Auto Parts, one in Minneapolis and another in St. Paul, until about 1994, said Larry Hirabayashi.
The car dealer loved foreign cars, but he drove the shop's pickup truck, Larry Hirabayashi said.
"He'd be working in the body shop seven days a week," he said. "On Sunday, he'd go to church, and then work until about 6 or 7."
Hirabayashi, a spry, gregarious man who loved to tell stories, was well known among Twin Cities foreign car enthusiasts and its Japanese-American community.
"I remember at the Japanese [lantern] lighting festival at Como Park, about every 25 feet or so, someone would walk up to him," said Ron Hirabayashi. "A lot of people knew him."
After closing the last of his businesses in 1994, Hirabayashi began a second career as a handyman and carpenter. He also volunteered for the Nikkei Project, driving people — typically his age and younger — to doctor's appointments, grocery stores and errands. Just the week before he died, he had driven some folks to the airport and picked up someone's mail, said Carol Hirabayashi.
"He met life with a joke and a smile," said Ron Hirabayashi. "He was always helping people."
Hirabayashi is survived by his two sons and four grandchildren. Services have been held.