Mitsuye Endo Tsutsumi • Courtesy

Who was Mitsuye Endo Tsutsumi?  And why are Japanese American organizations, The Washington Post, her family, and others asking President Biden to recognize her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

Buried in the history of unsuccessful legal challenges to the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II by Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu, it was the habeas corpus petition filed on behalf of Mitsuye Endo, Ex Parte Endo (citations omitted), which led to the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision that loyal Americans could not be incarcerated without cause and ordered her immediate release. This decision played a significant role, if not the most significant role in closing the incarceration camps and allowing the return of Japanese Americans to the West Coast.

In the decades following World War II, legal challenges were brought to vindicate the constitutional stands by Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu. Legal teams, which included many Sanseis, or third generation Japanese Americans, brought coram nobis petitions and successfully overturned their World War II convictions for violating curfew and exclusion orders. All three Korematsu in 1998, Hirabayashi in 2012, Yasui in 2015 were honored by then Presidents Clinton and Obama respectively with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  They were honored because of their courage to take a stand against unjust treatment by the government, standing up for the Constitution and what it means.

In 1942, Mitsuye Endo was the perfect plaintiff to challenge the actual internment of Japanese Americans. She had been a typist, a civil service worker. She had never been to Japan.  She did not hold dual citizenship. Her brother had been drafted into the U.S. Army. The burden of proof was on the government to show cause for her continued incarceration.

Endo’s habeas corpus petition was filed in June of 1942.  Her petition was initially denied. It took about two and a half years for the petition to go through the federal appeals process.  Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously granted her petition on Dec. 18, 1944. Ironically, that same day, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Fred Korematsu’s appeal, upholding the military orders which Korematsu had challenged.

Mitsuye Endo then moved away from the public eye. After leaving the incarceration camp at Topaz, she moved to Chicago, married Kenneth Tsutsumi, and raised three children — Wayne, Wendy, and Terry. She rarely brought up her role in the legal dismantling of the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. But when interviewed years later and asked why she had chosen to be the Petitioner, Endo Tsutsumi said, “Because [the lawyers] said, it was for the good of everybody, and so I said, if that’s it, I said, go ahead and I’ll do it.”  In fact, there was a point during her appeal that the government would have allowed Mitsuye Endo to leave, but she would have to drop the lawsuit.  She refused to withdraw her petition and chose to remain in camp.

Mitsuye Endo Tsutsumi died in 2006.  The coram nobis lead counsel for Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui and Fred Korematsu, Endo Tsutsumi’s children, and other organizations have formed the Presidential Medal of Freedom Committee to ask President Biden to award her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Washington Post on Dec. 18, 2023, in an op-ed page wrote: “Biden should honor the woman who stood up to Japanese American incarceration.”

For those who want to support Mitsuye Endo Tsutsumi’s nomination for her courageous stand, sign a petition at Change.org: https://chng.it/vhVXB8J6VS  

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