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Overlooked No More: Mitsuye Endo, a Name Linked to Justice for Japanese-Americans

Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

It was January 1942, and Japanese-American civil servants in California were alarmed. Within weeks of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the state government had sent an invasive questionnaire to its employees of Japanese descent.

Did they speak Japanese? Had they ever visited Japan? Were they members of any Japanese organizations?

Anti-Japanese sentiment was high, and the survey, with its accusatory tone, seemed bent on portraying the workers as untrustworthy.

Mitsuye Endo, a 22-year-old typist with the Department of Motor Vehicles, dutifully answered the questions, and that spring she was fired, along with dozens of other Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-Americans, who worked for the state.

Although born in the United States, Nisei were accused of holding Japanese citizenship as well, a sign to many Americans of potential disloyalty. Their attending Buddhist schools and their ability to read and write Japanese raised suspicions only further.

“We were given a piece of paper saying we were suspended because we were of Japanese ancestry,” Endo said in the only interview she ever gave, to John Tateishi, for his book “And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps” (1984).

By then President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066, ordering the internment of about 120,000 Japanese-Americans in camps throughout the country.

Endo, who was interned with her family, would go on to become the chief plaintiff in the only United States Supreme Court case to successfully challenge Japanese incarceration during World War II. Three similar Supreme Court cases failed, most notably Korematsu v. United States, in which the justices upheld the restrictions placed on Japanese-Americans.

In Endo’s case — Ex parte Mitsuye Endo — the court unanimously ruled on Dec. 18, 1944, that the government could not detain citizens who were loyal to the United States.

Yet Endo, an unassuming woman, would never seek the spotlight, and by the time of the ruling she had never set foot in court.

Mitsuye Maureen Endo was born on May 10, 1920, in Sacramento, the second of four children of Jinshiro and Shima (Ota) Endo, Japanese immigrants. Her father was a salesman in a grocery store, her mother a homemaker. In the 1940s, the family lived and worked in one of the country’s largest and most vibrant Japantowns, a section of Sacramento with 3,400 residents and hundreds of businesses.

After the forced evacuation of Japanese-Americans, the Japanese American Citizens League, a national group, hired James Purcell, a San Francisco lawyer, to put together a case that would challenge the government and shutter the 10 detention camps it had opened. In looking for the ideal plaintiff to represent the group, he distributed a questionnaire to internees. In a stack of 100 or so responses, one stood out.

Endo had never visited Japan, had attended a Sacramento public school and was a Methodist. To top it off, her brother had served in the Army. On paper, she was perfect.

“They felt I represented a symbolic, ‘loyal’ American,” she said in “And Justice for All.”

The Endo family had been moved to a temporary relocation facility near Sacramento, then 300 miles north to the remote Tule Lake Segregation Center, near the Oregon border.

On July 13, 1942, Purcell filed a writ of habeas corpus, arguing, “If you can abrogate certain sections of the Constitution and incarcerate any person without trial or charges just because you do not like his nationality, what is to prevent from abrogating any or all of the Constitution?”

It took a year before Judge Michael J. Roche of the United States District Court in Northern California denied Endo’s freedom. The government, expecting Purcell would file an appeal, offered her release, but on one condition: She was not to return home.

“The top lawyer for the War Relocation Authority met with her in camp to offer her freedom in exchange for a commitment not to try to return to the forbidden area of the West Coast,” Eric Muller, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said by email. “She refused the offer.”

Some of her friends and relatives accepted the offer and were released, but Endo remained incarcerated indefinitely while her case remained under appeal.

By this time, her immediate family had been transferred to the Central Utah Relocation Center in Topaz. They made do with meager food rations — “they gave them just any old thing — scraps here and there,” Endo’s daughter Terry DeRivera said in an interview — and Endo sometimes became ill. She remembered armed soldiers in towers watching them from on high.

“She was really afraid,” DeRivera said.

During her detainment Endo met her future husband, Kenneth Tsutsumi, who played the ukulele with friends to pass the time and entertain fellow detainees.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in her case in October 1944. That December it ruled unanimously in Endo’s favor, calling her a “concedingly loyal” citizen.

The ruling said the government had no legal right to confine people who had been screened and found to be loyal, but though it referred to the detention of Japanese-Americans as “racial discrimination,” it stopped short of defining the constitutional limits of wartime detention based on factors like race.

As Muller put it in his email, “It didn’t want, on the one hand, to approve of racial detentions, or, on the other, to hand President Roosevelt a defeat during wartime.”

In fact, the day before the court issued its ruling, the Roosevelt administration announced that Japanese-Americans could return home beginning on Jan. 1, 1945. Besides effectively closing the remaining concentration camps (though it took until the end of the year before they were entirely emptied), the Endo case has continued to be cited in matters related to the detention of United States citizens.

It was invoked in 2004, for example, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, a Supreme Court case that ruled that United States citizens who were detained as enemy combatants were entitled to due process and could not be barred from challenging their enemy combatant status.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling citing discrimination, anti-Japanese sentiment remained pervasive on the West Coast.

“It was not a good thing,” Endo’s daughter said. “It was a nightmare for them.”

During the war a Senate committee on Japanese resettlement released a report saying that there would be “violence and bloodshed” if internees were returned to the West Coast. It appealed to Roosevelt to keep them out of California until the end of the war.

Despite her earlier insistence on returning home, Endo decided that it wouldn’t be safe to do so. “My mom said no, she would never go back to California,” DeRivera said.

Endo and Tsutsumi moved to Chicago, where they married on Nov. 22, 1946. They raised three children in a close-knit community of Japanese-American transplants. Endo rarely spoke of the past and strove to fit in “like American apple pie,” DeRivera said.

Endo died of cancer on April 14, 2006. She was 85.

Later in life, when she was interviewed for “And Justice for All,” she marveled at how her incarceration and the subsequent court case “seemed like a dream” to her so many years later.

“When I think about it now — that my case went to the Supreme Court — I’m awed by it,” she said. “I never believed it, that I would be the one.”


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