California Forum

Japanese American internment case cited today in government actions

Mitsuye Endo’s choice to sacrifice her personal freedom in order to pursue her court case on behalf of all Japanese Americans interned at relocation camps during World War II demonstrates qualities worthy of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mitsuye Endo’s choice to sacrifice her personal freedom in order to pursue her court case on behalf of all Japanese Americans interned at relocation camps during World War II demonstrates qualities worthy of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Courtesy of National Archives ca. 1942

During World War II, four legal cases reached the U.S. Supreme Court, testing the constitutionality of the government imprisoning Japanese Americans in relocation centers. Three litigants and their cases received much acclaim, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (“Unsung WWII hero deserves the Medal of Freedom”; Forum, Aug. 28)

The fourth case was brought by a Nisei woman who tested a legal issue unlike the others. Her successful case had a great impact on the Japanese American community and for America, but she quickly faded from public view and became a footnote in Japanese American history. Yet, her case is an important habeas corpus case, often cited today in the government’s actions toward some Muslim Americans.

Mitsuye Endo was born in Sacramento. She had two sisters, and a brother who served in the U.S. Army. At the outbreak of World War II, Endo and other Nisei were fired from their jobs with the state of California. They were forced from their homes and incarcerated in America’s concentration camps. Endo was sent to Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, where she made a decision that would change her life and affect the lives of 120,000 other Japanese Americans.

James Purcell, a San Francisco attorney, planned to challenge the legality of the job terminations. However, because of the mass incarceration, he instead decided to challenge their detention. In his search for an “ideal” plaintiff who would symbolize the loyalty of Japanese Americans, Purcell selected Endo.

Endo hesitated when she was first asked to become the plaintiff, but she agreed because she understood the moral implications of the case. It was a difficult decision in light of the prevailing societal forces. The Japanese were not a litigious people, and challenging the power of the government represented a formidable task.

On July 12, 1942, Purcell filed a habeas corpus petition in San Francisco federal court. The government understood the problems posed by her case and offered to release her anywhere in the United States except the West Coast, if she would drop her case. She refused the offer and spent more time in a concentration camp.

Her case forced the Supreme Court to confront the constitutionality of the mass incarceration. In its unanimous decision, the court declared that the government could not detain American citizens without charges, and Executive Order 9066 was revoked.

Endo gave credit to Purcell for his stand against an injustice, but she was a hero by challenging the government’s wholesale neglect of the rights of its own citizens. It would be fitting that Endo be recognized in the same manner as her fellow Japanese American litigants. Her legacy should be enshrined with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

William Yoshino of Chicago is the interim executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League. Contact him at byoshino@jacl.org.

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