She fought the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and won
By LORI ARATANI | The Washington Post | Published: December 18, 2019
Mitsuye Endo didn’t set out to make history.
For years, not even her family knew the pivotal role she played in the only successful Supreme Court challenge to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Legal scholars often cite cases involving three men: Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui and Fred Korematsu, who challenged the government’s efforts to restrict the movements of and eventually to remove Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast and put them into camps out of “military necessity.”
All lost, but their cases were revisited later and their convictions were overturned when researchers found the government had suppressed documents that showed Japanese Americans did not pose a wartime threat. All three were given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of their stands.
Endo’s case, the only one brought by a woman, is less well-known, but her victory on Dec. 18, 1944, is significant because it forced the government to close the camps and allowed thousands of Japanese Americans to return to the West Coast.
The court sided with Endo in its unanimous decision, but in doing so, sidestepped the thorny constitutional questions raised by her attorney.
“We are of the view that Mitsuye Endo should be given her liberty,” Justice Hugo L. Black wrote in the unanimous decision. “In reaching that conclusion we do not come to the underlying constitutional issues that have been argued. For we conclude that whatever power the War Relocation Authority may have to detail other classes of citizens, it has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.”
Ironically, the Supreme Court handed Endo a victory on the same day 75 years ago it upheld Korematsu’s conviction — a decision that, along with cases involving Hirabayashi and Yasui, has come to be viewed as among the worst rendered by the Supreme Court.
Years later, Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui would share in the push to overturn their convictions in the 1980s as part of the campaign to win reparations for Japanese American internees. But Endo never spoke publicly about her role.
Her daughter, Wendy Weiner, said she learned only when she was about 10 that her mother was interned. She was riding in a car with her parents when a family friend asked Endo where she met her husband.
“She said ‘in camp,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, you met in summer camp?’ And then I realized … they met in an internment camp,” she said. “I always wondered why she came to Chicago. I think after what happened, she just wanted a new start.”
There would be occasional conversations about her mother’s time in camp, but it was only after Endo died in 2006 that Weiner and her family began to learn more about her mother’s role in the court challenge.
In 2015, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, recommended that Endo — like Hirabayashi, Korematsu and Yasui — be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mitsuye Endo would provide long overdue recognition of the courage and sacrifice of a civil rights heroine whose low-key demeanor belied her steadfast pursuit of justice during World War II,” Schatz wrote.
Interest in Endo’s case has grown amid outrage over the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants housed in detention centers and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a travel ban on individuals from certain Muslim-majority countries in 2018.
This fall at a special ceremony in Washington, Endo, Korematsu, Hirabayashi and Yasui were recognized for their fight against internment with the Defender of Liberty Award from the Committee for the Republic, a nonprofit group that “seeks to restore the Constitution and the Republic it created.”
The event, co-sponsored by the National Japanese American Memorial Foundation, honors individuals who stand up for the principles embodied in the Constitution.
“Our Defender of Liberty award recipients resisted the racial tyranny of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s executive order issued unilaterally without Congress,” said Bruce Fein of the Committee for the Republic.
Endo was born in Sacramento, the daughter of Japanese immigrants. She attended California public schools and a local Methodist church. She went to secretarial school and was hired to work as a typist at California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. In a rare interview as part of an oral history of the internment, she said it was one of the few jobs open to Japanese Americans.
Endo was 22 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — an event that dramatically would alter her life and the lives of thousands others on the West Coast as anti-Japanese sentiment grew.
Endo and dozens of other state employees eventually would lose their jobs. The reason given? They were Japanese.
In February 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which established curfews and cleared the way for the internment of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast.
Endo did not initially seek to fight the government’s orders.
In June 1942, she and her family were sent to the Tule Lake internment camp in a remote area of California. They later were transferred to a camp in Topaz, Utah. Her older brother was drafted into the Army in 1941, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and fought as part of the much-decorated all-Japanese American 442nd Regiment.
Through an emissary, she was approached to become the lead plaintiff in a case challenging the internment. James Purcell thought Endo would be an ideal candidate. In addition to being U.S. citizen, she had never been to Japan and spoke only English. Historians said Purcell could not have found a better candidate.
“Mitsuye exemplified all the best things you could find in trying to describe an American citizen,” said John Tateishi, who interviewed her for his book “And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps.” “The only problem for Mitsuye was she didn’t have a face that people identified as American in 1942.”
But agreeing to be part of the case would be a big step. Endo was reluctant.
“I was very young, and I was very shy, so it was awfully hard to have this thing happen to me,” she told Tateishi. “I said, ‘Well, can’t you have someone else do it first?’ It was awfully hard for me, but I agreed to do it at that moment, because they said it’s for the good of everybody, and so I said, well if that’s it, I’ll go ahead and do it.”
In July 1942, Purcell filed Endo’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus in district court. In it, he argued that the government, which justified the detainment of Japanese Americans because of questions of their loyalty to the United States, could not continue to detain them when they declared their loyalty in questionnaires given to them by the U.S. government. (Hirabayashi also challenged the internment in his case, but the Supreme Court did not address the question in its ruling).
A ruling was not issued until a year later in 1943, when Judge Michael J. Roche denied her petition. Roche offered no explanation. The case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which, in a rare move, declined to hear the case and sent it directly to the Supreme Court.
The government, realizing that it probably would lose the case, offered Endo the opportunity to leave camp as long as she did not return to the West Coast, Amanda L. Tyler, professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, said in her book “Habeas Corpus in Wartime: From the Tower of London to Guantanamo Bay.”
“She resisted,” Tyler said. “Given the chance to leave the internment camp, Endo opted to stay. She knew that if she took the government’s offer it would end her case and it would never be heard before the Supreme Court.”
As a result, she would remain in camp for two additional years.
The impact of the court’s decision in Endo’s case might have been blunted by an announcement made the day before. Tipped off that the court would rule in favor of Endo, Roosevelt announced the camps would be closed.
In her book, Tyler wrote that an internal court memorandum suggests that the court intentionally delayed the announcement of their decision to give the government more time to prepare a response.
It would take another year before the camps would be shuttered. And even though many Japanese Americans were allowed to return to the communities where they lived before they were interned, many still faced hostility.
Endo never returned to California. Instead, she settled in Chicago, where she got a job working for the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights. She married Kenneth Tsutsumi, whom she met in camp, and raised three children.
Though Hirabayashi and Yasui lost their early legal challenges against the president’s executive order, Tyler thinks their cases helped chip away at the government’s arguments for rounding up Japanese Americans. She noted that while Korematsu lost, his case was not a unanimous decision like the cases of Hirabayashi and Yasui. And Endo prevailed.
“I just think her story is so remarkable,” Tyler said. “Particularly now in the times in which we live to read about people who stood up for what was the right thing, who stood up and fought for the Constitution, represent really the best of what our Constitution is about.”
Endo’s willingness to challenge the government during wartime was even more remarkable because she was so very private, Tateishi said.
“To me there is this really heroic quality to her because it was so painful for her to [be public],” he said. “But in her case, the legal process worked as it should have.”