Meet Mitsuye Endo, The Woman Whose Supreme Court Case Ended Japanese Concentration Camps

Wendy Weiner (left) and Wayne Tsutsumi (right), two of Endo’s children via Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (Representation Only)

Mitsuye Endo is an unsung hero who was the only plaintiff to win a court case that led to the process of ending Japanese American incarceration during World War II.

Life before concentration: Endo was born on May 10, 1920, in Sacramento, Calif., to Japanese immigrant parents and graduated from Sacramento Senior High School.

  • She attended secretarial school and began working with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, according to the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes.
  • After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the California State Personnel Board fired all Japanese American state employees by the next spring.
  • On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the “relocation and internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans,” according to a video from the Lowell Milken Center.
  • Endo and her family were sent to the Sacramento Assembly Center and later moved to a concentration camp in Tule Lake, Calif.

Why she’s important:  Endo was one of the 63 employees, out of an estimated 300 to 500, who “sought to challenge their firings” with the aid of the Japanese Americans Citizens League, enlisting the help of lawyer James Purcell, according to the Densho Encyclopedia. As the firings were “made moot for the time being” when Endo was incarcerated, Purcell helped to “challenge the incarcerations through a habeas corpus petition.” 

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  • Endo’s methodist background, previous employment as a clerical worker for the state of California, her brother being in the army and that she had never been to Japan made her case the “perfect” one for “protesting detention,” according to Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.
  • She was the only plaintiff who chose to stay in incarceration, in order to ensure her case would be active, even after the War Relocation Authorities (WRA) presented her with an offer of freedom under the pretense that she couldn’t return to the West Coast afterward, according to the New York Times.
  • Endo was the “only female resistor” of Executive Order 9066 whose case reached the Supreme Court. Her first petition was dismissed without explanation after a year at the District Court, but Purcell appealed the decision.
  • The Court of Appeals sent it to the Supreme Court for a final decision, which then ruled in favor of Endo. This ended Japanese incarceration for “concededly loyal” Japanese Americans.
  • Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy stated that “Detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by Congress or the Executive, but is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism inherent in the entire evacuation program.” 
  • Endo was the only plaintiff to win an internment case with a unanimous ruling in favor of the plaintiff. Her victory led to the process of ending incarceration for Japanese Americans and “forced the government to recognize the unconstitutionality of their actions.” 

The aftermath: Although Endo’s case granted “loyal” Japanese Americans freedom from concentration camps, those who were deemed disloyal were not released until March 20, 1946. 

  • U.S. Senator Brian Schatz recommended her for the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 in a letter to President Obama, describing her as “an ordinary person who made the extraordinary choice to forego her own freedom in order to secure the rights of 120,000 Japanese Americans who were wrongfully imprisoned without the benefit of due process.”
  • Endo said that she thought her case “might have been thrown out of court because of the bad sentiment toward us” and that she never believed she would be the one. She told John Tateishi that she agreed to take her case to court because it was “for the good of everybody.” 
  • She met her husband Kenneth Tsutsumi in the Topaz War Relocation Center. She began working as a secretary for the Mayor’s Committee on Race Relations. The two moved to Chicago in 1946 and had three children. Endo died of cancer on April 14, 2006, at the age of 85.
  • Two of her children, Wendy and Wayne, later stated in the Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus video that they weren’t aware of the impact their mother had made in the world until they were adults. 

Featured Image: Wendy Weiner (left) and Wayne Tsutsumi (right), two of Endo’s children via Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (Representation Only)

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