A nisei, Mitsuye Endo successfully pursued Ex parte Mitsuye Endo 323 U.S. 283 (1944), a writ of habeas corpus (a lawsuit asking the court to examine whether the
government has a right to detain someone or not), demanding her release from first, Tule Lake concentration camp and, then Topaz concentration camp. She challenged the government's right to detain citizens who the government already had determined to be loyal. Unlike the other better-known court cases surrounding the World War II experience of Japanese Americans where criminal charges were filed against the plaintiff for refusing to go to the camps, Endo filed the lawsuit after arriving at Tule Lake to try to leave the camp. The court also ruled differently in her case; the U.S. Supreme Court in 1945 ordered her unconditional release, and concluded that the government could not hold, intern, or jail a citizen that the government itself deems is loyal to the United States.
One of four children, Endo was born and raised in Sacramento, California, attending both elementary and high school there. Endo was a typist at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, because as Endo noted in an oral history, “there was so much discrimination against the Japanese Americans, the only position we could get was with the state, unless we worked for a Japanese firm” (Tateishi, 60).
In early 1942, state employees of Japanese ancestry, including 22-year-old Endo, were dismissed from their jobs; the state specifically cited the employees' ancestry as the reason for their dismissals. In response, along with her colleagues who also worked for the state and were already members of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), she joined the JACL. Through the members' efforts, they decided to hire James Purcell, an attorney from San Francisco, to represent them. At that time, Purcell was interested in finding U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry who worked for the government to challenge the legality of dismissing government employees based on their ancestry.
When President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, Endo was forcibly removed to the Walarga Assembly Center near Sacramento for a month (not Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, contrary to popular belief), and then taken to Tule Lake concentration camp. While at Tule Lake, Purcell's representatives approached Endo and other detainees about filing a case to test whether it was constitutional to detain loyal citizens. The representatives found her to be a suitable candidate for such a lawsuit: her brother was drafted into the U.S. Army and her parents had remained in the United States since migrating, which, the representatives determined, demonstrated Endo's loyalty to the United States. Originally, Endo was reluctant to file the lawsuit. She recalled, “I was very young and I was very shy … when they [the representatives] came and asked me about it, I said, well, can't you have someone else do it first.” Only until after the representatives argued that “it's for the good of everybody,” she agreed even though she never met Purcell. Her petition was filed in July 1942 (Tateishi, 61).
On February 19, 1943, on the anniversary of EO 9066, Endo and her attorney applied for clearance from the government to leave Tule Lake. By the time her application was approved, she had already been moved to the Topaz camp. While the government approved of her leaving, acknowledging that the government was not holding her on a charge or even a suspicion of disloyalty, the government
set conditions on her release. The government limited her employment and relocation options; the government refused to allow Endo to return to the West Coast, where she was originally from. Furthermore, if Endo had agreed to leave Topaz, she would have to agree to drop the lawsuit because she no longer could pursue a lawsuit about her detention if she were no longer detained. Even though she “was anxious to have my case settled, because most of my friends had already gone out, been relocated, and I was anxious to get out too,” Endo remained at the camp until she was given freedom without conditions (Tateishi, 61).
In July 1943, the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, denied Endo's petition, and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that denial a month later. The case then went on to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though Ex parte Endo had been unanimously decided by the Supreme Court, agreeing that she was a loyal citizen and “Mitsuye Endo is entitled to an unconditional release by the War Relocation Authority” on October 16, 1944, the chief justice waited until December 18 to announce the court's decision in Ex parte Endo and in Korematsu
v. U.S. simultaneously. The day before, on December 17, the army had already announced that loyal Japanese Americans would be allowed to return to the West Coast by January 2, 1945. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court stated clearly that the government could not detain a loyal citizen; however, the court failed to address the constitutionality of whether the government could detain anyone based on their ancestry.
After spending three years in Topaz, Endo relocated to Chicago in June 1945. Living in the Chicago suburbs for the rest of her life, she worked as an executive secretary, married Kenneth Tsutsumi, and reared three children. Upon reflecting on her experience, she expressed surprise that her case made it to the Supreme Court, “I thought it might have been thrown out of court because of all the bad sentiment toward us…. I'm awed by it. I never believed it, that I would be the one…. Do I have any regrets at all about the test case? No, not now, because of the way it turned out” (Tateishi, 61). According to her daughter, while Endo told stories of living in barracks under the supervision of armed guards, she did not talk about her case, unless asked. Endo was a very private person, “a person who has not wanted to draw attention to herself,” Bill Yoshino, the Midwest director of the JACL, noted in 2004 when it honored Endo at a benefit celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the JACL Chicago chapter.
Endo passed away at the age of 85 on April 14, 2006, in Willowbrook, Illinois.
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Tateishi, John. “Mitsuye Endo—Topaz.” In And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps, 60–61. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.