Women’s Work: Give Her Liberty — Mitsuye Endo and the Fight Against Japanese American Internment

One young woman decided to file a lawsuit against Japanese internment during World War II and ended up taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Mitsuye Endo sitting at a typewriter, 1944 (Used by permission, Utah Historical Society)

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In 1940, Sacramento’s Japantown was one of thirty in the state. Just half a mile from the state capitol building, Japanese immigrants built a community with businesses and homes. By the early 1920s, Sacramento had the state’s fourth-largest Japanese population. More than 400 Japanese-owned businesses served customers from their Japantown locations.

In 1940, Jinshiro and Shima Endo lived on the outskirts of Japantown, at 604 O Street, with their four children, who ranged in age from 14 to 21. Shima was a homemaker; Jinshiro worked in a nearby grocery store, perhaps in Japantown. The children were all American citizens, born after Jinshiro and Shima settled in Sacramento. Their oldest daughter, Mitsuye, graduated from Sacramento High School, the second-oldest high school west of the Mississippi River. She continued her education with a secretarial training course, then began to work for the state of California.

Mitsuye Endo’s life changed forever over the course of 175 days, from December 7, 1941, to the end of May 1942. During those months, she saw friends and neighbors arrested. Her employer questioned her loyalty to the United States. Endo was fired from her job. All residents of Japanese descent became subject to a curfew, and then were not allowed to move out of their homes. A little more than a month after that, Endo and her family were forced to report to the Sacramento Assembly Center, a temporary place for all of Sacramento’s Japanese American population to live while internment camps were built. It was better known as Walerga. Mitsuye Endo celebrated her 22nd birthday the month she and her family were sent to Walerga.

Assembly center in Sacramento for people of Japanese ancestry, 1942 (National Archives)

Japanese Americans came under intense scrutiny immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In January, the state of California had begun investigating Japanese American employees, planning to fire all of them. In mid-February, they asked Japanese American employees to complete a 10-page loyalty questionnaire. One day later, the U.S. government set into motion the events that would lead to Japanese American internment camps. Altogether, there were approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans living in the United States at that time.

After she lost her job, Mitsuye Endo decided to fight back. With the support of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and a lawyer named James Purcell, Endo and 63 other fired employees appealed their termination. The appeal was pending when the order came for the Endo family to go to Walerga.

The orders for Japanese Americans to report to assembly centers like Walerga, and then the internment camps, changed Mitsuye Endo’s legal fight. Now, it was no longer a fight for her job, but for something more — her freedom, and that of every other Japanese American.

In July 1942, shortly after Endo arrived at Tule Lake War Relocation Center, her court case began. While Endo remained interned, Purcell filed a petition for habeas corpus on her behalf. In other words, this petition claimed that Endo should be released from internment because being interned was against her constitutional rights. She was an American citizen whose parents happened to be Japanese immigrants and, Purcell argued, there was simply no reason to confine Endo, who was just a loyal American citizen.

Tule Lake Relocation Center, 1943 (Library of Congress)

Habeas corpus petitions are supposed to be decided very quickly, but the judge held the case for nearly a year. Endo remained at Tule Lake, waiting for news. In July 1943, the judge denied the petition.

Endo’s fight was far from over. Purcell appealed the decision on her behalf, going to the Ninth District U.S. Court of Appeals. At the same time, things were changing for Endo and other interned Japanese Americans. The government had begun a program that would allow internees to apply to be able to leave the camps, if they were not a risk to the public or if they agreed to move away from the West Coast. The first step was to complete an application for leave clearance, so that the government could determine whether an interned person was a threat or not. Endo submitted her application for clearance in February 1943. She was approved for the second step of the process in August 1943, but declined to submit the application. Government lawyers wanted her to complete the process: If Endo left Tule Lake under the leave program, her case would not move forward. Instead, she chose to stay in the camp.

Endo persisted. In September 1943, Tule Lake became reclassified as an internment camp for those labeled as disloyal, and Endo was sent to Utah to Topaz Relocation Center. Meanwhile, the Ninth District Court of Appeals recommended that Endo’s case go directly to the Supreme Court, where a similar case was also heading — that of Fred Korematsu.

Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, 1942 (National Archives)

On October 11 and 12, 1944, more than four months after D-Day, the nine Justices of the Supreme Court heard two cases on Japanese American internment, back-to-back. The first, Korematsu vs. United States, has become the most famous. But Korematsu’s case was not identical to Endo’s: Korematsu engaged in civil disobedience in 1942, refusing to go to an assembly center. He was arrested on May 30, around the same time that Endo and her family were already in residence at Walerga. But Korematsu did not win his case: the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional for the government to require Japanese Americans to evacuate, due to national security needs.

Fred Korematsu and family (courtesy of the family of Fred T. Korematsu, Wikimedia Commons via the Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic license)

Mitsuye Endo’s case, known as Ex Parte Endo, however, focused on the fact that she had followed the law. Endo and her family had gone to the internment centers when ordered. On the same day that the Supreme Court ruled against Fred Korematsu, the Justices ruled in favor of Mitsuye Endo. They found that Endo should be set free, and they also found that the War Relocation Authority, which managed Japanese American internment camps, could not keep anyone in the camps who was loyal and had also followed the proper leave procedures, as Endo had.

It was a unanimous ruling.

In May 1945, Endo left Topaz and moved to Chicago to be near family members. There, she became a secretary with the Chicago Mayor’s Committee on Race Relations, continuing to help others in the fight for equal rights.

Mitsuye Endo waving as she leaves the Central Utah Relocation Center in Topaz, Utah, 1945 (Used by permission, Utah Historical Society)

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